Sunday, January 31, 2010

church in the snow

Since we can't get to church this morning because of the snow and ice, I've put together a service of poems, songs, and a film clip. So, having gathered, let us prepare our hearts for worship.

Our call to worship is "Morning Poem" by Mary Oliver.

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches ---
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead ---
if it's all you can do
to keep on trudging ---

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted ---

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

Let us join together in singing our opening hymn.

Julie Miller will now lead our time of confession: "Broken Things."

Our first reading is "Poem" by Mary Oliver.
The spirit
likes to dress up like this:
ten fingers,
ten toes,

shoulders, and all the rest
at night
in the black branches,
in the morning

in the blue branches
of the world.
It could float, of course,
but would rather

plumb rough matter.
Airy and shapeless thing,
it needs
the metaphor of the body,

lime and appetite,
the oceanic fluids;
it needs the body's world,

and imagination
and the dark hug of time,
and tangibility,

to be understood,
to be more than pure light
that burns
where no one is --

so it enters us --
in the morning
shines from brute comfort
like a stitch of lightning;

and at night
lights up the deep and wondrous
drownings of the body
like a star.
Our second hymn will be led by Emmylou Harris and Robert Duvall: "I Love to Tell the Story."

Our second reading is "Thanks" by W. S. Merwin.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
Let us now come together for Communion.

The Gatlin Brothers will offer our closing hymn.

Let us go out with joy as Lyle Lovett and his Large Band offer the postlude.

Go in peace, live in grace, trust in the arms that will hold you.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

playing by heart

for Ginger

It doesn’t matter how long it has been.
Most any night, I can pick up my guitar
and my fingers will find their way to fret
and strings, and my voice meet the melody,
so familiar: “People smile and tell me
I’m the lucky one . . .”

The picking pattern is muscle memory,
which is my working metaphor this evening,
twenty-one years on since the first time
I saw you (I had my guitar then, too) and
we just began what has become a lifetime
of love together . . .

So even though we ain’t got money,
I am still so in love with you; I’ve learned love
from you, with you. The song and dance
of togetherness moves my heart in ways
as familiar and surprising as an old
friend of a love song . . .

You’re the girl who holds the world,
as you hold my heart, with tenacity
and tenderness, the one who is home,
who finds me in the morning as we rise
(you can sing along) and tells me
everything's gonna be alright.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

lost another one

It’s been close to ten years since I taught high school English, and yet this week I’ve had two occasions to go back to the Reading List and two occasions to mention Robert Burns. Three nights ago, I wrote about Of Mice and Men, thanks to Burns’ Night. Now, just three nights later, I am stopping to say thanks and farewell to J. D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye, a tenth grade literature standard with its own reference to Burns in the discussion of the title line.

Holden: "You know that song, 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'?..."
Phoebe: "It's 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye'!... It's a poem. By Robert Burns."
Phoebe is Holden’s little sister, and an awesome person at that. Their discussion leads to one of Holden’s most honest moments, when he talks about what kind of seed the misunderstood line had planted in his heart:
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.
I have loved the image since the first time I read it, and I think I love it more because its built on a misunderstanding. Here’s this kid in Manhattan who had no idea what a field of rye wheat looked like, much less why anybody would be coming through it, but he gets captured by the verb caught, the verb that wasn’t there, and all of a sudden what compels him most is saving the children from running to the end of their childhood. All he could imagine was catching them before they fell.

It seems fitting, then, that Ray Kinsella kidnapped Salinger in Shoeless Joe, the novel that was the basis for Field of Dreams (Salinger wouldn’t let himself be pictured in the movie, so the author became Terrance Mann). Catcher was the book that shaped Ray into the kind of man who would build it so they would come. He was the catcher in the corn, if you will.

The first class with whom I read the book was a tenth grade class in Winchester. Every class is a bit of a dice roll, when it comes to the group personality that developed, and this one began as a lovely collection of misfits, in a way, and became one of my favorite collections of students of any year I taught. There were Pat and Phil, two friends. Pat was extremely depressed and Phil was a big Labrador of a kid who loved life and cared for his friend. Pat got out of high school because Phil cared for and about him. Brigid was as free as free spirits come (still is, I’m sure) and dove into the book with as much enthusiasm as she had when she led the class in celebrating Rex Manning Day. And celebrate we did. I think all three of them, in one way or another, recognized parts of themselves in Holden. Me, too.

I don’t know what made Salinger become such a recluse, but it does create rather amazing irony that an almost hermit-like author could give birth to such a people magnet of a character. Salinger didn’t really want to meet or catch anyone coming through the rye, or even the door; to Holden, it was all that mattered.

If Howard Zinn worked to speak for the common people and tell their stories, then Salinger stumbled into speaking for American adolescence. I say stumbled, because I imagine that’s how he came upon Holden: he met a young man coming through the rye and decided to tell his story. Burns was the bridge between them.

Tonight, I am grateful for a man willing to listen long enough to hear a mistake underneath the lines of a poem, and to let that mistake give birth to a character that will now out live him for years and years to come, and continue to catch us before we fall over the cliff.

These are hard goodbyes to say to Zinn and Salinger. I never met either one, yet our chance meetings on the page caught me by the heart.

Thank you.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

so long, howard

After a busy night at the Duke restaurant, I went over to watch what was left of the State of the Union address with friends at the same house where we had gathered to watch the debates and the election night returns, which meant I was even later than usual getting home. When I got to my email, I found an alert telling me that Howard Zinn died today, at the age of 89. That he died on the day of the State of the Union seems somehow fitting.

I first learned of Howard Zinn through his book, A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present. I was out of college (with a history degree) before Zinn’s book hit the shelves, but I remember one of my professors challenging the way history was taught, for the most part, because he said it was taught, predominantly, by the winners: those who won the wars got to tell the stories. History, he told us, was so much more. The real history of a nation was in the stories of everyday lives, in what people ate and drank and talked about, in what happened to the losers.

Howard Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants, fought in World War II, taught at Spelman College, was active in both the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-Vietnam War Movement (alongside Daniel Berrigan): he was a man of passion, action, and deep resolve. He criticized his country because he deeply loved it. I love this description of Zinn by James Carroll:

Howard had a genius for the shape of public morality and for articulating the great alternative vision of peace as more than a dream, but above all, he had a genius for the practical meaning of love. That is what drew legions of the young to him and what made the wide circle of his friends so constantly amazed and grateful.
And that is why I’m taking time to notice that one of our most passionately burning lights has gone out: I have been inspired by his dedication, tenacity, and compassion, regardless of whether or not I agreed with him on a particular point. He was a man who trusted people, ordinary people, to grow and change. He is one who knew how to speak truth to power without becoming bitter or superior or cynical. Here he is, recently, talking with Bill Moyers.

Thanks, Howard.


Monday, January 25, 2010

of mice and me

Tonight is Burns’ Night.

Two hundred and fifty one years ago, on this night, the Scottish poet Robert Burns was born. Though I have a wee bit o’ Scottish blood in me, I’ve never been an avid celebrator of the anniversary, which Garrison Keillor describes as an evening when, “They read Burns' poems, sing his songs, eat haggis, and drink lots of whiskey.” Alas, the only whiskey in my house is Bushmills.

Burns stays with me for a different reason. As one who taught ninth grade English for a decade, I’ve read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men more times than I can count, inviting students into the sad beauty of George and Lennie’s life together. The title of the book is drawn directly from Burns:

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley
which is often paraphrased in English as, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

You may not remember much about the book. The fact is George and Lennie never had really big plans. Lennie was mentally disabled and looked at life with brutal simplicity. If George had had plans before Lennie, he had already laid them aside to take care of his friend. When they did talk about schemes, they had to do with saving money to get a place together, a dream that hangs in front of them until the very last scene of the novella. George explains it this way, when Lennie coaxes him to tell how they are different from the other guys working alongside them.
Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don't belong no place. . . . With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room blowin' in our jack jus' because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us.
What ultimately shapes us are not the plans we make, but the people we choose. I thought again today about the anniversary party I went to the other night. Though some attention was given to the various positions Rev. Cheek had held during his forty year ministry at his church, the stories that mattered were told by family and friends about family and friends, the laughter was as deep and resonant as the love that filled the room. Burns was right: the best laid plans won’t work out, mostly. What gives life its meaning are not our successes, for the most part, but those with whom we chose to share the failures, as well as the fun times. We call them our life stories, after all, not our life maps.

Here’s something Steinbeck wrote in his journal about a year after he published Of Mice and Men:
In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men; if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.
If I think of my life in terms of plans, and plans gang aft agley, it makes about as much sense as a street map of downtown Boston. I’ve gone from being a pastor to a chaplain to a youth minister to a high school English teacher to a chef, with a couple of detours here and there. I’ve not gotten rich, to say the least. If life is some sort of distinguishable path, I’m hard pressed to show mine as a success. The good news is I don’t think of life that way. Life, to use a borrowed phrase, is a journey without maps. We have to pay attention to the people around us in order to find our way.

Every chapter of my life has been filled with those who have offered love and encouragement far more profound than I have deserved, as well as forgiveness. As we close in on twenty years of marriage (this April!), I feel more than ever what I have said before: whatever any kind of final judgment may look like, I believe simply saying, “I was with her,” will be enough to validate my existence, for she is the love of my life.

I have had plans along the way; I still have some. To this point, none of them has worked out as I either hoped or expected. Still, I spent the evening cooking with Abel and Arnaldo and came home to Ginger and the Schnauzers, so I understand exactly what George was saying: I got a future because somebody gives a damn about me.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

it's my job

In the middle of the afternoon, as I was cooking for a friend and Ginger was sermonizing, as she calls it, she started reading MLK quotes to me, ending with this one, which she introduced by saying, “Here’s one I didn’t know.”

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.
Beyond its newness to us, the quote stood out because it made us both think of her father, Reuben. If there is anyone on the planet who took pride in the job he did, day in and day out, it was Reuben. He is the incarnation of the words from Jesus’ parable, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Reuben was first a milkman and then later a deliveryman for Golden Flake potato chips. Both the angels and the checkers smiled when he walked into a store.

I thought about King’s words later in the evening at the celebration of Rev. J. C. Cheek, who has pastored Mt. Calvary United Church of Christ here in Durham for forty years. The ballroom at the local Hilton was filled with friends and parishioners, full of laughter and stories about this man who has poured his life into his city and his church. One of his childhood friends turned to him and said, “Thanks for letting me say these things now, rather than at your funeral.” What a gift, indeed, for both men.

Last Sunday night, I caught the end of the Golden Globes when I got home from work. The festivities kick off what some in the entertainment industry call “Awards Season” (summer, autumn, winter, awards, spring), as the weeks ahead are filled with a bunch of different congratulatory celebrations, including the Grammys and ending with the Oscars. I like watching for the moments when someone is caught genuinely by surprise by the recognition, and a year doesn’t pass that I think about how fortunate they are to have chosen a career where awards are part of the package. Most people on the planet go unsung, regardless of how well they do their jobs.

One of the things I learned when Ginger read the quote was Mac McAnally must have read King, because the quote is an obvious inspiration for Mac’s song, “It’s My Job,” which Jimmy Buffet made famous. The first verse says,
in the middle of late last night
I was sitting on a curb
I didn’t know what about
but I was feeling quite disturbed
a street sweeper came whistling by
he was bouncing every step
it was strange how good he felt
so I asked him why he swept and he said
it’s my job to be cleaning up this mess
and that’s enough reason to go for me
it’s my jog to be better than the rest
and that makes the day for me
If you walk into the Dunkin’ Donuts in Charlestown, Massachusetts on any work day morning, the express line forms to the right. These are regular customers only getting coffee. Behind the counter, there is a Lebanese man who has been at the shop since it opened. Next to him is a woman at the cash register. The man knows his customers so well that the only words spoken are ones of greeting and gratitude. He simply looks about two people back in the line, smiles, makes their coffee they way he knows they like it, and then hands it to his coworker at the register. It’s his job.

At the Durham Ritz Car Wash on 15-501, you might think the small army of guys armed with towels would just give your car a quick once over before waving for you to drive away. Instead, you should plan on standing there a good ten minutes after your car has ridden through the automated wash as they hand dry the vehicle, clean all the windows, and even spray the tires clean. It’s their job.

On any given night he is working, my coworker Abel is out to make cooking history. He watches every detail, preps his station beyond expectations, and watches out for those around him and what they might need. If the night is slow, you will find him in the walk-in, cleaning and straightening things for the folks who will come in the following morning. When he gets ready to plate an order, he moves efficiently and intentionally, making sure his food is the best it can be. Every shift. It’s his job.

I wish the Golden Globes had categories for all of them. I hope those around them are extravagant with affirmation of their excellence. I pray for a spirit that doesn’t depend on affirmation to motivate me to offer my best work. I offer this poem by Marge Piercy, who does excellent work of her own and also knew of what King spoke.
To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Amen. I think I will ask Jimmy Buffett to sing our closing hymn.


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

Friday, January 22, 2010

hope and haiti

Part of my daily ritual is reading The Writer’s Almanac, both for the poem offered and for the historical notes for the day because they often set me sailing on the sea of my thoughts with their gentle breezes of suggestion. Today was no exception because I learned eighty-two years ago today Thornton Wilder’s Our Town was performed for the first time. Wilder holds a special place in my heart for several reasons, not the least of which is the play itself. I remember acting it out in my high school classrooms, both as student and teacher, always intrigued at how universally the particular lives of the people of Grover’s Corners spoke to students.

My most enduring memory of the play is Rebecca telling George about the letter Jane Crofut received from her minister, and the way the envelope was addressed,

Jane Crofut
Crofut’s Farm
Grover’s Corners
Sutton County
New Hampshire
United States of America
Continent of North America
Western Hemisphere
The Earth
The Solar System
The Universe
The Mind of God
I still feel what I felt the first time I read the scene, though I couldn’t name it then: visceral wonder. On the front of a simple envelope, Wilder captured the paradox of what it means to be human, to live lives of appropriate insignificance.

Wilder is also responsible for one of my favorite novels, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which is the story of a priest who sets out to find about the lives of five people who die when a bridge collapses, seeking to answer the question, "Do we live by plan and die by plan or do we live by accident and die by accident?" His search gives him more than answers. I also feel connected to Wilder because of one of my writing mentors, Timothy Findley, who was mentored by Wilder, now over a half a century ago. (You can read that story in this post.)

I had the chance to spend the afternoon with Don, an old friend from Massachusetts, before I took him to the airport. I gave him a quick tour of Durham, including stops for hot dogs and coffee, but the highlight of our time together was the endless stream of conversation that wandered through past and present, profound and mundane, stacking up our words like stones for another altar in our friendship. I came home to find the Hope for Haiti Now telethon on most every channel. Some of the music was amazing: Springsteen singing “We Shall Overcome,” Mary J. Blige’s cover of “Hard Times Come Again No More,” and Justin Timberlake singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In between the songs were stories of hurt and hope from the streets of Port au Prince and the call to help our sisters and brothers who are crushed and broken and homeless, our fellow citizens of the Earth, the Solar System, the Universe, the Mind of God. George Clooney opened the evening asking why we should help. He gave stark statistics about Haiti before the earthquake, when it was a disaster, like Darfur, unworthy of the 24-hour news cycle. And then he called us to have hope enough to rebuild what was not there before.

“Hope, like faith” Wilder said, “is nothing if it is not courageous; it is nothing if it is not ridiculous.”

The relief and attention being aimed at Haiti right now is crucial and beautiful and important, and it will not be enough. We will be rebuilding Haiti for the rest of my life – and that’s without another earthquake or hurricane, and long after the telethons have run their course, not unlike New Orleans and southern Mississippi. When I was looking up the website for the telethon, one of the links was to a news story about Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio each donating a million dollars to the relief effort. Jim Wallis was on The Daily Show this week talking about how the $150 million in bonuses the big banks were paying out could cover all the houses in danger of foreclosure until 2012. Big tragedies make us want to look at big numbers and wonder why those rich guys aren’t doing more. It’s a fair question, but if I go back and check the address, remembering that the ultimate neighborhood we share is the Mind of God, I bump up against the visceral wonder of the imagination that gave birth to us and built us to care for one another, and I catch a glimpse of the hope that helps to make us whole.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I’m not proud to be an american

she said, in that way one speaks
to get a reaction, or the way I titled
this poem so you’d keep reading.
I’m not proud, she said, because I
had nothing to do with it,

deftly putting patriotism in
a new light, a search light, under
the bare bulb of interrogation.

What, then, can I be? Thankful:
that I was born in a South Texas
town named for the Body of Christ
and not Port-au-Prince; pride,
perhaps, would be easier

because it requires nothing
of me. Gratitude guides me to
share what was never mine.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

think on these things

Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both. Now, when I say question the whole society, it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
I came across this quote in the swirl of life that has included the Haitian earthquake and aftermath, the wrangling over the health care bill, the polarizing election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts, a day at work fraught with relational issues, and an evening of cooking and talking with Mitch and Arnaldo at the Duke restaurant that reinforced both my faith and my sanity.

I’ve spent the last hour trying to find the words for this next paragraph and have only written words that feel as though they add to the cacophony of incivility that rules the day, rather than offering a word of encouragement. In short, I don’t want to add to the crap, so let me tell you what happened last night.

I found out over the weekend that my father is going to Cuba on Friday with a group from Baylor. When Arnaldo, our Cuban dishwasher, came to work yesterday I told him what my father was going to do. Arnaldo came to America as a part of the Mariel boatlift of 1980. He has not been able to return to Cuba for thirty years. And he asked me this question: “If I can get the phone numbers, can your father call my family and tell them I’m OK?”

Yes. The answer is Yes. Think on these things.


Monday, January 18, 2010

a prayer for today

This was yesterday’s poem at The Writer’s Almanac:

The More Loving One
by W. H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
As the day calls us to reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. King, I am aware of how little our culture at large either values or cultivates the kind of integrity and leadership he incarnated. Though we give him a holiday, we are hard pressed as a nation to say we share his values as primary. As my frustration with the dearth of leadership in our country grows, I find myself drawn to the power of the individual actions of those who have chosen to be the more loving ones, to the small and significant actions that truly do change the world. Certainly King had great changes in mind for our nation as a whole, yet what actually brought the change were young people sitting down at lunch counters, or marching down highways, taking seats at the front of the bus, or giving rides to those who honored the bus boycotts.

So I’m taking the poem as my prayer for today, and, I imagine, for several more days to come: Let the more loving one be me. Whether or not the world changes, I hope the prayer changes me.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

music for martin

As we prepare to observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday, many of us will also take time to make it a part of our worship services as well. I thought I might offer a soundtrack for the weekend, starting with "When the Ship Comes In" by Bob Dylan, which he sang at the March on Washington where King delivered "I Have a Dream."

The second song is a U2 standard: Pride(In the Name of Love).

Patty Griffin's tribute song is called "Up to the Mountain."

James Taylor calls us to remember there are ties between us all in "Shed a Little Light."

Here's Bruce Springsteen's offering of "Eyes on the Prize."

I close with Mavis Staples singing "99 & 1/2."

May all the words we hear fall on fresh ears and open hearts.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I would like to say something

about the images of buildings lying
flat on top of people, of survivors
sleeping in the streets because
roofs no longer symbolize safety;

about those who sit snugly in
studios and speak for God with
ungodly arrogance and ignorance,
and those who are helping quietly;

about the helplessness that haunts
my heart on nights like this, when
the best I can do is write and wonder
why that’s the best I can do.


P. S. -- There are new recipes here and here.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

hands of kindness

I wish I knew how it all began. Maybe it was the cold snap last weekend, but then again, maybe not. Something happened, though, and all I was left with was a perfectly viable Internet connection and a MacBook that couldn’t find it. Ginger’s laptop could, but not mine. I let it sit for Friday and Saturday, because I was working, tried to see what I could figure out on Sunday; by Monday I was doing my impersonation of Blanche DuBois: forced to rely on the kindness of strangers by calling Apple tech support.

The guy was personable and engaging, even as he informed me that my computer was past its service contract, which meant I would need to pay for help, and then he said, “But let me take a few minutes to see if I can help.” Forty-five minutes later, I knew more about what it wasn’t, but could do little more than say goodnight and go to bed. Today, I decided to call again. A woman answered this time, informed me of my lapsed contract, and then said, “But let me see if I can help.” She gave me a good half hour of her time, finally passing me on to the Wireless Dept. of Apple Help, and to one more person who also told me I would need to pay for a service contract and then said, “But let me see if I can help.” He took me through some screens and maneuvers previously unknown to me and finally said the problem was with my DSL modem, which meant I needed to call Verizon. I was so far in already, I decided to keep going. I learned, first, that Verizon had a specific Mac department, so I got to make a second call and talked to yet another nice tech support person who had a whole new set of exercises for me to try. Just when it appeared I had flummoxed my fourth techie, he asked if he could “share my screen” and soon he was moving things around on my computer while I sat and watched. One of the windows he opened was one I had looked at with everyone I talked to. He stopped and asked if a small box at the bottom of the screen was checked. (I would give you more specifics, but I’m scared to open that window again for fear of changing something.) I told him it was, and he said, “That’s the problem. That box should not be checked. It’s often the problem, but it is such an insignificant thing that we often forget to look at it.”

And, with the click of a mouse, my problem was solved. OK, three hours later and a click of the mouse, but, hey, I’m back in business thanks to four very patient and personable people whom I met because I needed help.

And they helped me.

My morning began with my joining the story of Miep Gies already in progress on NPR’s Morning Edition. Gies is the person who hid Anne Frank and her family; the story was marking her death on January 11; at 100, she was the last of the Dutch citizens who hid the Franks from the Germans. I was struck, in particular, by this section of the story.

MIEP GIES: I, myself, I'm just a very common person. I simply had no choice. I could foresee many, many sleepless nights and a life filled with regret if I would have refused to help the Franks. And this was not the kind of life I was looking for at all.

TERI SCHULTZ (NPR Correspondent): Gies explained another motivation for emphasizing her modesty. She said if people are allowed to think it takes remarkable qualities to act boldly on behalf of others, few will attempt it.

Ms. GIES: People should never think that you have to be a very special person to help those who need you.
I suppose the truth in her words applies whether or not one’s life is on the line. I don’t mean to think of the kindness I received to carry the same weight as what Miep Gies did for Anne and her family, but I do think it’s the same motion. The difference is in degree, not substance. We were built to be kind, to be helpers, if we are willing to exercise those muscles.

On the same Friday night my Mac lost its way, Ginger and I spent some time at her favorite sermon incubator, the Starbucks on Guess Road. I didn’t yet know of my dilemma because I took only a book – one of my Christmas presents – Ed Dobson’s The Year of Living like Jesus. Dobson is a retired pastor who has ALS and decided to spend a year trying to live – eat, worship, act, speak, be – like Jesus as much as possible. As you can imagine, it was not an easy year. What struck me as much as anything was the way his search for Jesus pried open his heart to experience life with more compassion. We left the coffee shop in what was becoming a bitterly cold evening (even by Boston standards) and were talking as we drove home. Then Ginger said, “Maybe we should give the person at the bus stop a ride.”

I hadn’t seen a person or a bus stop, but I made a u-turn on what was an empty street, and we drove the two or three blocks back to where she was. Ginger rolled down the window and asked her if she wanted a ride. “Yes Ma’am,” she said, and got in the car. She was in her twenties, I figured out from what she told us of her story, and was on her way to see a friend. Durham is not that big a city, so we were only eight or ten minutes from her destination. We dropped her off and worked our way back home, wondering out loud why we didn’t pay more attention to lonely souls standing at bus stops. I was grateful we stopped; I was even more grateful for Ginger’s eyes. We may not have to be special people, you see, but we do have to look for one another.

Bob Bennett
wrote a song many years ago on his Small Graces CD that I keep coming back to, and I thought of it again tonight. The chorus says, simply:
there’s a hand of kindness holding me
theres a hand of kindness holding me
holding on to me
I have learned (again) that kindness is not an abstraction; it is hands-on stuff. And we are the hands.


Monday, January 11, 2010

a few small repairs

I'm sorry I've been silent for a few days. The problem is with my MacBook, not me. For some reason, I can't get on the Internet here at the house, which makes it hard to post. I'm writing now from Ginger's computer that doesn't appear to share my Mac's reticence to engage. I will be back soon.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

dinner music

I was reading Donald Miller’s blogPart 2 of a great duo of posts on “Living a Memorable Life,” this one on making memorable scenes – and I was particularly struck by his discussion of the power of a detail: change a the power of a scene by changing the setting. Sometimes a seemingly small detail can alter the whole experience.

Ginger and I have owned three homes, and in each one the kitchen has played a central role. Well, let me rephrase that. In our two homes in Massachusetts, the kitchen was the central room to our story in many ways. Because of my work schedule in Durham, dinnertime has not been what we are accustomed to. Actually, for the most part, dinnertime has not been, and we both miss it severely and are determined it will not always be so. We like each other too much to not share our meals, and we like the home it creates and the people that gather around our table. But, because of life as it is right now, the kitchen in our home has not found its place, if you will, in our story. And then Ginger and her mother changed one detail: they gave me an under the cabinet CD player/radio for the room. Both our kitchens before had music, and I have missed it.

The unit was sold out over Christmas and was delivered today. Needless to say, I installed it today and then went scrounging through my CDs for some music to cook and eat by, since Duke has not resumed classes and I had the night off. I got to cook dinner for the two of us – and to sing along as I did. There’s hope for this little kitchen all because of one detail: we are going to create some memorable scenes here as well, I can feel it.

Tonight, I offer a music sampler of some of the soundtrack of our evening, hoping they help to tune your heart towards memory making.

First, Jackson Browne singing “These Days.”

Mary Chapin-Carpenter: “Why Walk When You Can Fly”

I love this guy’s voice: Ray Montagne’s “Trouble”

A dip back into the Eighties: Lone Justice singing “Shelter”

I’ll let Jackson close things out: “For a Dancer”

On this day of the Feast of Epiphany, I’ll close with a quote from Twelfth Night (which was last night): “If music be the food of love, play on.”



Tuesday, January 05, 2010

check yourself before you wreck yourself

Today was one of the first days in a long time that I had some morning traveling time: I had to drive to Cary, about twenty miles away, for an appointment with my eye doctor, which meant I got to drive home with my eyes dilated and NPR on the radio. I only stopped once: I pulled over to make some notes to come back to this evening.

The story that grabbed me concerned a doctor in Boston, Atul Gawande, and his new book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Here’s part of the transcript from the story:

"Our great struggle in medicine these days is not just with ignorance and uncertainty," Gawande says. "It's also with complexity: how much you have to make sure you have in your head and think about. There are a thousand ways things can go wrong."

At the heart of Gawande's idea is the notion that doctors are human, and that their profession is like any other.

"We miss stuff. We are inconsistent and unreliable because of the complexity of care," he says. So Gawande imported his basic idea from other fields that deal in complex systems.

"I got a chance to visit Boeing and see how they make things work, and over and over again they fall back on checklists," Gawande says. "The pilot's checklist is a crucial component, not just for how you handle takeoff and landing in normal circumstances, but even how you handle a crisis emergency when you only have a couple of minutes to make a critical decision."

This isn't the route medicine has traveled when dealing with complex, demanding situations. "In surgery the way we handle this is we say, 'You need eight, nine, 10 years of training, you get experience under your belt, and then you go with the instinct and expertise that you've developed over time. You go with your knowledge.' "

To see if surgeons might perform better if the intricate steps necessary to avoid catastrophe were made explicit, Gawande and a team of researchers studied what happened when doctors used a reminder — what Gawande calls "a bedside aide" — to navigate complex procedures. (Click to see a sample Surgical Safety Checklist.)

"We brought a two-minute checklist into operating rooms in eight hospitals," Gawande says. "I worked with a team of folks that included Boeing to show us how they do it, and we just made sure that the checklist had some basic things: Make sure that blood is available, antibiotics are there."

How did it work?

"We get better results," he says. "Massively better results.

"We caught basic mistakes and some of that stupid stuff," Gawande reports. But the study returned some surprising results: "We also found that good teamwork required certain things that we missed very frequently."

Like making sure everyone in the operating room knows each other by name. When introductions were made before a surgery, Gawande says, the average number of complications and deaths dipped by 35 percent.
I got a great stack of books for Christmas. The one I picked up first was Ed Dobson’s The Year of Living like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do, which is a collection of his journal entries from his year of trying to live and eat and worship and treat people the way Jesus did. The entries are honest and interesting. I find myself a bit surprised that his life appears to be more complicated, rather than simplified, by his decision to live like Jesus. He does trim some things from his existence and learns to observe Shabbat and some of the dietary laws, all of which seem simpler, but he also picks up some things that have nothing to do with Jesus’ life in Palestine two millennia ago and yet seem to fit right in. Part of his commitment is to read the Gospels every week and to pray. His search for Jesus and for prayer has led him to learn how to pray with a rosary, an Orthodox prayer rope, and Episcopal prayer beads, all of which are new layers of life for a retired evangelical pastor with ALS.

I had just finished a section about the different prayer beads when I was called in to see the doctor and was intrigued by the ordering of thought and focus the different strings of beads and knots brought to Dobson’s prayers. He doesn’t write as one who understands everything he’s doing; he just writes down what he feels and experiences. When I heard the checklist story, I wondered if the beads didn’t provide some of that function: an ordering of what needs to happen in prayer for the heart to find its way home. (I don’t have the answers either – I’m just writing things down, as well.)

One of the prayers he talks about is the “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I first remember learning that prayer during a revival when I was on staff at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth. James Fanning was our preacher and, among other things, spoke at breakfast each day; one of those mornings he talked about the Jesus Prayer. Later that week, the wife of one of our staff members was killed when the propane tank attached to the house in the country where they were soon to retire exploded. I remember her husband saying the only words he found that kept him connected at all were those in the prayer, which he said over and over for hours in the night. I grew up in a tradition that taught me written and memorized prayers weren’t real prayers; Spirit-filled prayers were the ones made up on the spot. Following Dobson as he counts beads and knots, saying prayers passed down for centuries, and thinking of my colleague who found solace in those same well-worn paths to God, challenge me to think, as one who struggles with how to pray, I would do well to lean into these spiritual checklists, if you will, that are about far more than habit.

What Gawande says of hospitals is true of life: our great struggle is not just with ignorance and uncertainty, but also with complexity and how much we have to make sure we have in our heads and think about. One of Ginger’s touchstone book was also written by a Bostonian: It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys: The Seven-Step Path to Becoming Truly Organized by Marilyn Paul. She offers what she calls the “thirty second check” on the way out the door – keys, wallet, phone, etc. – as a way to make sure you leave the house prepared for your journey, wherever it may be.

I have more to say about checklists and where the story took me than I can fit in here. As one who works in a world that thrives on prep lists (as we call them) to make sure we have everything ready for dinner, and as one who is committed to being a part of a community of Christian believers that are not as aware of how some checklists might help us, I’ve probably got a couple more posts around this idea to pass along as they ripen. For now, I go back to Gawade’s regard for pilots.
One of the things that struck me about the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when “Sully” Sullenberger brought the plane down that saved 155 people after it was hit by geese over Manhattan and landed it in the river was that over and over again we wanted to say, “Look at this hero who piloted this plane down,” and the striking thing was how much over and over again he said, “There was nothing that hard about the physical navigation of this plane.” Instead he kept saying “it was teamwork and adherence to protocol.”
Protocol may not be a particularly theological word, but ritual is: intentional repetition. Those pilots landed that plane safely in the river because they knew the steps to follow. My colleague found in the Jesus Prayer the ritual that gave his broken heart some sense of God’s comfort and love. We shared Communion together Sunday, and the deacons came early to practice how we do it: to go over our checklist, to remind us that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ. May we repeat ourselves as though our very lives depended on it.


Monday, January 04, 2010

what's in a name

It was on January 3, 1899 that The New York Times used the word "automobile" in an editorial, the first known use of that word in English.

What would eventually come to be known as automobiles were still very new items, and the first mass production of them in America was two years away. The New York Times seemed equally disturbed by the machines themselves and the fact that there was no good word for them. It concluded: "There is something uncanny about these new-fangled vehicles. They are all unutterably ugly and never a one of them has been provided with a good, or even an endurable, name. The French, who are usually orthodox in their etymology if in nothing else, have evolved 'automobile,' which, being half Greek and half Latin, is so near to indecent that we print it with hesitation."
-- from The Writer’s Almamac

what's in a name

one of the first tasks given
to our first human beings
was to name the creatures
that surrounded them
from hydrax to hippopotamus
aardvark to arachnid

creation on a first name basis

we’ve moved on beyond zebra
to try and name our own devices
machines and ideas that fill
up our minds and cities
faster than we can come to
terms with our inventions

existence in the crush of anonymity

the world is exploding with
both hatred and hope
stand here and call me
by name by my name
and I will call yours then
together we will name Love

the Love that named us first

Sunday, January 03, 2010

the beckonings of God

It’s not everyday I think of Jon Cryer and George Buttrick at the same time, but I did today. Our associate pastor quoted Buttrick in her sermon this morning as she talked about the Magi:

So we may notice here the beckonings of God.
Beckoning: it’s a great word, and it set my mind sailing until, before I knew it, I had landed on the shores of a memory, of a movie, and there was Jon Cryer, but I remembered him as Duckie. The movie was Pretty in Pink and he was Molly Ringwald’s oddball friend. At the very end of the movie, when they go to the prom together so she can show that Andrew McCarthy she’s just fine without him, true love wins out (as it does in most every John Hughes movie) and Duckie is left watching the two of them walk away. Then he turns around to stare across a room he knows is uninviting and he sees a beautiful girl checking him out. Then she smiles: she beckons for him to come to her. At first, he is puzzled, then intrigued, and then he regains his confidence and steps towards her as the credits roll.

I went searching for the Buttrick quote when I got home from the restaurant and found two things: one, George liked to talk about beckonings, and did so on more than one occasion; and, two, I’ve been swimming for awhile in his stream of thought without knowing. One of his quotes reminded me of something Chet Raymo said (quoting John Burroughs) in my Advent reading about hints and finding things new. Here’s George:
God’s beckonings are always by hint and gleam, lest we be coerced.
I haven’t seen the new movie, Avatar, but consistent reviews have been the story is predictable, but the special effects and cinematographic tricks blow you away, so you forgive the worn out story line. New ways to use CGI may make millions of dollars for James Cameron, but they don’t make for good theology. Our God, though capable of most anything, rarely chooses the big splash, the high tech trick, the crowd pleaser. The tempter said to Jesus, “Turn the stones into bread and everyone will follow you; jump off the building and let the angels catch you and see how many disciples you get that way.” Jesus wasn’t buying then anymore than God was in bringing the Baby into the world surrounded by shepherds and straw. The way God chooses to draw us into the story is a little less Hollywood, and a little more Sundance, I suppose: by hint and gleam. Samuel waited in the night to hear his name called; Elijah let the storm pass so he could listen to the silence; Mary Magdalene saw the empty tomb, but didn’t get the hint until she heard Jesus call her name.

We were all packed into the ball park for David’s service, and Billy Crockett invited us to sing along with "The Depth of God's Love" a song that brought back many memories of hints and gleams for me. The bridge says:
love expressed in earthy ways
a sturdy hand a smiling face
with graceful eyes that see beneath
what others see and seldom reach
Beckonings: small, sure invitations to open, often unsure hearts.

Maybe that’s why I thought of Duckie in the middle of morning worship. He worked hard to be different, at least in part, because it hurt to much to come to terms with the truth that he didn’t fit in. In the same way I shave my already balding head, he chose to make the inevitable look like a choice. Underneath his stylish (at least to him) exterior, was a lonely young soul. Andie (Molly Ringwald) was his One True Friend. Surely she would wake up one day and realize he was the only one good enough for her. That’s what he thought would happen at the prom, and she walked away with her love, leaving her best friend behind as her best friend. Life wasn’t turning out the way Duckie had planned it, or had even hoped for it. And then came the beckoning.

I’m not talking happy endings here. I’m saying (to myself), that life doesn’t always rise to meet our expectations doesn’t mean all is lost, or even most is lost. It means its time to look for the hint, the gleam, the wave from across the room that lets us see ourselves through the graceful eyes of our God so we can move on to find the next hint that will help us find our way home.

At least that’s the hint I found this morning.


Friday, January 01, 2010

words to live by

To kick off the new year, I want to reach back to words from my friend, David Gentiles. This quote was printed on the order of service at his memorial. It captures his spirit and is worth passing along:

Well, I know that when you've been betrayed and attacked and hurt, you sometimes just throw in the towel and decide, like Paul Simon, that you are going to be a rock and feel no pain, and to be an island and never cry . . . just feel like you can't bear another disappointment . . . but love is always worth the risk -- always -- and sometimes you will be disappointed . . . and sometimes, when you reach out your hand, it will be slapped, but love is always worth the risk."
Yes. Yes. Yes.