Saturday, January 31, 2009

lots to learn

I love watching Top Chef.

I’m particularly intrigued by the scenarios the contestants are forced to face, which often call forth skills beyond cooking that they may or may not have. A couple of weeks ago, the episode was called “Restaurant Wars” and the eight remaining contestants were divided into two teams and given the challenge to open their own restaurant for one evening. The two chefs who won the opening “Quick fire Challenge” became the leaders, though neither of them were actually leaders. Both restaurants suffered as a result. Ultimately, the reason one chef who was asked “to pack her knives and go” was not because of her cooking but because she didn’t lead her crew.

“If you’re the chef, you have to act as though no one else is going to do their job,” one of the judges said to her.

I understood exactly what he meant. In a job that depends on everyone doing their part, you have to be prepared in case someone doesn’t come through. At the same time, however, you have to trust each other – even depend on each other as though everyone is going to do excellent work. When both things are held in creative tension, good food happens.

One of the reasons I’ve never made a good Calvinist is I believe people will rise to the level of trust you put in them. When I took kids to youth camp as a youth minister, our “rules” consisted of, “Live, act, and speak like the children of God that you are.” And they did. I took the same basic approach as a high school teacher and now as a chef it’s the way I choose to relate to the folks on the line with me.

I have two guys who alternate nights working with me at the Duke restaurant. One, Abel, I have written about before. The best way I can communicate his approach to his job is to recount what happened the other night. We had some fresh trout to sell that evening, which we were going to dip in an almond crust and fry. As he was getting ready for the dinner service, he said, “I’m going to cook the best trout they have ever tasted.”

And he did.

The other cook who works with me is capable, diligent, yet he lacks the passion Abel articulated. I don’t know his story. I don’t know what has hardened him. I do know it feels to me like he comes to work on an assembly line. I don’t think he gets much joy out of his work. He is filling orders more than he is feeding people. I don’t know how to help him. You can teach technique but you can’t teach passion.

That last realization calls me to live in yet another creative tension, between the poles of my own passion for excellence in what we are doing and my responsibility as both his supervisor and a human being to find a way to look at him that is something more constructive than judgmental. I may not be able to teach passion, but I can learn not to write him off.


I’m reminded of something my first therapist said to me: “The two things you can change in a situation are what you do and what you say.” I can’t make Cook #2 be different than he is; I can choose to be more creative in the way I deal with him, which means acting my way feeling something other than frustrated. Perhaps I can act and speak in a way that offers him the opportunity to feel something other than frustrated, as well.

The contrast from night to night for me is palpable. Abel comes to work and he is full of energy and intentionality. He and I like each other and we work well together. We have done so long enough now that we know how to help one another, even anticipate one another, when we are on the line together. Abel has risen to the trust I put in him from the beginning. On the alternate nights, I’m working with someone I don’t know as well, with whom I have not worked as much, and who doesn’t exude the same energy and intentionality. He is more dutiful than creative. He doesn’t appear to be interested in more of a relationship than is required to get through the evening.

I’m the chef. It’s my job is to work with both of them to create consistency both in our kitchen and in the food that comes out of it, which means, as much as anything, I have to go to work everyday looking to learn and seeking to rise to the level of trust that has been put in me.

And I still have a lot to learn.


P. S. -- There's a new recipe (finally).

Friday, January 30, 2009

day off

were you to ask what I did today
I might be tempted to say nothing
because I had the day off from work
but that answer would be lazy
I went to the grocery store
and the bank, baked bread,
made a couple of soups,
ate lunch with my wife
played with the pups
and took a nice long nap,
which may have been my
greatest accomplishment


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

what love can do

I’m tired. Things are going well at the Duke restaurant, and well means thirty more customers a night without any more help in the kitchen. I’m going early and staying late – and having fun as well. I’ve worked hard to put a new menu together for our newly renovated space and some of the new dishes are really fun to make (butternut squash and pear ravioli in cinnamon pasta, for instance).

In a week when I’ve watched my brother go back to working too much too soon after his back surgery, I’m aware, at 52, that working eleven and twelve hour days when I don’t sit down is not something I can do indefinitely, particularly if I want to grow old with the woman I love. And so I’m spending my nights driving home from work praying about what the years ahead will hold, even as I am grateful for what fills my days right now.

One of the things high on the present list is a new Bruce Springsteen album came out today. Thanks to an iTunes gift card from my boss, I got to preorder it and found it waiting for me when I got up this morning. And one of the gems I found was this song, “What Love Can Do.”

There's a pillar in the temple where I carved your name
There's a soul sitting sad and blue
Now the remedies you've taken are all in vain
Let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do

Darlin', I can't stop the rain
Or turn your black sky blue
But let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do

Well, now our truth lay shattered you stood at world's end
As the dead sun rose in view
Well, if any of this matters, with a kiss my friend
Let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do

Darling, we can't stop this train
When it comes crashing through
But let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do

When the bed you lie on is nails and rust
And the love you've given's turned to ashes and dust
When the hope you've gathered's drifted to the wind
And it's you and I my friend
You and I now friend

Here our memory lay corrupted and our city lay dry
Let me make this vow to you
Here where it's blood for blood and an eye for an eye
Let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do

Here we bear the mark of Cain
We'll let the light shine through
Let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do
Let me show you what love can do
In the midst of my long days, which are dwarfed by what is happening around the world from Gaza to Sri Lanka to the Congo to Darfur to wherever else you want to name, I need to hear him keep singing,
Here where it's blood for blood and an eye for an eye
Let me show you what love can do
Yes, yes. Please show me.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

in my heart, a dancer

Twenty years ago this weekend I met Ginger.

Last night, as a way to celebrate, we went to see the Dance Theater of Harlem Ensemble at the Carolina Theatre, since the love of my life is a dancer. The evening was full of good things both because of the dances and because one of the directors of the DTH used the “interactive” evening to explain how dances came together and what the dancers were doing. We’ve even got to ask questions, one of which was, “How do the dancers remember what they are supposed to do on stage?”

“We practice he said and use what we call ‘muscular memory.’ Our minds and muscles work together all the bits of information we have repeated and practiced over and over to bring it all together in performance.”

As the evening went on, I found myself intrigued by his vocabulary, as he talked about lines and conversation and relationship, all in the context of dance. They were not simply going through motions on stage; they were incarnating their hard work, their collaboration, even the love they shared with one another in order that we might sit rapt in our seats, finding our own place in their conversation.

This afternoon, we got to go to Cameron Indoor Stadium to see the Duke men’s basketball team play the Maryland Terrapins (thanks to a church member with extra tickets). As it happened, on this afternoon, Duke is arguably the best team in the country – and they played like it, beating Maryland 85-44. In one amazing sequence, one of the players scrambled to save a ball from going out of bounds, throwing it across the court to another who made a touch pass to yet another who was running ahead of him, who passed it on to a fourth, who made the basket. The team made thirty-four field goals and had twenty-three assists. Like the dancers, the power of their performance was in lines and conversation and relationship, and muscular memory; they, too, were incarnating something that mattered to them.

Ginger and I met on a youth retreat. She was a sponsor with one of the churches attending and I was leading the music. I saw her across the room that first Friday night and struck up a conversation. The next day, as the kids went about whatever it was they were doing, we sat and talked – for several hours. On Sunday, as we were preparing to leave, I asked for her phone number, and her response looms large in Brasher-Cunningham lore:

“It’s in the phone book under ‘Reverend V. R. Brasher.”

I went home. I looked it up. I called her and asked her to go see Lyle Lovett with me the following weekend. Twenty years (and at least that many Lyle Lovett concerts), six Schnauzers, six residences, and four cities are just part of the dance of our lives that leans heavily on our muscular memory drawn from all the day to day words and rituals that remind us who we are together.

I’m neither a good basketball player nor a dancer. To use either to describe myself could only be done as metaphor. Still, I know the deep satisfaction that comes from an assist – the touch pass at the right moment that lets her shine, and I know the trust and confidence that comes from knowing I am not alone, even as I feel the beat of my heart bring up a rhythm from deep in my bones when she takes my hand for yet another turn in the dance we have done together for these twenty years.

In a lyric I wrote for our wedding, I said:

how I want to dance together
how I want to taste forever
how I want to spend life with you
The dance has been better than I ever imagined.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

my inaugural poem

Billy and I were lucky today:
we had a TV down the hall –
and a radio in the kitchen.
In between getting the last
of the buffet ready for the
professors who would come
to satisfy their post-inaugural
munchies, I listened to the
proceedings until the time came.
“Let it burn, Billy,” I said.
“It’s time.” And we ran down
the hall in time to see our
new president sworn in,
and then we went back to work
and continued to chop and
cook as he delivered his
address; and I wondered.
I wondered what it meant
that one day someone will
ask where I was when our
first African-American president
was sworn in and I will say,
“I was in the kitchen” and
remember how hope filled
the room like an aroma
and my tears had nothing
to do with onions.


Saturday, January 17, 2009


it was a short note
an old friend wrote
all he said was
he was “vinlying”
John Denver records
that’s all, yet
the mere mention
of the melodies
sent me “memorying”
across layers of time
to long ago nights
when we played
and sang and talked
of poems, prayers
and promises
and things that
we believed in
I still know the chords
and the words
and the feelings
they have aged
right along with me,
as have the friends,
and I’m grateful
for them all


(Thanks, Davy)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

gingerbread lessons

I’m back in full swing at the restaurant at Duke since the second semester is just finishing it’s first full week. The big news for us is Duke Dining dropped some serious change to renovate our dining room; now it looks like a real restaurant instead of, well, a college dining hall. I’ve spent a good bit of time and effort trying to come up with a menu that offers some fresh imagination as well. Putting meals together means thinking about flavors and ingredients, and it also means thinking about who is coming to dinner and how much things cost. I also have to think about what I know how to do, what I can learn how to do, and how we can put up good, flavorful, consistent meals with just two of us cooking and – as they did tonight – close to seventy people showing up to eat in a two and a half hour period.

A good dish is a food collage, in a way: culinary multimedia. I want you to look at it, smell it, taste it, feel the textures of it in your mouth, and think about it long after you have cleaned your plate. With all that in mind, one of my favorite dishes on the new menu is the Butternut Squash and Pear Ravioli. The name tells you two of the ingredients in our house made ravioli, which also includes roasted pecan pieces, Parmesan cheese, chili power, a little bit of brown sugar, salt, and pepper, all wrapped in cinnamon pasta. When the ravioli goes in the boiling water, we sauté some julienned shallots and pears, along with some more pecan pieces, until the pears and shallots are caramelized a bit, add a little white wine, then some cream, some fresh baby spinach, and then finally drop the ravioli in the pan and all of that goes in the pasta bowl and out to the table. I like the dish because I think the flavors mix well together, from savory to sweet, that some little things can catch you by surprise, and that it hits on all the senses.

Part of the reason it works is the flavor combinations make sense. I’m not necessarily breaking new ground by putting butternut squash, pears, cinnamon, and pecans together. It matters more to me to do the dish well than it does to feel as though I’m the only one in town doing it. That said, after I got off work last night, I called Ginger, who was also leaving work, and she suggested we grab a bite to eat, since neither of us had eaten dinner. She had a gift card ready to be used, so we went to Six Plates, a wine bar owned by Matt Beason, whose parents are in our church and who was kind enough to help me learn the culinary landscape when we first got to Durham.

The name of the place speaks to Matt’s concept, which is original: six small plates (think half an entrée), each matched with a wine by the glass. The menu changes often and if full of great things, including one “tenured item”: the Lamby Joes, which are unbelievable little sandwiches of ground lamb and chorizo. (I had them last night – five bucks on Wednesdays.) Ginger and I snacked on the cheese plate and a beet salad as well (with herbed goat cheese and blood oranges) and then the chef, Ted, came out with a dessert for us to try: a gingerbread tower with layers of passion fruit mousse with a small scoop of goat’s milk yogurt gelato on the side. I love gingerbread (Ted said his was made with molasses and stout) and Ginger is a big fan of the passion fruit, but I had never thought of the two together, much less to think of making ice cream out of goat’s milk yogurt. But it worked. Big time. Amazing.


Tonight after work, Ginger and I walked over to Watts Grocery for me to drop off my inventory list for my chef and so we could get some late night sliders (we were both hungry again). Most of the folks at the bar were servers and cooks who had finished their shifts and friends or significant others. One of the latter offered us one of her cupcakes. (That’s right, I make it a point to never turn down a cupcake.) They were butternut squash cupcakes with cream cheese icing and they were delicious. She said, “I had all of this squash and I found a recipe for bread, but the recipe made three loaves and I only have one loaf pan, so I decided to make muffins, but they turned out so moist that I figured they worked better as cupcakes.”

I loved getting to follow the trail of her creativity. I wish I could have heard how Ted found his way to the gingerbread tower -- passion fruit, goat’s milk and all. What I’m sure of in both cases is they had some time and space – whether serendipitous or intentional – to let their proof, to use a baking term: to rise to their potential. You don’t come up with a fresh idea while ten tickets are hanging, the waiters are restless, and you’re about to run out of mashed potatoes. You might come up with a way to survive, but that’s about it. Creativity needs room to breathe, to grow, to get us to look beyond the heat of the moment.

The lesson carries beyond the kitchen. The Israelis and the Palestinians won’t find meaningful change if life is always lived battle-ready. Our two political parties are not going to govern creatively when their first concern is staying in office and their second is making sure the other party fails. Churches in the midst of these bleak economic times stand little chance of being captured by the creativity of the Spirit when their first question is, “What are we going to cut from this year’s budget?” rather than, “What do you think God wants us to do this year?”

I know new recipes are easier to come by than peace in Palestine and new culinary combinations are easier to talk about than church budgets. Still, tonight, after a week that has swung from long days to gingerbread and cupcakes, they don’t feel so far apart.


Monday, January 12, 2009

passing the peace

Here are few things I brought home from church with me yesterday, thanks to our hymnal,
Hymns of Truth and Light, in the order I found them.

In the face of human suffering, one has no right to turn away, not to see. In the face of injustice, one may not look the other way. When someone suffers, and it is not you, he [or she] comes first. [Their] suffering gives [them] priority . . . To watch over [one] who grieves is more urgent duty than to think of God.
-- Elie Wiesel
Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism.
Peace is generosity.
It is right and duty.
-- Oscar Romero
Peace before us,
peace behind us,
peace under our feet

Peace within us,
peace over us,
let all around us be peace.

Love before us,
love behind us,
love under our feet.

Love within us,
love over us,
let all around us be love.

Light before us,
light behind us,
light under our feet.

Light within us,
light over us,
let all around us be light.

Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
Christ under our feet.

Christ within us,
Christ over us,
let all around us be Christ.
-- David Hass, based on a Navajo prayer

I came to church with Gaza on my heart. After worship, I sat in a meeting where we talked about how we were scaling back the church budget because we were fearful there would not be enough pledges.

“When are we going to live by faith?” Ginger asked.

Peace -- which according to the quotes above encompasses compassion, generosity, courage, dynamism, tenacity, faith, commitment, determination, action, intentionality, and love -- is hard work. Harder work, I think, than most folks are willing to do. Perhaps we talk of violence and fear as inevitable parts of life because they are less demanding choices to make. Yes, they are painful choices, but all they require of us are to be angry and scared. To be one who makes “a generous and tranquil contribution to all” is a much tougher assignment.

May the peace of Christ inflict and inhabit you.
And also with me.


Friday, January 09, 2009

bewteen friends

My mind is all over the place.

Perhaps I would state it better to say my mind has been bombarded by several things that have set it swirling. I can’t help thinking about what is happening in Gaza; part of the reason it bothers me is I feel helpless to do anything about it. I think I feel that way about much of what is going on in the world. I was going through the various blogs I read this morning and read this from Randy:

I was listening to NPR on my way to work this morning, as is my wont. They were discussing the crisis of the moment, which is the story about how big bad Israel is attacking the poor innocent people of Gaza.
Randy and I have never met, though we communicate from time to time. Though we rarely come to the same conclusions about most anything, we stay connected, for which I am grateful. What hit me about his post, more than any conclusion he drew, was his phrase, “the crisis of the moment.” Maybe part of my sense of helplessness is I feel as though we live in such a state of cultural ADD that we don’t pay attention long enough to allow ourselves to be moved into action by our compassion.

One of my Christmas presents was a subscription to the UNTE Reader, a unabashedly lefty magazine that always gives me something to think about. In the latest issue, Richard Just has written an article entitled, “On Our Watch: The world is inundated with stories about the genocide in Darfur. So why haven’t we stopped it?” He talks about all that has been said and filmed and written about the mass murders and rapes and tortures there and then asks:
What has gone wrong? Did we, over time, grow immune to the images and the testimonies? Did we give too much weight to what seemed like the conflict’s complexities, and too little to the raw human suffering that was taking place before our eyes? Did we put too much faith in the United Nations and too little in ourselves? Did we allow our elected leaders to seduce us with airy statements congratulating us on our passion, when they should have been consulting with generals about how to get soldiers onto the ground as quickly as possible? True, we were poorly served by a small-minded president and his bungling administration. But did liberals demand the right things of him? Did we push for what would really save the people of Darfur? Or did we get trapped by the inclinations of our worldview, and advocate for too little?
My friend Jimmy, writes about his recent trip to New Orleans to help folks still recovering from Hurricane Katrina:
Each person I met during the week had a story of how Katrina changed their lives.. Some left the city before and returned months later to find all they ever had was gone. A few I met had to be rescued from the roof of their homes as the water filled the neighborhoods in moments. Regardless of the story there is still much to be done in New Orleans to return folks to their homes. As of last week, there were 150,000 homes in New Orleans that need to be renovated, rebuilt or razed. Only 8,000 building permits were completed in 2008, at that rate it will take at least ten years to complete the rebuild of New Orleans and at least a generation to restore the city. As time moves further from the date of the storm, more and more folks will forget about the folks in New Orleans rebuilding their homes and communities.
In the last of today’s readings, I found this paragraph in Ron Martoia’s Transformational Architecture: Reshaping Our Lives as Narrative, which talks about much of Christianity’s focus on getting people into heaven over doing God’s transforming work in real time:
What if Jesus came to address human need, to bring shalom, to dole out free “pink spoon” samples – and in the process have people join his family, a family that lives together in harmony and love? Is it possible our whole construal of salvation is so other worldly that we don’t know how to read the [biblical] text honestly and as a result aren’t sure how to help the world?
I have more questions than I know what to do with. Instead of trying to answer them all, or even voice them all, I want to point to two things I also found tonight among what I’ve already mentioned that are helping me to move beyond hopelessness to a place where I can better see how I can incarnate compassion.

One I found also on the UTNE site: a link to a blog written by Hope Man, an Israeli living near the border of Gaza, and Peace Man, a Palestinian who lives about ten miles away in Gaza. Their answer to what is going on around them is to write together and to get to know one another, because they said hardly anyone knew people on the other side of the border. I remember years ago reading that the peace process in Northern Ireland began to take hold in large part because there were Catholic and Protestant women who crossed into No Man’s Land everyday to pray together, convinced that their burgeoning friendships could make a difference.

The second is on my friend Jimmy’s blog. His latest post not only tells about how New Orleans is still reeling, but describes how he plans to respond. He is, among other things, a carpenter. The winter weather and the frozen economy have left him with time, so he is planning to go to New Orleans for a month to rebuild all he can. He is raising money to cover his family’s expenses so their lives can go on as he helps to put the lives of others back together. I love the audacious compassion that comes through in the title of his post: “Help Me Rebuild New Orleans.” Please help him if you can.

Though the presidents and generals can give the orders to drop the bombs, they appear to be unable to wage peace. The media is prisoner to the “crisis du jour” and unable, for the most part, to tell us stories that foster hope and action for longer than a day or two. Friendships are what change the world – the relational commitments to enter into one another’s pain, to listen before we speak, to allow our lives to be filled with hope and trust and loyalty based not on doctrine or policy or ethnicity, but on the love between friends.

OK. I’m better now.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

I've just got to use my imagination

in the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God . . .

and the Word became flesh
and dwelt among us
Those familiar words from John, along with the rest of the first seventeen verses of Chapter One, were the text for Ginger’s sermon. As she talked about the Word – the Logos – she offered a twist on the translation, looking at word roots:
in the beginning was the Logic of God
and the Logic was with God
and the Logic was God . . .

and the Logic became flesh
and dwelt among us
John was saying what happened in the Incarnation gave us a look into the mind of God, into the way God thinks. The God of Creation and Incarnation is one who thinks relationally enough to become human and say things like, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” As she talked, another translation ran through my mind
in the beginning was the Imagination
and the Imaginaton was with God
and the Imagination was God . . .

and that Imagination became flesh
and dwelt among us
I thought about it again tonight reading a piece on the Israeli attacks in Gaza by Gene Stoltzfus, Director Emeritus of Christian Peacemaker Teams. Before I quote him, I have to set it up a bit. Last night, Jon Stewart did his own bit on situation, called “Strip Maul,” in which he showed clips of various American leaders – George W. Bush, Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney, Jon Corzine, Mark Sanford, George Will, and Michael Bloomberg -- giving unabashed support to Israel’s response to violence with overwhelming violence. Bloomberg “brought it home” by saying:
If you’re in your apartment and some emotionally disturbed person is banging on the door screaming, “I’m going to come through this door and kill you,” do you want us to respond with one police officer, which is proportional, or with all the resources at our command?
A couple of things. One, the Palestinians are not emotionally disturbed or crazy. The people who are being killed in the Israeli attacks are mostly civilians – now over 500 of them – who have nowhere to hide. Two, if all the imagination our leaders can muster to respond to what is happening is to validate the violence, we are in serious trouble. What they describe is not what is happening. Here is a video clip from CBS News.

With all of that on my mind and heart, I was glad to come across Gene Stoltzfus’ statement because I could see some of God’s imagination seeping through his very thoughtful and faithful words. And I quote:
Today I grieve over what is happening in the region of Gaza. Is there anything I can do? Am I limited to government statements, last minute diplomacy, or immobilizing personal outrage? How do I respond from this place of despair? What do I tell the children? Is this the time when the posture of prayer may provide the oppenness toward a solution waiting for recognition?

When people are pressed to the limit of their flesh, they find a way to struggle. The people of Gaza -- whose democratically elected government more powerful nations rejected and who have been suffering under Israel's crippling blockade -- are not the first people to do so. Suicidal missions happen in most wars. Soldiers serving a cause in which they believe -- freedom, empire, democracy, or religion -- know they may die for the cause. They believe, sometimes with positive outcomes, that their sacrifice might reach beyond the limits of today's reason into tomorrow's solutions.

Where do those of us outside of Palestine and Israel, those of us who reject violence, turn for a resolution? Thousands of boardrooms, staff meetings, and grand peace councils set up to deal with crises like this have not produced solutions. As diplomats desperately grope for chimeral ceasefires, those involved in the conflict feel despair and guilt over lost opportunities. Will solutions ever come from diplomacy or councils? Will the sixty-eyar stalemate continue for another forty years -- a full century of explaining the conflict to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim children?

Or can the Gaza crisis of 2008-2009 ignite our imaginations? Can we believe that our collective imaginations might help? Have we received one more opportunity to sharpen our senses for what divine mystery wants to reveal to us?

Religious and secular people committed to social justice and peacemaking are suspicious that meditation belongs only to the pious and those who hide behind spiritual exercises to avoid engagement. This split between people of action and people of prayer is a false dichotomy that appears in every tradition. If political analysis or raw activism could have provided the basis for peace in this region of God's earth, it would have happened long ago. What has been lacking is the acknowledgment of unknown forces at work among and through patterns of violent conflict in Israel and Palestine.

The war in Gaza today invites me to prayer. I share our common desperation for a breakthrough. I don't promise that prayer will enlighten my imagination in a fresh way. I will try because I know that liberation from false myths of security is born in times of violence. When a sign or a nudge to action comes, I hope I have the courage to follow it. And if it comes to you or me, we can share it with the people in the peace councils, in diplomatic corps, or organizations -- share it with all the people on this journey with us. We may be here for just such a time as this.
Surely we are in this world to do more than justify the violence we see around us. This particular sentence challenges me:
I will try because I know that liberation from false mythis of sercurity is born in times of violence.
To see possibility in such an intractable conflict is Imagination become flesh. Perhaps it was what John had in mind when he said, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.”

May we be infected by the inextinguishable imagination of our God.


Sunday, January 04, 2009


Today has been a full day and tonight is a short night because I have to be at work at 6:30 in the morning. I have a great deal I want to talk about from church today, but I have to set it aside because my heart is heavy as I watch what Israel is doing in Gaza. I realize I’m hitting a hot button and that the issue is incredibly complex and yet what doesn’t seem complex to me at all is Israel is using extreme and excessive force to destroy people who don’t have much power at all. Yes, I understand Israel considers Hamas to be a terrorist group. I also understand our American government has given them the vocabulary to justify what they are doing with our words and actions in Iraq. I know the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinian feels like an intractable problem. I know what is already an emotionally charged conflict is exacerbated by that faction of Christian theology that sees Israel as somehow special and untouchable. And what I keep coming back to is if you are the one with most of the power, then you hold a greater share of responsibility, and even accountability, when it comes to how you use and abuse that power.

What I really want to do, rather than editorialize, is ask you to look at the following stories and see what is happening. Here are links to

As I read through the articles, I found myself pulled back to an old Steve Earle song I learned at the beginning of our invasion of Iraq:

I woke up this mornin' and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin' 'cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin' anyone could do or say

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

Well maybe I'm only dreamin' and maybe I'm just a fool
But I don't remember learnin' how to hate in Sunday school
But somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then

Then the storm comes rumblin' in
And I can't lay me down
And the drums are drummin' again
And I can't stand the sound

But I believe there'll come a day when the lion and the lamb
Will lie down in peace together in Jerusalem

And there'll be no barricades then
There'll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls

And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

I want to believe that, too.


Friday, January 02, 2009

I am here

I managed to make it through most all of the holiday season with only one or two trips to the mall. Online shopping allowed me the luxury of avoiding the experience of standing in front of the large lighted mall map, trying to figure out how to find a particular purveyor, which also means looking for the little star that says, “You are here.” For all its shortcomings, the mall is one of the few places that gives you that kind of geographical certainty: here’s the context and here’s where you are in it.

Though I’m still happy to not be at the mall, I thought about the map as I began reading Transformational Architecture by Ron Martoia, one of the books kindly sent to me by the folks at The Ooze, and one that falls into the expanding body of literature focused on how our world is changing and how those of us who are followers of Christ must also change if we want our faith to be a transformational part of the conversation. I’m only about fifty pages in, which means Martoia is still setting up his argument, but he’s already got me thinking, particularly, about how we contextualize ourselves when we look at what is going on around us when there is no map to say, “You are here.” I should say the thoughts that follow are less a critique of the book – since I’m not far along at all – and more of the rabbits my mind went chasing as I read, which also means I’m not sure about the coherency of what follows.

I am challenged and intrigued by the conversations swirling around the shift in our world from modernism to postmodernism, and the corresponding claims that we are living in a profoundly transitional and transformational time and (not but – and) I wonder how well we can tell where we are on the map of history. Nobody who lived during what we now call the Middle Ages saw themselves there. How could they have been in the middle of anything when they when nothing had yet come after them? As profoundly as Galileo and Copernicus changed how we think a bout our place in the universe, when we start talking about what it means to be living in these days in more existential terms it becomes difficult to do so in a way that doesn’t make us the center of the universe once more: we are alive at the most critical time in history, or we’re going to usher in the next Reformation, or we are living in the next Enlightenment. Some years ago, as globalization and the Internet were exploding alongside of civil wars around the globe, Umberto Eco said the signs pointed to our being in another Middle Ages rather than a Renaissance and he pointed to the increased tribalism that has continued across our world.

Who knows where we are.

One of the statistics I heard about the time Eco was saying his piece that has stuck with me, though I’m sure it’s now outdated, is the amount of information in the world doubles every five years. We live in an age of informational overpopulation. Not only can we not know everything there is to know, we can’t even categorize or process it fast enough to keep up. When I go to check email, the headlines on AOL read like some sort of bizarre found poem, and it changes every few minutes. As I’m writing, here are the headlines:

  • Israel Flattens Hamas Homes
  • Disabled Man Left Overnight on Bus in Freezing Weather
  • Superintendent Chosen to Fill Colorado Senate Seat
  • Obama Family Moving to Washington Hotel
  • Longtime Senator, Creator of Pell College Grants Dies
  • Caroline Kennedy Critic Changes His Mind
Those stories are more connected than most. Beyond the news, Facebook means I have more information just about people I know than I can keep up with. Most anywhere I turn, I being given something else to add to the pile of stuff to know and, often, to set aside. If I’m taking a stab at where we are on the map, or at least how the world has changed while I’ve been walking around on it, the information overflow is at the heart of it: we are at the corner of We Have Too Much Information and What Am I Supposed To Do With It.

No, let me change that. Perhaps it’s more like the intersection of All There Is To Know and Based on What I Know, Here’s What I’m Going To Do. At least those coordinates give us somewhere to go.

Here’s what I know: the more global the discussion becomes, the smaller I tend to think. When we start talking about changing the world, I find myself thinking about the people in my kitchen, my church, my neighborhood, my family. Luther drove the nail into the door at Wittenberg, it seems to me, not so much because he was intent on altering the course of global Christianity as it was because he “could do no other.” People like Gandhi, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., Mandela, and Mother Teresa were meeting the needs in front of their faces first; the universal movements that followed grew out of the particulars.

And they all took years to come about.

Last Saturday, Ginger and I went to see The Tale of Despereaux with our friend Jay. The movie has stayed with me because it is such a wonderful story of forgiveness; perhaps that’s why it comes to mind again now. As I try to contemplate my place in the universe and what I can do to live transformationally, one sentence keeps coming to mind: I want to be more forgiving.

It was St. Francis, who lived smack-dab in the middle of the Middle Ages who prayed
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
As a middle-aged man working out his faith in the middle of a world larger than I can comprehend those are words that give me some sense of where I am and what it means to be here.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

toilet paper resolutions

That’s right: I’m going to start the new year talking about toilet paper.

When we moved into our house, we put in this double roll holder (with magazine rack) because it meant there was less chance of running out. It also holds the big double rolls of Quilted Northern (our preferred brand), which we load so the paper comes over the top, not from underneath. The folks at Northern must spend a lot of time thinking about toilet paper (it is their job, after all) because they keep softening and expanding the rolls and, of course, there’s the quilting. For all of their efforts, however, I’ve noticed that one or two of the rolls that come in the giant twenty-four pack we buy from Target is just plain. No quilted design.

Just a roll of plain white toilet paper.

It happens enough that I wonder why it happens. I know it’s all done by machine, which I suppose there’s some sort of glitch in the process that allows a roll to escape decoration every so often, even though every other step is accomplished. And the folks at Northern have chosen not to fix it, or at least to let us all live with it.

At the restaurant we get fresh sourdough bread everyday from a local bakery that is the bread supplier to most of the restaurants in town. They make awesome bread of most any kind and, if you go by the bakery on the weekends, they use the foccacia dough to make beignets. About three months ago, we began to notice that eight slices into each loaf is a slice that is double-thick, meaning one of the slicing blades is missing and has been for some time now. Like the folks at Northern, they have chosen not to fix it, or at least to let us all live with it.

As I sit at the table on this first afternoon of a new year, I can look around the room and spot five or six familiarly unfinished things I have learned to live with rather than repair, much like my suppliers of bread and toilet paper. Some are bigger deals than others – unquilted paper works better than double-thick sandwich bread – yet they all serve as reminders that life is not what it could be were we choosing to live more intentionally.

It’s been many years since I made a resolution to break in a new calendar, mostly because they, too, were left unfinished. I hesitate to resolve to fix the lampshade (three minutes with a hot glue gun), or hang the last of the pictures (probably twenty minutes with hammer and hangers), or finally organize the kitchen (a good afternoon, anyway) because I don’t feel like inflicting myself with the pressure of promises and yet I find myself bumping into the question I would like to ask the bakers and quilters: would it take that much to get things right?

A second companion question quickly follows: what do we get out of not fixing the little things, out of getting used to things being broken?

Though a small part would fix it, I choose not to repair the air conditioner on my again Jeep Cherokee, as much as I love the car, because they have to take the whole dashboard off to replace the small plastic piece and the labor costs would be more than the car is actually worth. Most of the little disrepairs in my life are not so costly. So what’s the pay off? Why do I chose to live among the ruins rather than repair?

The first day of this year isn’t even over and I’m already dealing with big questions.


P. S. -- I inadvertently changed the template for the blog and I'm still trying to understand what I did and how to undo (or redo) it. You'll notice I figured it out when the changes happen.