Tuesday, December 29, 2009

a prayer for the new year

Early in the morning I'm getting on a plane for Austin, Texas to go and both say goodbye to and celebrate the life of my friend David Gentiles. I fly back to Durham early Thursday. As I was trying to find words for my final post of the year (since I don't imagine getting to a computer tomorrow), I received a wonderful email note from my friend, Joy Jordan-Lake (go buy her very excellent novel now) with a prayer from a book I first came to know back in my youth ministry days, Ted Loder's Guerrillas Of Grace: Prayers For The Battle (buy that one, too). The prayer speaks to and for me tonight and is worth passing along:

Guide Me into an Unclenched Moment

Gentle me,
Holy One,
into an unclenched moment,
a deep breath,
a letting go
of heavy expectancies,
of shriveling anxieties,
of dead certainties,
that, softened by the silence,
surrounded by the light,
and open to the mystery,
I may be found by wholeness,
upheld by the unfathomable,
entranced by the simple,
and filled with the joy
that is you.
Here's to the year ahead: may it be filled with one unclenched moment after another, whether those moments are filled with grief or joy or pain or hope or even despair; may we open our hearts to God and to one another, asking for help with the same intentionality with which we offer it, convinced that our choice to not forsake our gathering together is what will change our world, beginning with us.

For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.


Monday, December 28, 2009

i've got to use my imagination

I’ve been trying to keep up with the news around the Nigerian man who tried to light some type of explosive on a plane landing in Detroit on Christmas Day. I’ve been trying to keep up mostly because I’m getting on a flight to Austin on Wednesday to go to the memorial service for my friend David, and I want to know how much earlier I’m going to have to go to the airport to get through security. Trust me, when they start “randomly” pulling people out of the line for special attention, this man with the shaved head and the earrings is usually one of them.

The latest I’ve heard is the airlines are telling people they can’t get up or have anything in their laps during the last hour of a flight. What I know about what happened last week had to do with something the guy had strapped to his leg that he was trying to light. I’m not sure how telling people they can’t go to the bathroom, watch a movie on their laptop, or read a book would have stopped him or is going to make my flight any safer, other than it helps, perhaps, because we all feel as though the airlines are doing something at least. We stand on the cusp of a new year and we appear to be fueled by the same old fear. As David Wilcox wrote:

you say you see no hope you say
you see no reason we should dream
that the world will ever change
you say that we are foolish to believe
‘cause there will always be some crazy
with an army or a knife
to wake you from your daydream
put the fear back in your life
Not so many nights ago, we sang together, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” and here, on the fourth day of Christmas, even the four calling birds sound suspect. I heard one Senator talk of perhaps “preemptively striking” Yemen since the man on the plane was suspected of going there for training. Forget the calling birds, French hens, turtle doves, and even the partridge; trade them all in for sitting ducks.

Yes, I know it makes sense to be scared. If we look at things rationally, there are people out there who want to hurt us, who want to do harm. Our situation calls for something more profound, more substantive than rationality. The sensible response would be to say we must hurt them before they hurt us, or at least take our pound of flesh for whatever harm they manage to inflict. We are learning from our responses over the last eight years that neither of those rational responses does more than foment both fear and violence. Trying to make them as scared of us as we are of them doesn’t solve a thing, nor does it make us feel any more secure.

Fear may make sense, but it doesn’t make faith, as Wilcox sings:
it is Love that mixed the mortar
and Love that stacked these stones
and it’s Love that sets the stage here
though it looks like we’re alone
in this scene set in shadows
as if night is here to stay
there is evil cast around us
but it’s Love that wrote the play
and in this lifetime Love will show the way
We must move beyond the rationality of fear, or the irrationality of deciding all Muslims are terrorists or the rest of the world is just jealous of us, to the realm of faith and imagination, to a place where we allow ourselves to trust we can expect more from ourselves as human beings than an eye-for-an-eye existence, to a place where choose to respond in love rather than lashing out. Though 2009 appears to be ending on the same note as most of the last decade, the reality that will be 2010 doesn’t have to be pre-determined.

Those of us who choose to call ourselves followers of the One we also call the Prince of Peace would do well to also choose imagination over irony in the days to come. I’m getting on the plane Wednesday morning because I am going to gather with those whose lives were touched by David’s incarnation of God’s love in a way that led us to live imaginatively, believing the truth of our existence lay in something deeper than the reality of the headlines. Davy knew the reality of deep personal pain and yet chose love rather than lashing out. Wednesday night you can find a whole baseball stadium full of those who are both recipients and carriers of that love. Violence, like fear, is a lack of imagination. Peace is not naïve (though I am often told so), it is what love looks like when it is lived out.

I’m going to retell a story. (Hey! That’s new.)

A number of years ago, a missionary to Lebanon spoke at a church where I was serving. At that time, the violence in Lebanon was akin to what is happening in Israel and Palestine. After her talk, one woman in our church said to her, “We will pray for your safety.”

“Please don’t,” the missionary replied. “If you pray for me to be safe, I won’t get to go back because it’s not safe. Pray for me to be faithful.”

Life is not safe; but we knew that. Even on the fourth day of Christmas we know we are already following Jesus to the cross. On more than one occasion, he talked about what our faithfulness would cost us. His love was unflinching, all the way to his death. And his death was not the last word. If we can trust enough to imagine the skies filled with angels singing to the shepherds, or love strong enough to roll away the stone so Jesus could talk to Mary in the garden on that first Easter morning, can we not also imagine we could be faithful enough to wage a peace that would change the world?

Yes, I know out of two thousand years hardly any of those have known peace. Yes, I know those who would hurt us aren’t playing by the same rules. Yes, I know force feels like the only viable option.

That doesn’t change my question.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

on the road to find out

Even though I went back to work on the second day of Christmas, I’ve been thinking more about what Christmastide means. Once we get to the manger, it seems, we find it hard to stay for very long. As far as the culture goes, our economy can’t afford for us to have too long of an attention span: the Valentine’s Day decorations are already out. We can’t spend money and take time to reflect. Those of us in churches that celebrate Advent do a better job waiting and preparing than we do once the baby arrives. Perhaps we are so tied to the culture that we move on, whether we intend to or not. Or, perhaps, we don’t know how to be patient and let Jesus grow up.

The gospel writers skipped from birth to one preadolescent story to Jesus being baptized. None of them intended to write full-fledged biographies, so the gaps are understandable, yet I still keep coming back to the idea that Jesus didn’t come into the world fully formed. Mary laid the babe in the manger that night and three decades later he began his ministry. It took almost eleven thousand days after his birth – eleven thousand breakfasts and dinners and dusty Nazareth afternoons -- for Jesus to incrementally become, well, Jesus.

Maybe the idea has stuck with me these past couple of days because I feel some disquietude in my life (and that’s a good thing) that leaves me wondering what is on the horizon. Here I am fifty-three years on (that would be over nineteen thousand days) and I still have a sense of becoming, as though had I continued to make pencil marks on the spiritual door frame of my life I would find I was still growing after all these years. I hope so, anyway. One measure I have had of late is this blog. Today marks the fourth anniversary of don’t eat alone. The nine hundred posts do resembled marks of a sort, indications of where I found myself on the journey on a particular day. I feel safe in saying I am not at the same place I was four years ago. And I am grateful for both the growth and the journey. Like Cat Stevens sings:

so on and on I go
the seconds tick the time out
there’s so much left to know
and I’m on the road to find out
Here’s to becoming, together.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

this day after

It was some time after seminary
my best friend, Burt, got married,
and then a few more years before
they had a child. I remember
calling one day; he answered,
saying he was lying on the bed
looking at the baby. I asked,
“Do you ever look down and say,
‘You’re going to stay here?’”

Something about this day after,
this morning beyond the manger,
that reminds me God chose to
come into the world not fully
formed. Jesus looked up from
the straw much like Burt’s baby
from the bedspread, more
enchanted, perhaps, that he
could chew on his toes than

Who he would grow up to be.
I was two weeks old my first
Christmas; a half century of
Decembers have since passed
(twenty more birthdays than
Jesus had) and couldn’t have
imagined that I would take
over fifty years to get from
Corpus Christi to North Carolina

Jesus considered lilies, cleansed
lepers, and chastised leaders who
thought they’d cornered the truth,
but not before he’d been a boy,
a teenager, a young man; not before
he had increased in wisdom and
stature. But that first morning,
Mary might have looked and loved,
and said, smiling, “You’re staying.”


Thursday, December 24, 2009

advent journal: christmas in the trenches

I noticed tonight, as we were singing carols in our Christmas Eve service, that our hymnal has five verses to “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” my favorite carol. I find deep comfort in what I have known as the third verse, which I know has been quoted more than once here:

and you beneath life’s crushing load
whose forms are bending low
who toil along life’s climbing way
with painful steps and slow
look now for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing
o rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing
But the intended third verse (making my favorite the fourth) has an amazing message all its own:
yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world hath suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and man, at war with man, hears not
the love song which they bring:
o hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing.
My first thought was the Senate might have done well to have that verse sung at the beginning of today’s session – or every day’s session. Then I thought of another song, written about twenty-five years ago by a man named John McCuthcheon, about the last time there was a Christmas truce on a battlefield, which was in 1914, during World War I. Since then, it seems, we’ve learned we don’t need to stop fighting for anything.

McCuthcheon tells the story as one of the characters, an English soldier who is lying in the trenches on Christmas Eve and hears a German voice singing Christmas carols. The English respond with carols of their own and, before long, both sides are standing in no-man’s land under the moonlight, sharing food and even playing soccer, and finding out they are all human. There is painful irony in the fact that the dawn of Christmas Day meant they went back to fighting, yet they were changed.
Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each prepared to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
"Whose family have I fixed within my sights?"
'Twas Christmas in the trenches where the frost, so bitter hung
The frozen fields of France were warmed as songs of peace were sung
For the walls they'd kept between us to exact the work of war
Had been crumbled and were gone forevermore
There are many ways in which it feels like Christmas in the trenches here in America, whether we’re talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, health care reform, or which state is red or blue. We are descending into an endless conflict where we choose not to see the faces on the other side, but allow the ideas we are fighting for carry the supreme value. We want to win more than we want to grow and thrive. “Whose family have I fixed within my sights?” might be a good question to carry into the new year. When we pass the Peace each Sunday in our service, we precede it by saying a quote from Mother Theresa together:
Be the living expression of God's kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.
If we, who claim on this night to welcome the Prince of Peace into the world once again, are not those who choose to wage peace in our world, and our nation, bent on mutual destruction, where will we find hope?

The Peace of Christ be with you. Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

advent journal: tiny planet

If you want to be in power,
you have to have money;
if you want to be invited,
you have to be somebody;
if you want to be in charge,
you had better be rich;
if you want to be noticed,
you’d better know somebody.
That’s the way of this world:
this tiny planet, tucked away
in a fold of the universe,
not the best or brightest,
nor richest or most important,
despite our machinations.

Still, when our Creator
chose to enter creation
dressed as a creature,
God came here: to earth,
not because we were
important, but because
we weren’t, leaving us
to lifetimes filled with
having to come to terms
with love we cannot earn.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

advent journal: the grammar of grace

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. (Luke 2:6 KJV)

I first learned the story the same way
Linus told it: in language so old
that some of the words had been lost
or forgotten, others changed.

No one says, “the days were accomplished”
anymore, unless you’re Linus or
the liturgist on Christmas Eve
saying, “she should be delivered”

In the beginning, God spoke and the
universe exploded into existence;
but the Baby is born in passive
voice: how silently the gift is given.


Monday, December 21, 2009

advent journal: fight or forgive

I managed to avoid the mall this season until today. I had to go because that’s where the stuff I needed was being kept (Ginger and Jay were going, too), so, as long as we were going, we decided at least part of the afternoon should be spent at the movies; we saw Invictus.

Put it on your Must See List.

As Jay and I were winding our way, I got a phone call from a religion reporter in Austin who is writing a story about David Gentiles for the newspaper this weekend. As I talked about Davy, I told her he is one of the reasons I trust the veracity of the Incarnation because David incarnated God’s love as well as anyone I know. The movie reminded me that Nelson Mandela falls in that category as well, though I don’t personally know him. As Matt Damon’s character, Francois Pienaar, says of Mandela after visiting the cell at Robben Island where he was imprisoned, “I was thinking how he could spend thirty years in a tiny cell and then come out and forgive the ones who put him there.” Mandela told Francois he had been inspired by poetry (hooray!), particularly “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley. I found it when I got home.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The question Mandela kept asking was how to inspire people to be more than they imagined they could be. Listening to NPR as we drove home, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison with the imaginative and transformative leadership of Mandela and the partisan bickering and (I don’t even know what to call it) that plagues most every member of Congress, causing them to treat each other with the incivility and immaturity of a grade school playground (my apologies to grade schoolers). I am not inspired. I also didn’t intend to head towards a rant this evening, so I will change my tack.

At the end of the movie, they showed pictures of the people portrayed in the movie. When I came home, I looked for video of the rugby team and found this video of the team singing “Nkosi Sikelele Africa,” the South African national anthem, before the start of a game with England in 2007. The anthem itself is both song and metaphor for South Africa: it has parts in the four languages primarily spoken in the country. The video is amazing to me because the rugby team is primarily Afrikaners and they are singing their hearts out. They are testament to the power of forgiveness and compassion; you can’t beat unity into people, you must lead them.

My friend Gordon Atkinson preached a sermon Sunday calling us to “be the manger.” His wife, Jeanene, is the one who told me about it (she’s my friend, too).

He said that whether we are ready or not, Christ will come. The reality is that we don't have to be ready, we don't have to "have it all together," we just have to receive the Christ child: it's our job to be the manger.

I love the image. We are called to be a place, a heart, a being, that can receive and hold Christ. Thirty years in a cell that was hardly big enough for him to lay down, and Nelson Mandela was still a manger, still a receptacle of Love, because he refused to be defined by his calling rather than his circumstance. As we gather with shepherds and wise men again this year that Christ might be born again among us, the choice has not changed: will we fight or forgive?


Sunday, December 20, 2009

advent journal: I've got a hope

It's late, the dinner shift was busy, and I am missing my friend David. I've turned to music we shared together, particularly Mark Heard and Pierce Pettis. One of Pierce's songs, "I've Got a Hope," keeps circling around. I tried to find it on YouTube to no avail, but here is the lyric. It comes from his State of Grace CD, which is worth the investment.

Man is born to trouble
All the days of his life
As the sparks fly upward
From bonfires at night
They fill up the heavens
With pinpoints of light
And I've got a hope
That is not in this world

Time, it is turning
Like a plow in the field
It roots up the earth
And what's hidden is revealed
Sewing the future
While the past, it is sealed
I've got a hope
That is not in this world

Half of the battle
Is only with myself
While the other half
Is something I can't help

Lest I should stumble
I try not to forget
That every hair is numbered
Every footstep, every breath
And this life that I'm living
It will not end in death
I've got a hope
That is not in this world
I've got a hope
That is not in this world
I'm going to let his words be enough for this night.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

advent journal: living in black-and-white

Last night our little town of Durham lay in the path of a winter storm working it’s way up the East Coast and we got enough snow to make it feel real. Once the ground was covered, I walked out into the street to take a picture of our house with lights aglow. Because the first attempt let me know the shutter speed was too slow for me to hold the camera steady, I flipped open the flash and took another one, lucking into this wonderful shot of the illuminated house framed by the shining snowflakes caught in the flash of the moment.

I managed to get up and out of the house this morning to run some errands and end up at Guglhuph, one of our great local places, for lunch with Ginger and a Massachusetts friend who is moving to the area. I got there early so I would have some time to read, sat down with my coffee, only to find Raymo talking about photography and referring to Janet Malcolm, who says the serious photographer resists “the blandishments of color.”

“It is black-and-white photography,” she says, “that demands of the photographer close attention to the world of color, while color photography permits him to forget it” . . . The black-and-white medium is hard, says Malcolm, color easy. The former requires art, the latter doesn’t. (131)
Here’s the house, then, in black-and-white.

Many years ago, when David Gentiles was youth minister at Hunter’s Glen Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, he invited Billy Crockett and I to come for a weekend. Billy’s concert was the real draw; Dave knew we were working on songs for a new record and he invited me to come along and then he paid for a couple of extra nights in the hotel so we could do some writing. The song that came out of one all-night session was called “Song and Dance,” an unabashedly joyful look at life taking off of the scripture verses that talk about the trees clapping their hands in praise to God, and we wrote:
put away your woes
let ‘em go let ‘em go
they’re gonna be here tomorrow
tune your hearts
to the birds that fly
out on the edge of the deep blue sky
can you hear the music
through the circumstance
listen to the laughter
in the song and dance
I still love that song. It is a full-speed-ahead-arms-wide-open-Snoopy-dancing-in-the-leaves-run-and-jump-and-love-will-catch-you expression of hope and faith that still rings true for me. It’s also akin to my photograph in the snow last night, or driving through the variegated splendor of a New England autumn and taking a picture of the leaves. It’s going to be a great picture because you’re taking a picture of something great. But how do you find the spirit in the song when the color drains from the scene?

Grief is in black-and-white: the winter of the heart, a season of skeleton trees, long dark days, and bone-chilling cold. One note I read in the exchange between friends talking about David quoted C. S. Lewis: “No one ever told me that grief feels like fear.” And fear is the antithesis of love and faith and art. We know that well as a nation because we have allowed fear to be our driving force far too often since September 11, 2001, and that fear has robbed us of too much of our imagination, compassion, and hope. Though it may feel like fear, grief is not the same thing. Grief is loss and pain, and coming to terms with our limits and mortality. As the Sundays sing, “Here’s where the story ends.”

Yes and no. It is also where art and faith and love show their strength and offer some of their best music through the circumstance.

“The art of observing the night sky,” Raymo says, “is 50 percent vision and 50 percent imagination” (133). He goes on:
Stargazing, like black-and-white photography, demands close attention to color. There are no ravishing sunsets in the midnight sky, no deciduous riots of red and gold in the forest of the night. The snapshooter turns from the telescope in despair, but the artful observer will take the hint and let his imagination enrich the palette. William Henry Smyth fixed his telescope on the stars and saw “crocus,” “damson,” “sardonyx,” and “smalt.” This is the kind of imagination that labels paint chips . . . Of hints and traits we make our way. (135)
Faith and art and love are best expressed as a response, which also means in the context of relationships. The insidious thing about the fear that grips us as a nation is it is generalized: we are scared of big things, broad strokes, which makes us frightened of pretty much everything. Seeing a bogeyman under every bed is not imaginative, it is incapacitating. We respond, therefore, with force and violence, neither of which is artful, faithful, or loving.
The pilgrim who would find his way to the edge of the galaxies and to the beginning of time must forgo daylight’s easy color and launch himself upon the black-and-white sea of the night and in those huge spaces find stars the colors of damson, crocus, grape, and straw. (138)
Jesus, it seems to me, was born in black-and-white, bringing a trace of color into a world full of fear and grief. And the angels sang to the shepherds. As I grieve David’s death, I wait in the dark for a birth, for Christ to be born again this year. I can see the traces of color and the hints of hope in the those of us who knew and loved David – and also know and love each other – have worked to not let grief turn to fear, but are finding ways to share our love, to tighten the bonds, and to imagine we can hear the music, even through this circumstance; we look out into the darkness and we see the colors of “friendship,” “compassion,” and “trust.”

The very first song I wrote with Billy for a youth camp said
here’s another picture of life
all of us together with Christ
its an open heart
it’s a work of art
it’s the basic stuff
that makes another picture of love
It's still true -- even in black and white.


Friday, December 18, 2009

advent journal: losing a light

I wrote last night about a friend in ICU. Tonight I write to say my friend, David Gentiles, died earlier this evening with his daughters gathered around him. I’ve been staring at the computer screen for a couple of hours looking for words and have come up empty. My friend is gone: my heart hurts, my mind struggles to comprehend what has happened. David was one of the Good Guys – no, one of the Great Guys, a person who lived with passion and intentionality, grace and integrity, unflappable hope (after all, he was a Cleveland Indians fan) and tenacious love. You can get a good picture of him by watching this.

And now he is not here. And I am.

Just before I got the news, I finished reading A Circle of Quiet and found this in the closing paragraphs:

Gregory of Nyssa points out that Moses’ vision of God began with the light, with the visible burning bush, the bush which was bright with fire and was not consumed; but afterwards, God spoke to him in a cloud. After the glory which could be seen with human eyes, he began to see the glory which is beyond and after light.

The shadows are deepening all around us. Now is the time when we must begin to see our world and ourselves in a different way. (246)
The clouds of grief and sorrow now descended, I pray for eyes to see what lies beyond and after both light and loss. Our world is a little dimmer tonight.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

advent journal: in the middle

I have spent the last couple of days waiting for news about an old friend who was severely injured and is in ICU; beyond that, the details are not mine to share. Our friendship goes back about twenty-five years, I think; it seems tonight that we have always known each other. My sadness has let memories seep in, taking me back to youth camp days together. In those days, Billy Crockett used to sing a blues song called “The Bottom of Life,” which began with

I’ve got a question, Mr. Jesus, tell me what’s at the bottom of life?
As the song played in my mind today, I found myself rewriting the lyric to ask, what’s in the middle of life? We talk of bottoms and tops, looking to the edges of existence, to the boundaries, and yet most of life gets lived in the middles. We are on the way, a work in progress; other than the days that mark our birth and death, life gets lived in the middles. Growing up, I learned A. A. Milne’s poem, “Halfway Down the Stairs.” (The Muppets -- or someone -- turned it into a song, but I learned it as spoken verse.
Halfway down the stairs
is a stair
where i sit.
there isn’t any
other stair
quite like
I’m not at the bottom,
I’m not at the top;
so this is the stair
I always

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
It isn’t really
It’s somewhere else
Life, I suppose, is more escalator than stairs, when it comes to metaphor: even the stairs are moving. We are not sitting still. The ground on which we stand is spinning on its axis, revolving around the sun, and swirling in the galaxy. Nothing stays in place for long. As I was talking about last night, the middle makes it hard to find a sense of perspective. You can gain your bearings at sea once you sight the shore, but out in the middle is another story.

The middle is not the center. Life doesn’t explain itself with that kind of geography. We’re in the middle, as in middle of the night, or middle of a thought, or “I’m in the middle of something.” We live in the tension of the now and the not yet, between here and gone, between (as Madeleine L’Engle says) “the two errors either of regarding ourselves as unforgivable or as not needing forgiveness” (233). A few pages earlier, she talked about what and how we learn from life, how the middles add up to a life:
Think about driving a car: only the beginning driver thinks as he performs each action; the seasoned driver’s body works kinesthetically; steering wheel, brake, accelerator – if you have to think about using each one of these you won’t dare drvie on a major highway. A driver prevents an accident because of his conditioned reflexes; hands and feet respond more quickly than thought.

I’m convinced the same thing is true in all other kinds of crisis, too. We react to our conditioning built up of every single decision we’ve made all our lives; who we have used as our mentors; as our points of reference. (222)
For most of maritime history, sailors out in the middle of the ocean used the stars to find their way; they chose to see themselves in the middle of the constants – the stars in the sky -- rather than lost in the vastness of the unpredictable sea. However endless the water appeared, they knew how to find their way home. Even in the midst of stormy seas, the stars held true. When I learned of my friend’s accident, my response was to do what I have done over and over: to call the circle of friends we share, that we might find each other in the dark and find our way together in the middle of these days.

I know, Mr. Jesus, what’s in the middle of life.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

advent journal: night vision

If someone were driving by our church tonight, they might have mistaken us for Baptists: the parking lot was full on a Wednesday night. The choir was rehearsing, with orchestra, for their Vivaldi offering on Sunday, the bilingual English class was having their Christmas party in the Fellowship Hall, and a group of us were gathered in the Dowdy Room (not a descriptive adjective, but the name of someone) for our annual Blue Christmas service, designed to allow those who are grieving or struggling to have permission to feel something other than full of holiday cheer. It’s one of my favorite services of the year and, in every church where we have had the service, it’s always a small crowd.

I know there are more than ten people in our church who are struggling through the season. I also realize there are any number of reasons they might not have been there; I’m not making a judgment here. I just wish for more because of what the service means to those who do participate. There is wonder-working power in shared grief and pain. We hold each other up and we learn from each other. I see my pain differently when I am sharing the load with those around me.

Chet Raymo
sends my looking skyward, once more:

If we want to understand the Milky Way, it is usually best to look to other galaxies. The Milky Way is the one galaxy we cannot see in its entirety because we are inside it. (114)
We certainly feel our pain up close, yet when it comes to making meaning out of our existence we must look out, look toward one another in order to gain some perspective. I learned about my depression by reading what others lived through and by talking to almost anyone willing to share their experience. Had I been left solely to stare out into my own darkness, I couldn’t have found my way through deepest midnight of those days. Still, it seems we have to train ourselves to need one another, even when we know we don’t want to be alone. Living intentionally means choosing to live in community until it becomes second nature.

One of my favorite parts of the service tonight was the closing reading, which accompanied the lighting of four candles. I offer it as a view into our little constellation of compassion.

One: The first candle we light to remember those whom we have loved and lost. We pause to remember their names, their faces, their voices, the memory that binds them to us in this season. (Light first candle.)
All: May God’s eternal love surround us as we hold them near.

One: This second candle we light is to redeem the path of loss: the loss of relationships, the loss of jobs, the loss of health, the loss of dreams. (Light second candle.) We pause to gather up the pain of the past and offer it to God, asking that from God’s hands we receive the gift of peace.
All: Refresh, restore, renew us, O God, and lead us into your future.

One: This third candle we light is to remember ourselves this Christmas time. We pause and remember the disbelief, the anger, the down times, the poignancy of reminiscing, the hugs and handshakes of family and friends, and all those who stood with us. (Light third candle.)
All: Let us remember that dawn defeats darkness.

One: This fourth candle is to remember our faith and the gift of hope which the Christmas story offers to us. (Light fourth candle.) We remember that God who shares our live promises us a place and a time of no more pain and suffering.
All: Let us remember the One who shows the way, who brings the truth, and bears the light.
And then we sang:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by;
Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting Light!
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
As we sat silently, the Spanish folks snacked down the hall and, in the sanctuary, the singers and strings practiced for their concert; then we all went out into the night, as the galaxies gazed and glistened.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

advent journal: proximity matters

After a week with my in-laws, a week where I didn’t have to work and had time to cook dinner in the evenings, I’ve had two days of double shifts split between lunch at the Duke restaurants (making soups, mostly) and evening catering jobs, one on a grand scale (520 people) and the other, a family’s holiday party (eighty people and a big house, but small by comparison). Though the two events were for the same reason, I found tonight’s much easier, and more fun, because I was in someone’s house – in their kitchen – cooking for friends. As I put platters together to go to the table, I stood in the eye of the storm of affection and connection that swirled though the house, fueled by laughter, conversation, and a good amount of wine. The same dynamic may have been a part of the larger event, but I never saw any of the people I was feeding; that was the difference.

Proximity matters.

My most recent Raymo readings (before my double shifts) found him talking about the dark matter that makes up most of the universe, continuing to puzzle astronomers and most anyone else who thinks about it:

“Ninety-seven percent of the stuff in the universe,” I said,” is stuff about which we know absolutely nothing.” “It is probably the best stuff, too,” my friend replied. The turth is that astronomers do not as yet have any idea what this “stuff” is that holds the stars in their galactic orbits. (104)
He goes on to say the thinking about what may fill it has more to do with small than large.
Other forms of “dark stuff” have been suggested by the physicists who investigate the realm of the subatomic: hoards of neutrinos, each endowed with an imperceptible whiff of mass; or a gas of yet-to-be-discovered “gravitinos” or “photinos” or “axions,” particles a trillion times lighter than electrons, hypothetical entities that no one could have thought of them did not wander like a pilgrim among the modern kingdoms of Prester John, the worlds of infinitely large and infinitely small. (105)
The more I read Raymo (and watch things like TED talks), the more I begin to understand today’s scientists are people of imagination, mystery, and even faith. These folks are looking into the night sky and imagining – even describing and naming – magnificently minuscule particles that might fill up the darkness. L’Engle agrees, getting to the same place by another way:
Science, literature, art, theology: it is all the same ridiculous, glorious, mysterious language. (209)
I drove to Chapel Hill this evening listening to stories about the climate change conference in Copenhagen, troops being deployed to Afghanistan from right here in North Carolina, among other things. Whatever the technological medium, I can be bounced around the world in a minute, challenged to take in more information than I know what to do with. The term “global village” may work as a metaphor as far as how information can be disseminated, but it breaks down when it comes to describing what holds us together. We are left feeling like the astronomers, wondering what is in the dark matter between us. Even in the smaller party this evening, I noticed those who talked to me as though I were a person and those who only saw the uniform and allowed me to become as invisible as a gravitino.

I came home tonight to news that a friend far away is in critical condition. I found messages from other mutual friends, all of us trying to find each other in the dark, counting on our connectedness to get us through the questions we have tonight and the explanations that will come tomorrow. I stood alone in a room filled with people tonight and came home to an empty house to feel close to my friends all because of our shared pain: we needed to find each other.
Compassion is nothing one feels with the intellect alone. Compassion is particular; it is never general. (L’Engle 193)
Proximity matters. Like love, we feel pain when it has a face, a name. Our names, the subatomic stuff of the universe, connect us and bind us together in the dark.


Monday, December 14, 2009

advent journal: prep work

I’m not sure how much preparing
food for five hundred is like
preparing the way of the Lord,
but I’ve had morning, afternoon,
and evening to think about it.

The best division of labor was
to choose and do one thing:
I grilled vegetables – squash,
actually – for an hour or two.
It was not the featured food,

but it was my part in getting
ready, my contribution as a
member of the company of
cooks assigned to prepare the
meal on this (almost) wintry night.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

advent journal: posada


they called it, and translated
“inn,” in Spanish, then, in robes
and scarves and hoods they
circled the sanctuary, stopping
at each door, singing for their
shelter, and being turned away
until they got to the door
at the altar; they sang again
and one little bearded boy
bent around the door and
said, “Yes, you can stay here.”

Yes is the harder answer for
anyone who knocks, you know
because they might stay, they might
makes themselves at home and
you have to keep saying it because
we are all innkeepers even as we are
Mary and Joseph, seeking shelter
from one another; hoping one will
be willing to open the door –
even to a back room or a barn --
that we might give birth to Love


P. S. Thanks to our children for leading us in worship today.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

advent journal: happy to be here

In my reading earlier in the week, Madeleine L’Engle (on a page I can’t find now) talked about the necessary structure of life giving us freedom. She used poetry in general, and the sonnet in particular, to make her point: the boundaries of the form create the space to move freely. I’ve had my copy of Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks in the CD player this week and he proves her point:

'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form.
"Come in," she said,
"I'll give you shelter from the storm."
This morning, Raymo reminded me the structure that fosters creativity runs to the very core of our existence.
Blake was right to see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. The silicon and oxygen in the grain of sand and the carbon in the flower could not have come into being unless the forces that hold the universe together had exactly the values they do. Adjust the strength of the electromagnetic force or the nuclear force but slightly, and you knock out of kilter the resonance in the carbon nucleus that allows three helium nuclei to come together in the cores of stars to form that element. Stop the synthesis of elements at helium, and never in a billion years of burning would a galaxy of stars produce enough silicon or oxygen to make a single grain of sand. No, the coin did not come down on its edge. The situation is more improbable than that. The coin was flipped into the air 10(to the fifteenth power) times, and it came down on its edge but once. If all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth were possible universes – that is, universes consistent with the laws of physics as we know them – and only one of those grains of sand were a universe that allowed for the existence of intelligent life, then that one grain of sand is the universe we inhabit. (93)
And in that universe, on a tiny planet revolving around an average star, I am one small being; one small, grateful being. Had the synthesis stopped at helium (notice the way I write as though I understand), we would not be here. Here, in the middle of the afternoon of the day that begins my fifty-fourth year, I’m aware that the journey that is my life, that has gone from Corpus Christi to Bulawayo to Lusaka to Nairobi to Accra to Houston to Dallas to Boston to Durham, with intermittent stops in Fort Worth along the way, is equally as full of structure and surprise as any planet or poem. The structure of Facebook allows for birthday greetings to come across the years, like light from distant stars, all arriving at the same time, a meteor shower of memories and affection. What a gift.

While I’m here typing at Beyu Caffé, Durham’s newest coffee shop and restaurant, Ginger is presiding at a funeral for one of our church members who passed away a couple of weeks ago. Her family had to come some distance, and so the service was set for today. I know that one way to look at life is to see each passing year, even each day, as a step closer to the end. What often comes with that is an aversion towards, if not a fear of, aging. I am growing older; my intention is also to be growing, period. These are not days to begin winding down, or settling in, but to be looking up and out, buoyed by all the gratitude I can muster. I turn to another poet, Guy Clark:
I got an ol’ blue shirt
And it suits me just fine
I like the way it feels
So I wear it all the time
I got an old guitar
It won’t ever stay in tune
I like the way it sounds
In a dark and empty room

I got an ol’ pair of boots
And they fit just right
I can work all day
And I can dance all night
I got an ol’ used car
And it runs just like a top
I get the feelin’ it ain’t
Ever gonna stop

Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall
Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel
The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall

I got a pretty good friend
Who’s seen me at my worst
He can’t tell if I’m a blessing
Or a curse
But he always shows up
When the chips are down
That’s the kind of stuff
I like to be around

Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall
Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel
The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall

I got a woman I love
She’s crazy and paints like God
She’s got a playground sense of justice
She won’t take odds
I got a tattoo with her name
Right through my soul
I think everything she touches
Turns to gold

Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don’t hang on the wall
Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel
The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall
Thank you.


advent journal: birthday musical interlude

Since I share a birthday with Frank Sinatra, Jennifer Connelly, Emerson Fittipaldi, Tracy Kidder, Dickey Betts, Edvard Munch, John Jay, Gustave Fluabert, and Dionne Warwick, among others, this song feels appropriately celebratory.


Friday, December 11, 2009

advent journal: comprehending a metaphor

These are the words with which my day began:

Only a daredevil makes metaphors. To make a metaphor is to walk a tightrope, to be shot out of a cannon, to do aerial somersaults without a net. The trouble with metaphors is that you never know when they’ll let you down. You turn a somersault in mid-air, you reach for the trapeze – and suddenly it isn’t there.

Take the butterfly for instance. Surely the butterfly is a safe bet for a metaphor. The delicacy of beauty. The fragility of life . . . Even Shakespeare does it: “ . . . for men, like butterflies, show not their mealy wings but to summer.” And there you go, sailing through the air, the daring young man on the flying metaphor, when . . .

Along comes the mourning cloak butterfly. (Raymo 77)
I know. I hadn’t heard of it either. But the mourning cloak butterfly, it turns out is one tough little creature, hibernating through the New England winter, among others, and showing up at the first sign of any kind of warmth (using that term loosely). I was one of those who thought of butterflies as poster children for all things beautiful and fleeting (except for Monarchs, maybe), until I read Raymo.
And there goes the metaphor. Beauty is fragile? Life is fleeting? Not at all. Beauty, it turns out, is tough, and life is well nigh impossible to extinguish. The mourning cloak proves it . . . It is an old tattoo ringing in the ears of philosophers and poets, physicists and mystics: the power of the mourning cloak, the resilience of its beauty, what makes it tough, what makes the flame of elegance impossible to extinguish, is something that cannot be seen. (78,80)
Before I finished my first cup of coffee, my mind was off and running to connect the dots. First, an old favorite from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
And then on to a passage I read from L’Engle last night that quoted the very verse from John that Raymo echoed twice:
St. John said, “And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not understand it, and cannot extinguish it (I need the double meaning of the word comprehend). This is the great cry of affirmation that is heard over and over again in our imaginative literature, in all art. It is a light to lighten our darkness, to guide us, and we do not need to know, in the realm of provable fact, exactly where it is going to take place. (183)
One of my working metaphors for faith is art: living faithfully is living artistically, imaginatively (as in image of God). Art is prophetic, compassionate, even incarnational; so is faith. The artist doesn’t set out to make sense as much as make meaning, to find ways to connect whatever he or she can, to move others to respond and relate. Art is both disquieting and cohesive. Art is the fire that burns without consuming; so is faith. The opposite of art is fear, destruction. The heart of art is love, imagination.

So where does the metaphor break down?

I heard a clip from President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech and went to read the whole thing. Here is the transcript of what I heard:
I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
I understand he was making a speech in a world hell bent on beating each other up, and as president of a nation that tends to believe that a realistic worldview is synonymous with arming ourselves to the teeth. I realize he felt he had political realities to take into account. And I think he showed that my metaphor represents a minority opinion. We allow ourselves to believe force answers fear, rather than art, and peace is not as much a viable option as it is a Quixotic goal. The limits of reason are not the limits of either faith or art.

They never were.

We are preparing our hearts for Christ to be born again in our time and our culture. The first time the story was told, the baby was born into poverty and grew up on the margins of society. He grew up, surrounding himself with people of no power or means and taught them, expecting they would keep on going. And then the ones with the power – those who saw the world realistically – killed him. His death was not the last word because of force or power, but because of love, imagination, and mystery: because of art: faith.

All the just wars we can wage will never resurrect anything. Onward Christian soldiers is a metaphor that fell apart long ago. Go out and stand in the dark, under the stars. Get up early and watch the sunrise (I’m not going to, but you do). Go out and find a mourning coat butterfly. Listen to songs like this one:
I woke up this morning
and none of the news was good
death machines were rumbling
cross the ground where Jesus stood
and the man on my TV told me
it had always been that way
and there’s nothing anyone could do or say
and I almost listened to him
yeah, I almost lost my mind
then I regained my senses again
looked into my heart to find
I believe that one fine day
all the children of Abraham
will lay down their swords
forever in Jerusalem
or this one:
and in despair I bowed my head
there is no peace on earth, I said
for hate is strong and mocks the song
of peace on earth goodwill to men

then rang the bells both loud and deep
God is not dead nor doth he sleep
the wrong shall fail the right prevail
with peace on earth goodwill to men
And then let us say again, together, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it.”


Thursday, December 10, 2009

advent journal: suppertime

Who would think a single motion
could carry multiple meanings.
I spend my days stirring the soup,
measuring out the corn meal,
making sure everyone eats well;
it is good and honest work.

Tonight I stood over the soup
in the warm light of our kitchen,
carried by the scent of cornbread
in the oven, the scuttle of schnauzers
at my feet, pouring more of myself
into the recipe than usual.

Jesus spent his days feeding people,
yet, when he broke bread with
friends, his chosen family, gathered
in a small room like our kitchen,
he called them to remember --
to never forget what a meal meant.

It’s easy, you know, to forget,
to let food be only fuel for function.
Supper, tonight, was an end not
the means; now, washing clean
the bowls, I am put back together,
remembered in our simple supper.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

advent journal: a circle of friends

Time is a living thing.

We talk about it as something that ticks by or slips away, something we make or take or keep or lose, but it is a force, a dimension, an entity on its own terms. Though we often talk about telling time, we do better to listen to what it is saying, or revealing. Chet Raymo talks about looking out into the night sky as a venture back in time, the light in the sky coming from different stars and galaxies, all different light years away. What we see in the present moment, standing underneath Orion, are layers of time all arriving at once; tonight I am found anew by words from a few old friends.

Paging through an old book, particularly one I’ve read several times before, is much the same experience. Madeleine L’Engle published A Circle of Quiet in 1972; she was past fifty and I was closing in on sixteen and preparing to move back to the States for good, leaving Africa behind. I finished high school, college, seminary, chaplaincy, and was working as a youth minister when, Blair, a friend from Baylor Hospital days gave me the book for Christmas. I was thirty-two. Seeing the name written on the inside cover took me back to conversations long since buried under all that collects in life like the dust that buries ancient civilizations. I can tell from my margin notes that I’ve been though the book at least three times, not counting this Advent. Some of the comments I can calendar easier than others. I have names written in the margins next to lines that remind me of someone, or something someone said. Others are distinguishable because of the different colors of ink.

This time around, I’m reading the book at about the same age that Madeleine wrote it and I picture her being my age for the first time in our literary friendship. I am getting to know her when she was my age. And I smiled when I read this paragraph:

Jung disagreed with Freud that the decisive period in our lives is the first years. Instead, Jung felt that the decisive period is that in which my husband and I are now, the period of our middle years, when we have passed through childhood with its dependency on our parents; when we’ve weathered the storms of adolescence and the first probings into the ultimate questions; when we’ve gone through early adulthood with its problems of career and marriage and bringing up our babies; and for the first time in our lives find ourselves alone before the crucial problem of ho, after all these years, we are. All the protective covering of the first three stages is gone, and we are suddenly alone with ourselves and have to look directly at the great and unique problem of the meaning of our own particular existence in this particular universe. (113)
My twenty-year old margin note reads: “hope for growing old.”

In certain moments, the years feel as though they flow by like a river; in others, they stack up like altar stones. Either way, the more of them I live through, the more I find myself thankful to be here, and to be. Madeleine died a little over two years ago. My father-in-law is here, but disappearing in his Alzheimer’s. I went to Texas several weeks back because I thought my mother was not going to recover from surgery (she’s still here and doing fine). I am a couple of days away from turning fifty-three, perhaps the same way a farmer turns the soil in preparation for planting. I suppose I could think of turning, as in turning a car down a different road, or the way a horse turns toward the clubhouse; then there’s turning, as in repentance, and the turning of the leaves, blazing their way to death. Maybe all of those.

Everything in the universe shares the same arc of being, if you will, moving from where we entered the story to where we exit, stage left. We are both essential and temporary. At the bottom of Page 99, Madeleine wrote:
Paradox again: to take ourselves seriously enough to take ourselves lightly. If every hair of my head is counted, then in the very scheme of the cosmos I matter; I am created by a power who cares about the sparrow, and the rabbit in the snare, and the people in the crowded streets; who calls the stars by name. And you. And me.
My twenty-year old margin note reads: “Living with a sense of appropriate significance.”

Fifteen years after that note, my friend Burt called one day and asked me to write a poem about the value of daily work for worship at his church, and I sent him this.
daily work

In the crush of afternoon traffic I sit
in an unending queue of cars, staring
at the stoplight; from my driver’s seat
I can see the beckoning billboard:
“Come visit the New Planetarium
You Tiny Insignificant Speck in the Universe.”

When the signal changes, I cross the bridge
over river and railroad yard, turn left
past the donut shop, and park in front
of my house. Only my schnauzers notice
because they have been home alone.

I have been hard at work in my daily orbit,
but I stopped no wars, saved no lives,
and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning;
today would be a good day to be Jimmy Stewart:
to have some angel show me I matter.

As I walk the puppies down to the river,
I wonder how many times have I come to the water
hoping to hear, “You are my beloved child.”
Instead, I stand in life’s rising current only to admit,
“I am not the one you were looking for.”

I stand in the stream of my existence,
between the banks of blessing and despair,
convinced that only messiahs matter,
that I have been called to change the world
and I have not done my job.

Yet, if I stack up the details of my life
like stones for an altar, I see I am
one In the line of humanity,
in the river of love: I am a speck,
in God’s eyes, of some significance:
so say, also, the schnauzers
every time I come home.
However the years stack up, I have spent more days than I can count going to the river or the altar or out under the stars to be reminded (convinced?) that I matter, even as I know I am only passing through. I lean into Madeleine one more time:
So my hope, each day as I grow older, is that this will never be simply chronological aging – which is a nuisance and frequently a bore -- the old ‘bod’ at over half a century has had hard use; it won’t take what it did a few years ago – but that I will also grow into maturity, where the experience which can be acquired only through chronology will teach me how to be more aware, open, unafraid to be vulnerable, involved, committed, to accept disagreement without feeling threatened (repeat and underline this one), to understand that I cannot take myself seriously until I stop taking myself seriously – to be, in fact, a true adult. (132)
And one more twenty-year old margin note, quoting another friend, Reed: “We stop doing things that prepare us way too early.”

For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.


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

advent journal: musical interlude

James sings Joni.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

advent journal: towards a fascinated faith

I first found Chet Raymo in the Science section of the Boston Globe where he wrote a weekly column. I was neither an ornithologist nor an astronomer, but he talked of birds and stars in a way that fed both my curiosity and my faith: he made me think I could understand what he was talking about and share his sense of wonder. The first time I read The Soul of the Night: An Astronomical Pilgrimage, I discovered we shared a faith background, though his was more history and mine present tense. He described his journey using a bird as his metaphor:

The upland plover is a shy bird. It is the color of dry grass. In the rare event that one I flushed, it takes to air with a soft, bubbling whistle . . . If the poet wanted an image for the absconded God, he could have found none better than the upland plover.

I can’t say exactly when it was that the God of my youth took to the upland plains. He was not driven from my soul. His flight was no fault of my teachers’. My lapse from faith occurred not long after graduation from college, at the end of a period of intense belief during which His face seemed palpably near . . . And sacred plovers leapt from every page, took to wings in coveys, and made a tumult with their wings that drowned the thin voice of doubt. Emily Dickinson called hope “the thing with feathers.” The plover was our hope. The plover was Faith, Hope, and Charity.

Then one day I woke up and the plover was gone . . . I turned to my science books and got on with the business of life. (55-56)
One of the songs that makes the rounds this time of year begins with the little lamb aasking the shepherd, “Do you hear what I hear?” I learned how to look at the night sky with a greater sense of wonder because of Raymo’s Science Musings and yet, he doesn’t see what I see anymore. The bird has flown, he says, and so he moved on. It doesn’t surprise me that he has found his new church, if you will, among scientists because scientists are the explorers of our age. We have circumnavigated the world time and again, but we are learning about particles smaller than we ever imagined, finding stars and quasars and black holes farther away than we ever dreamed we would be able to see, and dimensions to our existence far beyond the three we were taught in school. The legacy of the psalmist (“When I gaze into the night sky and see the wonders of your hands . . .”) has been passed beyond the church walls, and we are the lesser for it.

Shane Claiborne wrote an article for Esquire magazine
(HT to Jan for pointing it out, since Esquire is not one of my regular reads) and said something that connects here, I think:
The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.
In 1972, Madeleine L’Engle was struggling with being told that identifying as a Christian would turn some people off. She responded:
I wouldn’t mind if to be a Christian were accepted as being the dangerous thing which it is. I wouldn’t mind if, when a group of Christians meet for bread and wine, we might well be interrupted and jailed for subversive activities. I wouldn’t mind if, once again, we were being thrown to the lions. I do mind, desperately, that the word “Christian” means for so many people smugness, and piosity, and holier-than-thouness. Who, today, can recognize a Christian because of “how those Christians love one another”? (98)
How did we become the keeps of the status quo, the defenders of truth, the rational ones determined to be relevant? Why are we not primarily consumed by and with the mystery and fascination of the Gospel story? What happened to lost in wonder, love, and praise?

We were breathed (laughed) into being, along with quarks and quasars, by our over-the-top-everything-matters-hey-look-what-I-can-do-I-love-you-with-all-my-heart-and-everyone-else-too-let’s-go-make-more-stars-and-stuff-all-ye-all-ye-oxen-free-crazy-go-nuts kind of God. Yet we talk about God as though it’s all business, and serious business at that. We live and worship as though our primary task is to explain God to the world, rather than introduce the One Who is Love to everyone we can and see what happens. Our God may be an awesome God, but our God is not rational. Our God is Love.

The Incarnation doesn’t make sense. Why God would choose to become human, and partake in the entire human experience from birth on, is in itself an outrageous act of redemption. Being fully human is a good thing. It matters; we matter because God loves us from the word go and never, never stops. That Unbridled Love let loose in the world means a peasant girl gives birth to the Messiah in a barn, poor shepherds hear angel choirs, rich foreigners chase stars across the sands, and there are mores stories than we can tell about those who healed and helped, even saved. We, as Christians, are not called to explain any of it, but to become carriers. of redemption, infected with the same irrational exuberance that lives in the heart of God.

A healthy church has less to do with making sure the theology is right than it does with being right with each other. If we chose to redeem our time together rather than make demands, we might see God differently and the story as well. Though I love Raymo’s imagery, I don’t see God as a shy bird hiding in the high places. The story we are telling in these days says just the opposite:
Love divine, all loves excelling
Joy of heaven to earth come down
Why, then, are we not out under the stars with the shepherds and the scientists asking, “Do you see what I see?” Oh, that we might live out a fascinated faith together.


Monday, December 07, 2009

advent journal: a sense of humor

Some time during the evening on Saturday I first noticed the little wisp that floated into my vision. It looks like a pen and ink drawing of a cloud, or a thin line of black smoke, except it has a certain bounce to it, based on my blinking, that makes it do a little dance and float down and then back up to the top of the frame. I learned today at the eye doctor that my smoky little dancer is called an eye floater, and that it’s probably here to stay. What looks like it is hanging out in front of me is actually something going on inside my eyeball, in the vitreous humor, and is part of growing older – at least for me. The humor in my sight is a bit twisted, it seems.

When we were in Texas for my mother’s surgery a couple of months ago, a friend came by to see her. He is a cellular biologist, which is actually a bit of a misnomer because he is way inside the cell dealing with particles smaller than I even know how to imagine. I asked what he was studying now and he told us they had just gotten a new microscope that allowed them to see exponentially deeper into the cell and its subparticles, and he began to tell us how these submicroscopic parts of us open up related to our emotions. When we feel good, they are open to receive nutrients; when we are angry or sad, they close. Then he said something even more interesting: “They open up the most when we laugh.”

Raymo tells of an Mediterranean creation myth that says God brought everything into being with seven laughs: Hha Hha Hha Hha Hha Hha Hha. (46) As he goes on to speak with his continuing sense of wonder about the universe, he says,

God’s Hha Hha Hha was no snicker, but a roaring belly laugh. (50)
I love the idea of all creation bursting forth in a fit of divine laugher. I picture everything from the giggles that made monkeys, the chortles that produced platypuses, and the guffaws that gave us hippos. By the time God got to humans, I picture the kind of laughter that makes your sides hurt and your nose run. I love the idea, and it’s hard to hear on a day like today. My in-laws are visiting this week, which means we are up close and personal with my father-in-law’s continuing descent into Alzheimer’s. This wonderful, gentle man who turned seventy-nine yesterday and has always carried a sparkle in his eye that gave us a glimpse of God’s creative laughter looks empty now. His eyes are vacant; he is in the room and he is not here. His very existence is being insidiously erased while we watch and our hearts are broken. The comfort we find is in watching our Schnauzers gather around him with a love that finds him when we cannot; he sits and pets them and they love him back, for which we are grateful, even as we are exhausted by the prospect of what is yet to come. As we prepare for Christ to be born again, we are also trying to prepare for the grief that is yet to come. It’s hard to hold wonder and weary together.

Yet what are the options?

Madeleine L’Engle
tells of being asked at a workshop for high school students, “Do you really and truly believe in God with no doubts at all?” She answered, “I really and truly believe in God with all kinds of doubts.” (63) She continued to talk to the students about the three choices we had about how we live our lives. We can live as though the whole thing is a cosmic accident: a bad joke. We can live as though Someone started the whole thing but chose to remain aloof. Then she articulated her choice:
Then there’s a third way: to live as though you believe that the power behind the universe is a power of love, a personal power of love, a love so great that all of us really do matter to him. He loves us so much that every single one of our lives has meaning; he really does know about the fall of every sparrow, and the hairs of our head are really counted. That’s the only way I can live. (64)
My mind moves to melody in times like these, to those words put to music that find a way to carry the strains of laughter that endure across the years like starlight from distant galaxies just now bringing light to our darkness. Richard Thompson wrote
this old house is falling down around my ears
I’m drowning in a fountain of my tears
when all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day
And this from Kris Kristofferson:
there’s a song in my soul for the sun going down
when it dies at the end of the day
with a sadness descending as soft as the sound
of the light that was slipping away

the heavens above me seem empty and gray
as dreams that won’t ever come true
then the star spangled glory of love fills the sky
and my heart with the wonder of you
As Christmas draws closer, we will begin to speak more of shepherds and stars, weary and wonder, if you will, walking hand in hand to the manger: the tired tenders of someone else’s sheep lost in wonder at the angel band.
and ye beneath life’s crushing load
whose forms are bending low
who toil along the winding way
with painful steps and slow
look now for glad and golden hours
come quickly on the wing
o rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing
Christmas will come this year without bringing answers of what the days hold for our family and they will also come with reminders that God has never stopped laughing or loving. God didn’t inflict Reuben with Alzheimer’s to teach us a lesson or to prove a point. God didn’t set things in motion and then sit back to see how we deal with it. God is with us. In the midst of our pain, Love has taken up residence to show us the Laughter that brought the universe into being runs deep beyond our sorrows, deep into our beings, feeding our cells and our souls.
for the wonders that surround us
for the truth that still confounds us
most of all that love has found us
thanks be to God

Sunday, December 06, 2009

advent journal: the specificity of sacredness

I’m not sure the first time that it happened; over twenty years, I’ve lost count of how many times we have repeated the scene. Ginger always begins the conversation, and the statement generally comes out of nowhere:

“OK,” she’ll say, “name three reasons you love me.”

And I name three specific things – three the-way-you-wear-your-hat kind of things -- that pull me to her as to no other because it is in the details of life that love finds a place to live and grow. I know what love is because of those details, though I’m hard pressed to write a definition that explains it. We talk about love as a feeling, but that idea quickly runs out of steam. Madeleine L’Engle quotes Hugh Bishop of Mirfield (not to be confused with the other Hugh Bishops) who said, “Love is not an emotion. It is a policy” (45). It is, as Billy Joel sang, a matter of trust.

Many years ago before Ginger and I even met, I saw Alan Alda interviewed by Barbara Walters and she asked about his then twenty-five year old marriage, commenting that bonds like that didn’t hold well in the Hollywood. “How did you do it?” she asked.

“We just kept our promises,” he answered. “We said we would love each other through life and we have. Everyone is looking for a custom fit in an off the rack world.”

The simplicity of the metaphor stuck with me as worth remembering. He wasn’t saying just find someone and get on with it. He was saying when you decide to love, then love. Don’t keep looking to find a better fit. Let the veracity of your commitment shape you to fit. Pick three things, and then three more things, and then three more until you have a lifetime of reasons for finding love in the one who has kept the promises with you. L’Engle says a similar thing:

Love can’t be pinned down by a definition, and it certainly can’t be prove, any more than anything else important in life can be proved. Love is people, is a person . . . I am slowly coming to understand with my heart as well as my head that love is not a feeling. It is a person. It has a lot to do with compassion, and with creation. (43)
I was hardly through the paragraph before I was humming an old song by my friend, Billy Crockett called “Portrait of Love.” The premise of the song saw Paul as an artist painting a picture of Jesus with the words of 1 Corinthians 13. The chorus says:
Love is patient, love is kind
Never jealous, free of pride
Love will never be confine
And love will abide
Love is hopeful, love's not blind
Love is faithful, every time
Love is Someone, and
If you'll open your eyes, you'll find
That love is alive
I met with the other deacons around the Communion Table at the front of the sanctuary to practice before the service. We have been working on our consistency in serving the elements as a means of communicating how essential the Meal is for all of us. Making sure we are lined up as we need to be, or that we are clear about who will pass what, or that we move in some cohesive sense is not about being efficient or perfect as much as it one of intentionality our love for the congregation. We mean to be prepared to serve and share the meal. We mean to keep our promises in our little off the rack church, which means we have to be able to be involved in the moment and detached enough to see what we are creating together. L’Engle says it this way:
Detachment and involvement: the artist must have both. The link between them is compassion.
Sacredness requires specificity. The grand esoteric themes of theology have their place, but love takes root in those specific moments when we voluntarily and intentionally enter one another’s pain. “God so loved the world” makes sense when love has a name and is lying in the manger. The Incarnation (big theological concept) comes alive in the person of Jesus, God with us in all our off the rackness, all our struggles, in all our, well, lives.

In the specific person of Jesus, God says, “Me, too” in a way that had not been said before. The stories in the gospels are full of specifics, Jesus making particular movements, though not spectacular ones, to offer compassion and healing. He stopped when the woman with the hemorrhage touched his coat. He asked Zacchaeus if he could come over to the house. He wrote in the sand to move the focus off the adulterous woman in John 8 to take the attention off of her for at least a moment. He offered Peter breakfast.

On the way to church this morning, I heard an interview on Weekend Edition Sunday with the authors of Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between. The book is a humorous and thoughtful look at how people regard the afterlife, the authors having chosen to tell jokes to get their points across. Here is the title joke:
Heidegger and a Hippo stroll up to the Pearly Gates, and Saint Peter says, “Listen, we’ve only got room for one more today. Whoever gives me the best answer to “What is the meaning of life?” gets in.

Heidegger says, “To think Being itself requires disregarding Being to the extent that it is only grounded and interpreted in terms of things and for beings as their ground, as in all metaphysics.”

But before the hippo can grunt one word, Saint Peter says to him, “Today’s your lucky day, Hippy!”
The Incarnation is a mind-blowing theological concept. How do we explain God with skin on? We don’t – we can’t, anymore than we can define love. But when we look at the specific brush strokes of Jesus’ encounters with those around him, we begin to get the picture, to see the portrait of Love. When we gather together at the Table and participate in the simple act of passing bread and wine to one another, we remember Jesus, as in we re-member the Body of Christ and put it back together again. Love lives in the looks, the touch, the simple words of affirmation, the daily acts of recalling the promises we’ve made and keeping them.


Saturday, December 05, 2009

advent journal: the more I hear the story

the more I hear the story

the more I think of you
the young girl who took
the weight of grace
and carried it to term
along with the secrets
and accompanying slander

my four weeks of waiting
are a failing facsimile of
pregnancy and preparation
and I know who the boy
became while you were
left to grow up as well

some make you sound perfect
as though Jesus would be
somehow sullied being
born to a peasant girl
who met the angel’s words
with adolescent awe

and childlike openness
to a life of hope and hurt
of devotion and disquietude
and I wonder why it took
so long for me to come
and say simply thank you


Friday, December 04, 2009

advent journal: little lives

Each day is a little life, and each life is rounded with a little dark. (Chet Raymo, 41)

little lives

I was born this morning
into a world of possibilities
wrapped, first, in the wonder
of a BLT and egg sandwich
(yes, God is good)
and the kind of conversation
among friends that defines
what friends are to one
another: the ones who stay

I grew into an afternoon
of what could be seasoned
with what I signed up for
and then, as the day died
I worked myself into the
the dimming of the day
and the darkness carried
me out into the night
life to hear music

The day may have died,
but the night had not.
I stood in a room filled with
the road company for Rent
and then found my way
to the restaurant to finish
the day among friends,
which is the way all little
lives should come to a close

Thursday, December 03, 2009

advent journal: what's in a name

I had a couple of errands to run before I went to work this morning, both related to my in-laws coming to visit this coming week. The first was to take our recliner to get the springs on the bottom reattached; for whatever reason, they had chosen to let go over the past couple of months. The second was to drop off my car at the mechanics for an oil change and check up so Ginger could drive it to Birmingham tomorrow (and back on Sunday) with her parents and Gracie, our long-distance Schnauzer, in tow.

Melton’s Garage is a couple of blocks from our house. When I went inside to give the key, the woman behind the counter asked my name. “It’s a hyphenated name,” I began (as I have learned I need to do), “Brasher-Cunningham.” She began to write as I spelled the name out, except when I said, “Hyphen,” she put an apostrophe. I chose not to correct her. When I said my first name, Mr. Melton, who was sitting next to the counter in a motorized cart, said, “Milton, Melton – it’s almost the same,” and he smiled. Big. I thought about what I had taken with me from my morning reading as I left the house, which was Madeleine L’Engle talking about teaching and getting to know her students by name.

A signature; a name; the very being of the person you talk to, the child you teach, is at stake. (15)
I am the third person in my family to be named Milton, following my grandfather, whom I never met, and my father. I was in college before I met someone other than my relatives named Milton. I never had to share the name in school, so it felt both odd and special to me, which, in turn, made me feel a little odd and special. With a name like Milton, it’s not as though I could turn out to be a normal kid. I needed to be up to something.

When we came to the States on furlough, I learned about Milton Berle and Milton the Monster; in college, one of our star football players was named Milton, but he went by Scooter instead. As someone born into Baptist life and a white family, I have noticed most of the other Miltons I have encountered have either been African-American or Jewish. Because the name was so tied to and limited within my family, it brought with it the weight of succession. As the oldest child and the namesake, part of who it helped me become is someone who is never quite sure he has measured up, and yet feels the freedom to risk rather easily. My name has shaped my self-image.

Milton. That’s me.

And who, exactly, am I? I am a group project, that’s for sure – or at least that’s a place to start. I am a fearless cook because, from the earliest time I showed interest in cooking, my mother would say, “You watched me do this the other day; you do it this time.” I don’t know how many times I have heard her say, “If you can read a recipe, you can cook.” I believed her, so the statement has proven to be true. I have an aversion to math because of Ms. Gibbs, my eleventh grade Algebra II teacher. I remember the day I raised my hand and asked a question. I don’t remember the question, but I do remember her response: “I don’t have time for stupid questions.” From that day on, even though I placed out of math on my ACT, I have been convinced I don’t know how to do it well.

Chet Raymo shared this fascinating bit of information:
The Greeks believed that the eye had a double role in vision. They believed that a pale light went out from the eye to the world and returned again to the eye as a traveler returns bearing gifts.
In similar fashion, we learn to “see” ourselves by bouncing our self-images off of those around us, like a dolphin with sonar waves, to see what kind of response we get. Sometime, we get false readings. Sometimes we see new things. Either way, the circle – faint light sent out to see, and then returning full of images – continues; this is how we grow and learn, how we become more fully ourselves, regardless of age.

Last night in the kitchen at Duke, Abel, my favorite coworker, asked me in his lilting Guatemalan accent, “Do you like to read?” When I said, yes, he asked what kind of books I liked. I have to admit, I flinched a bit with my answer. I answered that I read novels, which is true, but I didn’t say anything about theology or L’Engle and Raymo. I returned the question and he said, “I like books that talk about life. I am reading Rick Warren and he asks a great question: what is my place in this world?”

One of the most amazing things about the Incarnation is that Jesus didn’t show up fully formed. He was born into being, like every other human, and left at the mercy of parents and relatives and teachers and random passers-by to be shown who he was, and who he could become. Sure, Mary and Joseph had some parental prompting, at least in the beginning, but I think about Jesus returning to Nazareth only to learn a prophet does better with folks who didn’t watch him grow up and I imagine his childhood was not easy for any of them. My brother used to talk about “the paradox of grace,” using Mary as an example. “Blessed are you among women,” said the angel (talk about shaping a self-image); “now let me tell you what you’re in for.”
when I find myself in times of trouble
mother Mary comes to me
speaking words of wisdom
“let it be”

and in my hour of darkness,
she is standing right in front of me
speaking words of wisdom
“let it be”
Jesus healed fearlessly, the way I learned to cook, and he never went back to Nazareth, much like I never went back to Algebra after eleventh grade. The faint light from his eyes brought back an image of one acquainted with grief and full of love and grace. I have to wonder if, perhaps, it started with him asking Joseph one day, “How did I get my name?”