Wednesday, March 31, 2010

lenten journal: replacement part

I trained my replacement tonight.

The guy who will take over at the Duke restaurant next semester worked alongside Abel and me to get a sense of how things work and, I’m sure, how he might do things differently once I have shuffled off to high school. He’s a really nice guy, a strong cook, and pleasant company for an evening in the kitchen. He got along well with everyone, asked good questions, and helped us through the dinner rush. Here in a couple of weeks he will be the chef and I will be, well, gone.

I am replacing someone else at school.

If all the world’s a stage and we are only players, most of our roles are replacement parts. We pick up where someone else left off, or just left, and inhabit the role until it comes time for us to make our exit and hand the part on to the next person in line. Sometimes we are the ones originating the role on opening night; occasionally, we are the ones who stand on the stage when the curtain falls on the final performance; but most of the time we are acting in the middle of life, playing our scene, and moving on. It true in things both big and small. On the way to work today, I stopped to fill up my car with gas. When I went inside to pay, I took the place of the person in front of me at the cash register; when I turned to leave, there were four people behind me all waiting for their moment in the contagion of life at the Family Fare. I walk into a nearly hundred year old house that has been the stage for more than one family in its life, painting their stories into the walls and breathing the fertile air of memory as it seeps through the cracks and into my soul. One day, we will walk away and let someone else play the scene.

The temptation is to try and leave some sort of mark, something indelible. When my brother was in high school, he had the lead in the musical for a couple of years. One year, the show was Half a Sixpence and one of the scenes took place on the beach. One of Miller’s good friends, Mark, played the part of a weightlifter on the beach (it was typecasting, trust me) and his task was simply to stand in the background, but he couldn’t help himself. He began to flex and pose, and he began to get noticed. He kept going and it got funny. It also took away from the play because we were no longer watching the main story unfolding because we were watching him.

That’s not how we get remembered.

“Remember me,” was what Jesus said as he passed the bread and cup to his disciples on the night he was betrayed. “As often as you do this, remember me.”

The motion of passing the bread and cup one to another down the pew during Communion seems good metaphor for the motion we must learn in life to keep learning and living. We reach with one hand to replace the one who received before us and we then turn to offer the tray to the one who will replace us, even as we all sit one beside another, connected. Being replaced is not being forgotten.

Though, I suppose, sometimes it is.

When we sing hymns, and even name hymns, we stop or breathe at odd places, breaking up thoughts and phrases without even realizing what we are doing. One of the hymns of my youth that has stuck with me we call “Take My Life and Let It Be,” ending the title in the middle of a thought, and unwittingly making a very interesting theological point, or even a prayer: God, take my life and let it be. Amen.

A prayer like that is speaking words of wisdom: let it be.

Yes, I trained my replacement tonight. When my two and a half years are done in a couple of weeks, the nights I am not there will stack up the same as those I inhabited until I have been gone longer than I stayed. I’ll be tethered by some friendships I made during these days that are larger than a dinner shift and are not defined by a kitchen and we all will keep moving through the mix of presence and absence that makes up our lives. I don’t know what to do with the mix of feelings, even though they are quite familiar, but it felt important to notice and remember.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

lenten journal: walking with martin

As I drove to the Duke restaurant this afternoon, Talk of the Nation was my soundtrack, as is often the case. I happened to join the program just as Tavis Smiley began talking about his program MLK: A Call Beyond Conscience, which looks at Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” that he delivered at Riverside Church in New York City one year to the day of his assassination. Though Neal Conan timed the interview to coincide with the broadcast, that it falls in the middle of Holy Week seems worth noting as well, even though it was unintentional.

One of the most moving aspects of Jesus’ journey to the Cross is that he never responded to violence with violence, though he had opportunity over and over again. One of the things I find in the Empty Tomb is the promise that peace outlasts violence. Any time we choose violence as a solution -- out of frustration or pride or power or convenience – whether we’re talking Vietnam or Iraq or Guantanamo, we choose to trust a fallacy that will only lead to deeper conflict. We choose to be cynics. We choose to sell ourselves short.

King’s decision to speak out cost him deeply, but he knew the cost before he spoke. Listen to what he said:

Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1954; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission -- a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for "the brotherhood of man." This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I'm speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men -- for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
And finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
In the middle of all of the discussions and arguments that are going on about our growing national deficit and our need to cut back spending, the conversation stays stuck on cutting social programs, when slashing our defense budget hardly enters the discourse. We spend a ridiculous amount to prepare ourselves to be the biggest, baddest SOBs in the valley of the shadow; we have convinced ourselves that being the most violent will somehow make us safer. It hasn’t worked. We may think of ourselves as the most powerful, yet we live motivated primarily by fear. We have more weapons than anyone else in the world and we continue, year after year, to spend more on defense than anyone else in the world and we are not safer or saner or even more secure. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result, we have proven ourselves insane, driven crazy by our fear while abandoning our faith.

At the risk of quoting King too much, I go back to the speech:
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
Imagine the explosion had their been twenty-four hour news channels in 1967.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word."
Imagine what could happen if we took these words to heart in 2010, even as we follow Jesus to the Cross.


lenten journal: found in translation

One of my friends from the Durham restaurant, Leonora, told me about a poetry class she has been taking at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. The class itself doesn’t have much to do with making documentaries, which I suppose means more than anything that the folks at the CDS are mostly looking for new ways to see things, whether or not it ends up on film. In one of the exercises she described, the members of the class were given a copy of a poem in Polish. No one in the room spoke or read Polish and no translation was offered. Their assignment was to decide what the poem meant to them, making whatever associations they could. When they came back the next week, they each presented what they had written and then were given the actual translation to see what connections there might have been.

As I’ve tried to focus my heart and mind on Holy Week today, in the midst of cooking, it strikes me that Leonora’s assignment is not a pretty good metaphor for reading the Bible: we have to take the words and make our own meaning. Yes, I know there are centuries of interpreters who have preceded us and plenty of commentaries and ecclesiastical councils to tell us what we are reading, just as there was an actual translation to her poem. There are also the readings where a “new” phrase appears as something we have never seen before, no matter how many times we have read the story, or we come away with questions we’ve not asked previously because of how we came to the text. Then there are odd little moments in the story, little bits of Polish to unravel, if you will, like this one from Luke 22: 7-12:

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover."
"Where do you want us to prepare for it?" they asked.
He replied, "As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there."
Jesus’ instructions carry a bit of intrigue because of the little details. When they entered the city, presumably unannounced and unscheduled, they would see a man carrying a jar of water; follow him home and ask for the guest room, which he will show you; go in and get supper ready.

Was Jesus doing some sort of Jedi Mind Trick? In a city with no running water, would there really only be one man with a water jar? And what if they had stopped for a falafel and beer on the way in; would they have missed him? How did he know the man? How did he know about the room?

My translation of the Polish in the passage is I think Jesus had friends the gospels never mentioned. We get a healthy dose of life with the disciples, with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, with Mary Magdalene, as well as the occasional contact with folks like Zacchaeus, but what we are not told is there were more folks who mattered to Jesus. There are stories we don’t know. And in these verses we get a peek at one of those people, the way you get a passing glance at someone famous driving by leaving you to wonder if you really saw who you think you saw.

What makes my translation more than recognition of an oddity is what the understanding means to me. I need to tell another story to explain. The first year I taught Honors British Literature in Winchester, there was a guy who sat silently in the back of the class most everyday. He turned in adequate work, but I could not engage him for the life of me. One day after school, I walked out to the sports fields to watch him and others in the class play lacrosse. I recognized him by his physical appearance, but there were no other connections between the kid in the back of the room and the passionate athlete on the field. After the game I went up to him to congratulate him on the win, and then I said, “I have one question. How do I get the guy who was out there on the field to come to English class?” Who I saw for my forty-five minutes a day of his life was not all of who he was, or even a reasonable facsimile.

Admittedly, I have more information about Jesus than I did about the boy in my English class, yet I think the parallel holds up. We have four fairly brief and often repetitive accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. We’ve got a pretty good telling of his birth, nothing much about childhood or adolescence, and a whirlwind tour of his three years out on the road. John says, at the end of his gospel, that we couldn’t build a library to hold all of the stories if they were told. But they weren’t. What we have is a representative slice of the life of Jesus, and some of it in theological Polish to boot.

Which means, to me, I need to live expecting Jesus to surprise me. As many times as I have headed into Holy Week filled with intention and focus, I must be ready to caught off guard by the guy with the water pot, whom I always assumed to simply be an extra brought in to fill out the scene. The more I think about him, I begin to imagine the disciples following him home only to be invited in for tea. As they talked about Jesus wanting to use the Upper Room, the man began telling stories of who Jesus was to him: how he had spent the night in that room many times, how he had healed one of his children, how hard he laughed at the dinner table, how much he talked about his disciples.

“I’m glad to finally get to meet you,” he would say. “Jesus has told me so many stories.”

I know about the Triumphal Entry and the Last Supper and the Trial and the Cross, but even in Holy Week there were lower case events, incidental encounters that were more than filler, and that remain unexplained and untranslated: Jesus’ Polish poems.

How did you translate them?


Sunday, March 28, 2010

lenten journal: palm sunday

We started on the courtyard
all waving our palm fronds
and naming them since we never
say frond except on Palm Sunday.

Before the hour was over
we moved from parade to
Passion, from courtyard
to Cross, in a couple of verses.

Tonight I watched basketball
and saw how quickly things
change, how triumph crosses
that thin line into loss.

For years, I’ve thought we
missed the point waving our
fronds in celebration, but
I think I am mistaken:

those who celebrated were
those who saw him crucified;
they were also, thank God,
those who came to the Tomb.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

lenten journal: more than a game

I was a sixth grader at Hubbard Heights Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas in 1967. My family was on furlough from the mission field and we were members at University Baptist Church. America was a foreign country to my brother and me. I learned that year that there were people who lived in one house their whole lives, what penny loafers were, and how to play organized basketball.

I should interject here that I am, and have always been, an amazingly average athlete. Since I was a part of Royal Ambassadors (think Southern Baptist Boy Scouts) with my friends at church and they all played basketball, I joined the team. They were good. I was not. After watching me at practice, coach kept me on the bench. But in one game where we were way ahead, he sent me in with two minutes left. I fouled out. My prowess on the basketball court has remained steady all of these years, as has my allegiance to the Boston Red Sox. 1967 was the year they played the St. Louis Cardinals to seven games, eventually losing, as they had done for many years and would do for many more.

As I got ready to go to school one morning, my dad asked me if I wanted to come home and watch the game with him. It was a time before television decided when the games started, so there were still afternoon games. He said, “Your team is in the World Series and we’re only in the States once every four years; I’ll write you a note to come home.” It remains one of the coolest things my dad ever did. I walked home and watched games and had my heart broken, like any good Red Sox fan. I grew up and went to Baylor, whose teams, traditionally, were accustomed to the near miss, which is to say they were used to coming close but not winning.

Then came November 9, 1974. Earl Campbell and the Texas Longhorns came to Baylor Stadium intending to beat us as they had done every year I had been alive and more. At half time, Texas led 24-0. Stories have been told about what Grant Teaff said to the team and legends have grown, but what we saw was a complete reversal: when the game was over, Baylor had won 34-24 and went on to win the Southwest Conference that year for the first time in fifty years. They left the scoreboard lights on all night long.

In those days, Baylor played basketball at the Heart of Texas Coliseum (that’s the HOT Coliseum to you and me), which was a rodeo arena. No one even thought about the NCAA tournament. We were not good. So to spend this weekend watching both the men and the women who play basketball at Baylor earn their way into their respective Elite Eights is as incredible as beating Earl Campbell and Friends that cool November evening. I must say, here, that the women have a winning tradition, bringing home an NCAA championship just a couple of years ago, but up until last week the men had not won a tournament game in fifty years.

My heart has been pledged to teams who have been occasional winners, if at all. This could be a year when we get a taste of new wine; it could also be another year when we come up short of that final victory. I am not used to expecting the former.

A big part of the reason my father wanted my brother and me to be active athletically was sports was the best metaphor for life for him. It was where you learned a lot of life’s lessons with less pain, he told us. Maybe he’s right. As one who was never fastest or first pick, I learned how to sit on a bench, how to share in the success that comes from what others can do. I also learned how to lose, which was an important lesson. I learned that sometimes you get to win, as well. And then I learned life isn’t life sports after all.

Even if it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game, life is not a game and our existence cannot be reduced to a competition. Well, it can, but then you end up with the ridiculous discourse spewing out of our pundits and politicians in the wake of who won and lost in the health care debate, for instance. When life is measured by victories, it becomes consumed with conquest and we end up believing what Vince Lombardi said about football, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”


To be a success in sports means you have to win. After all of the great games and touching stories, after all the buzzer beaters and overtime thrillers, all that will matter is who wins the championship. Sixty-four out of sixty-five teams will have fallen short, or (as my eighth graders are consumed with saying) will have failed. The point was to win. They didn’t. There is only one winner. That’s the seminal lesson of sports.

Life is not a winner-take-all competition. I do, however, think of it as a team sport. Yes, there are those who keep score, who consider who is winning, and who foul without getting called for it. But here’s the way the writer of Hebrews talks about it:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.
Don’t win; just run. Together.


Friday, March 26, 2010

lenten journal: play list

Ambition leads to the demand for the shortest path between points to gain the most in the least amount of time; wonder calls the heart to explore the unexpected, nonlinear paths that often create a new unity that could not be expected when one first began.
(from Sabbath: The Ancient Practices by Dan Allender, by way of Beth)

play list 
there is much
to be done and
I am tempted
toward efficiency
the rush for
the reward of
it won’t last
there is much
to be done and
I am called to
wonder wide-eyed
and open-hearted
the slow turn
toward eternity
the slow turn
like the eighth
grader dancing to
the music in her
juke box head
homework can wait
I want her play list
her abandon
there is so much

lenten journal: of prophets and pretending

Sunday morning I came into church a little late and slid into the pew beside the spouse of Carla, our Minister of Christian Education as she was gathering the children at the front for their time together. One of the things I love best about our church is the way our children are taught and encouraged to be a part of worship, and to feel that we are being taught and encouraged to welcome them. As Carla began, Lindsey nudged me and said, “Listen closely.”

Carla began asking the kids questions about various people who lead in worship treating like a quiz show, tossing out clues until the children called out the name of the person she was describing. “This person dresses up during Advent,” she began, “and comes down the aisle singing and pretending to be a prophet.”

“Milton!” they called out.

“Pretending?” I said to Lindsey. “Pretending to be a prophet? Really?” Then we had a good laugh.

As long as I have been a part of a UCC church, I’ve been singing and prophet-pretending during Advent. In fact, the first time the folks in Winchester, where Ginger had just begun as Youth Minister, saw me was when I came down the aisle singing, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” and then declaring, “I am the prophet Isaiah and this is the word of the Lord.” I got the part, then, because I had the long hair and beard to fit the stereotype. I’ve kept the part, now at three different churches over nearly two decades, because I love doing it. Oh, yes, I’m the great pretender.

And I think I’m in good company. Beginning with Moses, none of the Prophets We Know By Name was quick to claim their pedigree. In one way or another they responded to God by saying, “Are you sure you have the right person?” God persisted through their objections, they pushed through their fear and whatever else they needed to push through, and they grew into the role. Frederick Buechner, in his book on preaching, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, likened it to the story of the man who put on a mask of a handsome face to woo the woman that he loved because he thought he was ugly. When she finally coaxed him to take it off, he face had taken on the appearance of the mask. “You can act yourself into a new way of feeling,” my first therapist told me as I began to learn to deal with my depression. Whatever God, the Cosmic Midwife, helps to birth in us doesn’t arrive fully formed. We grow. We pretend. We become. We are born again and again and again.

Nora Gallagher’s account of her process of discernment as she moved towards the Episcopal priesthood, Practicing Resurrection, is subtitled, “A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace.” In one of the sessions she describes with her discernment committee (would that we all had one of those!), they pondered the question, “What is a prophetic priesthood?”

“I guess a prophetic priest would be someone who calls out of the people their gifts and calls the church itself into the future,” Ann replied. “Basil Meeking, the Roman Catholic bishop who preached at Dan Corrigan’s funeral, said Dan was a man who never lost hope for the future, that he was set free by hope.”
“A leadership that is too conservative and rigid is suffocating,” said Mark Benson. “And one that is too far out on the margins is too exotic and solitary. A prophetic priesthood exists between these two extremes; it would be generative and procreative.” (92)
Generative and procreative: calling us to be born again and again and again.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve painted the prophets as bearded know-it-alls, holier-than-thou curmudgeons who came to town to call for repentance even as they secretly hoped for fire and brimstone – a mean cop, a bad piano teacher, and a self-righteous television evangelist all rolled into one flaming mass of raging indignation. Maybe that’s why the talk radio and cable news channel guys get so much play. We’ve allowed ourselves to believe those who shout loudest and act like they know they’re right are who we’re supposed to listen to because they are so good at telling us what is wrong.

That’s not prophetic, it’s judgmental.

Prophets are those who imagine dry bones dancing and the rivers and trees bursting with applause. Prophets are those who are heartbroken by all that alienates us from God and from one another, those who call us to give hands and feet to our faith, those who live lives of discernment, as Gallagher defines it, “looking everywhere for traces of God.” And, in a country bent on being right and best and most powerful, prophets are those deemed either irrelevant or naïve, or even dangerous because they are looking for God in a culture where most are looking out for themselves.

One other thing: we are all called to be prophets. The guys with the books named after them stood out because they took the call of God seriously. That possibility is open to anyone who will say, “Here I am, Lord, send me.” The opportunity for any of us to live prophetically – generatively and procreatively – is right in front of us. We can be midwives to peace and civility and inclusiveness and hope and love, should we so choose to allow the Spirit to dance in our bones.

The reason we can change the world is not because we have a corner on the truth, but because we have stumbled into grace and are set free by hope.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

lenten journal: not normal

I started teaching at my new school just a couple of weeks before the end of the grading term, which means I needed books we could read fairly quickly. I’m also teaching eighth graders for the first time, and adjusting to younger students. When I found The Jungle Book in the supply room, I found help on both counts and, besides, we’ll get to watch Baloo sing “Bear Necessities” the last day of the term.

One of the questions I asked had to do with Mowgli, who was saved from Shere Khan, the tiger, by the Wolf Pack and raised as one of them, though he didn’t exactly fit in. Mowgli then goes back to the human village to learn what he needs to kill Shere Khan, but he didn’t fit in there either. Both groups benefited from his presence and talents, and what he could do that they could not, but he was never one of them: never normal. So I asked,

What do you think the story says about what it means “to fit in” in society? How does society benefit from those who aren’t “normal”? What problems do they cause?
One of the quieter kids in the class raised her hand for help. She pointed to the question and asked what I meant. “Do you think society benefits from people who aren’t normal?” I asked her. Her eyes got bigger and she sat up.

“Of course,” she said. “But there’s different kinds of not normal: there’s insane not normal that can be dangerous and there’s creative not normal that does cool stuff.”

“Does society make room for either one to belong?”

She didn’t answer the question out loud because she had already begun writing.

What Mowgli and Shere Khan shared “not belonging” in common. Khan began hunting on the Wolf Pack’s territory because he was lame and because it was close to the humans, who were easy prey. He arrived uninvited and put the Pack in danger of human reprisals, so they had no use for him. Mowgli was taken from his family by Shere Khan and then raised by the Pack, who gave Khan a cow in exchange. They saved the boy, and so they loved him, even though he didn’t fit in. And they let him stay until he quit acting normal. At the heart of what it meant to be the Pack was the ongoing discussion of who belonged and who did not.

The health and hope of any society depends on how they answer that question over and over. In all the flailing and fighting over health care and immigration reform, I hear the same question: whom do we take care of? At the bottom of both issues -- before we talk about cost, before we divide into partisan camps, before we get lost in and frustrated by the wrangling in Washington – is the question of who belongs, who we consider part of us, or perhaps better said: how big is "us" anyway?. The underpinning echo is ominous and convicting: Cain looking up and asking, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

We, like him, are often too quick to assume the question is rhetorical and the answer negative. It would be too costly to think of everyone as family. But the question demands an answer in the affirmative, if we are to take our humanity seriously, not to mention our faith. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper and that means it will cost us dearly and be incredibly uncomfortable and inconvenient and we will have to learn to live beyond our differences, and perhaps beyond our means.

We're not called to be normal.

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was killed while serving Mass by a single bullet to the heart that was fired down the center aisle of his church in El Salvador. In his early life, he worked hard to be apolitical and stay clear of controversy: to be normal. When one of his friends, Father Rutillio Grande who was an activist for the poor, was killed, Romero stepped outside of normal and began to make room for everyone. In one of his sermons he said:
Do you want to know if your Christianity is genuine? Here is the touchstone: Whom do you get along with? Who are those who criticize you? Who are those who do not accept you? Who are those who flatter you?
He wasn't speaking rhetorically either. He was paraphrasing Jesus' words: "Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my sake." And then there was the one about the peace makers. Listen to Romero again.
Peace is not the product of terror or fear.
Peace is not the silence of cemeteries.
Peace is not the silent result of violent repression.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
Peace is generosity, not silence. Here's what we're up against. We live in a society that is quick to ask how much it is going to cost when it comes to relief efforts in countries other than our own or universal health care, but doesn't show the same concern when it comes to the defense budget or the cost of war. Based on who the media say we are as Americans and how we answer the poll questions they ask, what I just described is normal. But it's not faithful. And it's not generous. And it has little to do with practicing peace.

Micah said it boiled down to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. Jesus said we were called to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Someone in the crowd was looking to find the appropriate boundaries for Jesus' outlandish statement and asked, "Who is my neighbor?'

He got the story of the Good Samaritan as a response. Forget the boundaries and the propriety that comes with being normal and privileged enough to cross over to the other side of the road. Forget about staying clean and safe. Be generous. Get involved in the messy details of anyone who needs help. Change your schedule, open your wallet, unclench both your teeth and your fists.

That last paragraph sounds as though I'm talking to someone other than me. I'm not. Regardless of my rhetoric, I find it far too easy to be a normal American and to make sure I've got all my bases covered before I start thinking about the generosity my faith calls me to live out. I like comfortable as much as the next person. I quoted Donald Miller last night when he said, "Leaders aren't cynical," and I haven't been able to shake it loose. All it takes is a radio interview with just about anyone in Congress and I'm convinced we don't have anyone up there who can think beyond getting re-elected. (I know that 's not true; that's where the cynicism kicks in.) I also know I am called (dare I say, "We") to do more than criticize or yell loud enough to get my way.
Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all.
Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity.
It is right and it is duty.
I know. It's just not normal. I mean crazy and creative not normal. I hope I get an incurable case.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

lenten journal: de-cynicing myself

I began this morning with this thought from Donald Miller:

Leaders aren’t cynical.
I found this song running through my head this afternoon, from Jackson Browne:
Doctor, my eyes cannot see the skies –
is this the price for having learned how not to cry
And it’s been a long day. I’m going to sing myself to sleep with these words, from Pierce Pettis:
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 know my words tonight are both borrowed and brief, but I will let Carolyn Arends sing me to sleep with Pierce’s words.


lenten journal: here in america

Here in America

we yell at each other as though
anger were a pre-existing condition,
and diatribe an anagram of democracy;
but screaming doesn’t make it so:
louder and truer are not synonyms --
the same goes for rich and smart.

Using poetry to talk politics
is like giving a homework assignment
to a gaggle of eighth graders:
you can talk, but most aren’t listening;
it takes, therefore, the tenacity of
a middle school teacher to try . . .

because both teacher and poet
can name names: immigration is
named Hugo and José and Miriam;
health care is called Stross and Fez:
the Word becomes Flesh
and the shouting cannot put it out.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

lenten journal: mirror, mirror

Years ago – OK, many years ago, my father and I were at a country fair in Cleburne, Texas. We walked around, ate fried things, and I remember enjoying the evening for the way it let him tell stories of his life growing up that I had not heard before. One of the things they had there was a maze of mirrors, and he talked me into trying it. We stood outside of it for a while, because you could see in and watch the people run into walls they thought were pathways. Once I thought I had a system that would work, I paid for my ticket and entered the maze.

My plan was this: I would walk, looking only at my feet. When I saw a reflection, I would know it was not a pathway; when there was not a reflection of my shoes, then I would know the way was clear to go. Now, we were at a country fair, so this maze was actually built in some sort of double wide trailer. Dad said he watched me start through the maze and pick up steam as I became more confident in my approach. Then I zigged when I should have zagged and hit one of the mirrored panels at full steam, shaking the whole trailer. My father was still laughing hard when I made my exit some minutes later.

I thought about the hall of mirrors this afternoon as I reflected on Ginger’s sermon on the lectionary passage for the week, John 12:1-11.

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
I love that the sequence in the lectionary offers this story following that of the Prodigal Son, which shows the boy’s father to be extravagantly forgiving and celebratory at the young man’s shame-filled return. The entire chapter of Luke 15 is made up of parables portraying a ridiculously spendthrift God who is up for a forgiveness celebration at most any turn. My favorite is the middle one, which portrays God as a woman who has lost a coin and tears up the house looking for it. When she finally digs far enough into the couch cushions to collect the runaway change, she blows all of her next week’s grocery budget throwing a party to celebrate.

That’s the extravagant-over-the-top-I’m-here-for-the-party love of God.

Enter Mary, kneeling before Jesus and pouring out a pound of perfume (nard) on his feet and then wiping them with her hair. From what I could find out, nard was something that came from the Far East and was ridiculously expensive, not to mention potent. She poured enough perfume on his feet to fill the entire neighborhood with her fragrance of love, and then she used her hair as a towel. Everything about the scene is over the top and a wonderful incarnation of the Love she knew had saved her.

Judas inserts himself into the story with a tone not unlike the Older Brother in the Prodigal parable. He can’t smell the perfume for the price. Why didn’t she sell the perfume and give the money to the poor? How could she justify that kind of extravagance? And Jesus told him there would be time to do things for the poor; she was making her best offering now.

Ginger did a great job of challenging our sense of extravagant gratitude, or lack thereof. As a committed, well-intentioned, social justice oriented, liberal Christian church, we are good at working and caring, and even giving, but extravagance doesn’t come easily. Ginger put it in terms that hit home. Imagine, she said, you had worked to save $2000 to give to the homeless and you found out someone close to you was dying and wanted to go to the Grand Canyon before he or she died. Would you spend the money to take the trip? If we follow Mary’s example (and Jesus’ as well), she said, we would take the trip and then start working on saving another $2000 for the homeless when we got back.

I got it. Don’t let Judas’ judgmentalism become a characteristic of my life.

Here’s where the mirrors came to mind. One of the things that has always intrigued me about the Gospels is they was they talk about Judas. It becomes readily apparent all four were written after the fact because they work hard to make sure you know Judas was a bastard from the beginning. In this account, John makes no bones about pointing out the villain:
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
BAM! The mirror hits me in the face in one of those the-only-people-I’m-prejudiced-against-are-prejudiced-people kind of moments. Even as the story points Judas out as the sinfully judgmental one, it judges him. Their grief at his betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane never allowed them to look at why he made the choices he made, or what was happening in his heart. He was a liar and a thief. Let’s all make sure we spit every time we say his name.

And I feel as though that leaves me to choose between Jesus being a terrible judge of character in choosing him, or choosing him because they needed a bad guy to make the whole crucifixion thing work out. I don’t buy either one. None of us is that simple to explain. Who knows why Judas said what he did about Mary. We don’t know his story other than what we’re told. We do know he tried to return the thirty pieces of silver after he saw what happened to Jesus and, when they wouldn’t take the money, he killed himself. His remorse doesn’t sound much different than that of the Prodigal Son coming back home, yet Judas found no one waiting to forgive him.

Shakespeare’s plays are divided into comedies and tragedies. The difference, it was explained to me, is the plot lines are basically the same except everyone ends up getting married in the comedies and everyone ends up dying in the tragedies. The Prodigal came home to a party. Mary found love enough to give her the freedom to respond with extravagant gratitude. And Judas ended up dead and alone, even though he heard the same stories and saw the same things Mary and the others did.

I’m not sure how to get out of this one. I look into the faces of everyone in the story and I see a mirrored reflection of myself.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

lenten journal: random thoughts

Thanks to a link from a friend, I sat down to these words after watching my NCAA Men’s Basketball Bracket go bust, thanks to the upsets of the day:

The world is a confusing place. Correlation looks like causation; the signal sounds like the noise; randomness is everywhere. This raises the obvious question: How does the human brain cope with such an epistemic mess? How do we deal with the helter-skelter of reality? One approach would be to ground all of our beliefs in modesty and uncertainty, to recognize that we know so little and understand even less.
Needless to say, that's not what we do. Instead of grappling with the problem of induction, we believe in God.
In the midst of the randomness that saw my alma mater, the Baylor Bears, win their second game in as many days, after a sixty year drought, I wished for my friend David, who died three months ago by accident and who have been hollering loud enough for me to hear him from Austin. The randomness of Facebook keeps telling me to write on his wall, and I do. I was not the only one who made a comment this evening. Thinking of David took me to another passage from Nora Gallagher’s book, Practicing Resurrection, where she writes about her brother’s death and her grief. She also quotes a friend who is also acquainted with grief and trying to come to terms with the presence of the absence of his loved one.
Mark called me later and said, “While I was hiking up Tunnel Trail, I was thinking about what we talked about and I realized that I needed back then for the priest to enter into poetry because that is where Phil is. He could have said, ‘Well, Phil is at the zoo now.’ Something that would clearly express the fact that he is gone, no longer literal, not here, not visible, but not absent, not without influence, not dead. The problem with the priest’s response was that it was literal, and Phil is not literal anymore! That’s why poetry and art are so important, because that’s where he is. 
“And to go on preaching my little sermonette here, that’s what ails Christianity, this literalness, this imprisonment with the facts of history. When it becomes this, with the insistence on historical authenticity and whether the water really became wine and Jesus literally being raised from the dead, then it loses its whole point, which is to show me where Phil is and to show us how to relate to the earth and be comfortable with mystery.” (67)
My day began with the third of four Saturday morning meetings o a group of us from church are studying the Book of Job. I was interested to find, when I began doing background reading for our study, that most of Job is considered a poem. The early couple of chapters, when God and Satan are deciding what can be done to the man, and the closing chapters, when God speaks, create a prose frame for the poetry of the cycle of advice from Job’s three friends, though their words are not particularly poetic. At one point in our reading today, Job responded,
I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking? (16:2, 3)
When it comes to the reality and randomness of life and grief and suffering, those of us around the table this morning were a well-informed group. If I were to make a list of the pain each one knows or has known and the losses they carry, it would not be hard to prove they understand Job’s suffering on an experiential level. Our discussion was not theoretical. As we talked about the conversation between Job and his friends, we realized they were trying to describe the moral order of the world, to find an explanation for why things work like they do. Somewhere, almost in our DNA it seems, we want to begin that explanation with the idea that good lives are rewarded with good things and evil lives have hell to pay, even though a quick read of the Bible or an evening with the Coen Brothers’ movie of your choice will let you know the universe doesn’t fit into that system. Still, like Job’s friends, we stick with it and end up deciding we must all be bad because we are all suffering, or our God is a violent God.

Neither explanation offers much in the way of poetry or promise. As we talked around the table, what emerged for me was a reminder that experience has more in common with poetry than explanation; and grace is poetry, as is suffering, in its own way. We don’t deserve either, yet they both show up without reason or explanation. And in that spirit, a couple of chapters later, Job says,
O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
In a random act of basketball, the Baylor Bears won tonight and made me miss my friend David even more. It makes no sense at all for him to not be here. There is not an adequate explanation, period. There is, however, poetry – in the sharing of Communion, in the telling of stories, in the laughter my heart hears when I picture him watching the game at a little pub somewhere in heaven -- words full of meaning and mystery that explain nothing and call me to Love.

And so I offer W. S. Merwin’s “Listen” (which I have offered before) because the wind in his words carries the breeze of the Spirit.
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridge to bow from 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
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.


Friday, March 19, 2010

lenten journal: re-reading our lives

Today was the first day of the week that I have not had to go from school to the Duke restaurant. Instead, I came home to cook dinner. OK, first I took a basketball nap, meaning I dozed off watching first round games of the NCAA Men’s Tournament, and then I went grocery shopping, and then I cooked dinner. Around our table tonight were Cherry, Diane, and Julie, each one of whom we have known since she was sixteen, though they each marked that age in different years. Julie, our former foster daughter, is visiting from Boston, so I made Chicken Broccoli Ziti, her favorite, and the five of us sat around the table for three or four hours telling stories that moved through time as though it were a big old house with rooms of memories that could be explored at will.

I received my weekly email today from the Utne Reader, one of the things in my life that allows me to get caught off guard, to find a link to an article about “The Fine Art of Re-reading Books” written by Richard O’Mara. In the middle of it he writes of a recalled memory brought to light by his re-reading:

Why, I asked myself, had I not retrieved these memories before? Why had I let them lie there, darkened by the decades that had fallen over them like soot? My mind, or the office within it responsible for organizing and filing memories, apparently decided to lock away those recollections for good. It took the late Herr Remarque to spring them. That these memories had nothing to do with the book itself suggests that anything buried deep in the brain, when dredged up, can have clinging to it things that have nothing to do with the object recovered.
The article caught my eye because I am re-reading A Passage to India because one of my friends at the Durham restaurant wanted to read it. The last time I read it, I was teaching British Literature at Winchester High School, and I am finding the faces and questions of my students between the lines as I work my way down the page. When I was asked to teach the class, I asked my department head if I could do something other than start at Beowulf and march down through the years. When she said yes, I gravitated to colonial and post-colonial literature because it was what I knew experientially from my days in Africa and it was the literature that moved me. I knew from experience that offering literature that didn’t move me was to offer my students a corpse of a class: we would find no life there. That first year I went from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (still one of my favorites) to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to Forster to Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, moving from colonialism to the days of independence, from separation to the first attempts at friendship across the divides caused by imperialism and conquest.

Ginger, Cherry, Diane, and Julie were all a part of my life in those days, though none of them was in the class or reading the books. As O’Mara said, I find the memories of the days we spent together stuck to the pages as I read again of Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested:
They had made such a romantic voyage across the Mediterranean and through the sands of Egypt to the harbour of Bombay, to find only a gridiron of bungalows at the end of it. But she did not take the disappointment as seriously as Miss Quested, for the reason that she was forty years older, and had learnt that Life never gives us what we want at the moment that we consider appropriate. Adventures do occur, but not punctually. (23)
The five of us around the table tonight, eating and drinking and talking, took me back to any number of Thursday nights at our home in Charlestown. For several years we had Thursday Night Dinners for whoever wanted to come. If you came once, you had a place card; once you had the card, you always had an invitation. You just had to call by noon on Wednesday to let us know you were coming. The number varied, but the experience was the same: long after we had finished eating we sat around the table talking and laughing and making memories, just as we did tonight. Yet, we didn’t sit down tonight to recreate something that happened years ago. We re-read our lives together and fell into the stream of memory and meaning that remains as present as it does past.

An author puts words to page because he or she can do no other, I suppose, trusting that answering the call to art is a worthwhile response, even if that response feels somewhat feeble and futile. How could the story of an old woman in India be a response to the British colonial enterprise? I don’t know how to answer that question with anything other than I am reading the book again, eighty-five years later.

Wait. I have one more answer. The story is as significant as our supper tonight. On this seventh anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, in the middle of the struggle for healthcare reform, in the silence and struggle that followed earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, in the middle of the change and grief and sorrow and hope that mark our own lives, we sat down for dinner together. We sat down with all of those who once gathered around the table in Charlestown, with the memories of our shared existence, and with the understanding that whenever the adventure presents itself we will be ready to remind one another to take the risk.

I left the table filled and ready for adventure, whenever it shows up.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

lenten journal: public safety

On my way from school to kitchen this afternoon, I had the misfortune of being on I-40 when they decided to block it because the Vice President was visiting somewhere nearby. He never came anywhere near the gang of terrorists parked around me. And I was thirty minutes late to work. I am puzzled once more by the logic of safety, and it came out this way this evening.

Public Safety
Joseph wasn’t sure if he was dreaming
when the angel showed up at the end
of the bed and said, “Don’t be afraid,”
as if he were stating a timeless truth,
rather than specific instructions.
Another Joseph misplaced his fear
on I-40 this afternoon. Wingless
and wordless cops blocked all lanes,
exits, and the bridge above us, so the
Vice President could speak unscathed.
When scared comes dressed like safety,
I picture that night in Nazareth,
and the angel who offered only a name:
God-with-us, as if that would be enough.
The roadblocks to Bethlehem are more recent.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

lenten journal: turns of phrase

I started rereading A Passage to India today.

One of the people I work with at the Durham restaurant was asking for books to read and I suggested my favorite of E. M. Forster’s novels. When she said she was going to read it, I decided I would go along for the ride. The flyleaf of my copy, which now has duct tape for the binding, says I bought the book in 1994, when I was working on my Masters at UMass Boston. I was taking a class on the English novel and wrote a paper on Forster, which required my reading of all of his novels. When I started teaching Honors Brit. Lit. at Winchester High School, I found a stack of them in the book room (the editions were older than I was at the time) and gave them to my classes. My copy has margin notes and markings in three different ink colors, for each of the three years I read the book with my students.

I remember passing one of them in the hall at school one day and asking her how she liked the novel. “It’s OK,” she said, “but you get so excited when you talk about it that I’ve kept reading.” I wasn’t two pages into the book today when I remembered why I got so excited. I love this book.

I’m a week and a half into teaching high school again and I feel like I’ve tapped back into something familiar and strong, like finding an old record album I listened to for years and having the songs come to life again inside of me. The heart of it lies in stories, but more so the living ones in front of me than the written ones I’m trying to get them to read. When I first started teaching at Charlestown High School, which was made up of kids from all over Boston, seventy-five percent of whom were nonnative English speakers and first generation immigrants, and she would say, “Whatever happens, don’t take it personally.” It took me a couple of years to catch on, but I finally did. I also learned that perspective works fairly well with most adults in any number of settings. The amazing thing about my job is I have a daily opportunity to be kind to people who are still learning what kindness is. Or not.

I got to thinking about it because of a phrase in the first chapter of Passage that has nothing to do with school, teenagers, kindness, or America, for that matter, but it set my mind sailing:

. . . so that new-comers cannot believe it to be as meagre as it is described, and have to be driven down to acquire disillusionment. (4-5)
We acquire disillusionment; it isn’t built in.

Forster is describing the colonial compound that sits on the mountain above the beleaguered city of Chandrapore, India. It’s location comes with the most incredible view that allows people to overlook the poverty and squalor that exists below. People had to literally be driven down to see what colonialism had actually wrought. The phrase hit me metaphorically as I read this morning and left me wondering what is capable of driving me down to disillusionment, and what bus I need to catch to ride back up and out of it.

The phrase also hit me because of another phrase I’ve been carrying around for a week or so, thanks to Nora Gallagher, its larger context being a prayer of St. Augustine that she quotes:
Keep watch dear Lord with those who work, or watch, or weep this night and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for love’s sake. (38)
As with Forster’s book, this is not my first time reading Practicing Resurrection, and that phrase caught me the first time around. Today it came back to me almost as soon as I read about acquiring disillusionment: shield the joyous. As tenacious as joy may appear, it is tender and vulnerable. A joyous heart is an open one; open hearts are sitting ducks. Shield the joyous.

Abel, my cooking partner, is a joyous soul. He works tirelessly, supports family members here and back in Guatemala, and is constantly looking to learn. I asked him tonight what he has been reading and he answered, “Cooking books.” He turned the steaks over on the grill and said, “And another book by someone named Rick Warren and it asks this question: what on earth am I here for?” He pointed his tongs my way and said, “That’s a good question.”

Yes, it is. Part of the answer is we are here to do more than acquire disillusionment. We are here to be joyous, and to shield one another. We are here, as the Body of Christ, to incarnate all the verbs in Augustine’s prayer: tend the sick, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous.

All for love’s sake.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

lenten journal: off ramp

In the shadow of the chapel steeple
we’ve simmered and sautéed all evening,
following the familiar patterns we know,
trying a few new things, marking time by
making dinners, passing plates, and,
finally, taking out the trash.

This morning, time was moved along
by turning pages, the clicking of keyboards,
and restroom requests; the tools of the
trade are stored in backpacks and we
made our day without thinking of
how long to braise the lamb.

A twenty-mile asphalt artery took me
from one world to the other, time travel
in a matter of minutes, punctuated by
a uniform change and a cup of coffee.
Neither knows much of the other;
I am a sliver in this Venn diagram.

My flight on the freeway puts me past
eighteen exits, or so, each one an off ramp
to another layer of life, another place
just like the kitchen and the classroom
where someone is telling time and
inhabiting the world they know.

It makes me want to exit early, stop
and ask, “What’s cooking?”


Monday, March 15, 2010

lenten journal: the next chapter

I gave my notice to my chef who hired me for both the Duke and Durham restaurants. Though my exit will be somewhat gradual over the next five or six weeks, I am leaving my job as a professional chef to return to teaching, and specifically teaching English in a small private school made up of students who need a less than traditional environment to survive. Though I have been thinking and praying about getting back into teaching for some time, this opportunity caught me by surprise. A call about a week and a half ago to sub led to a job offer, which led to my choosing to make the move.

“The Lord bless you in your going out and your coming in,” wrote the psalmist. Days like today remind me he is describing one motion that is both things: I am leaving and arriving with the same steps; what is a beginning is also an ending. The last time I had a job as a teacher was in the spring of 2001. I stepped out of the classroom when we moved to Marshfield, thinking I would write for a year or so and go back to teaching. I ran headlong into a deep depression instead, found my way to the kitchen (that phrase actually took about a year and a half) and cooked my way back to daylight. Now it’s time to teach again.

Growing up as a preacher’s kid, I learned what you do and what you are were pretty much the same thing. I can remember the night in the Charlestown Blockbuster Video, where I worked when we first moved to Boston, that I found myself desperately wanting to unlearn that lesson. I walked up to a woman who was looking for a movie and asked if I could be of assistance. She looked a little startled and then said, “Oh – no thanks. I usually don’t talk to the help in places like this.” Her comment created an existential crisis for me: I couldn’t be the guy who rented tapes; it had to be what I did. Period.

As valid as the lesson was for me to learn, I also know, regardless of what I might do for a living, I am both a teacher and a cook, and also a writer (though I must say writing has never paid much). It’s about more than a job. Both are deep inside me, and both have found their vocational expression at different times, and both are more than jobs to me. As I move from kitchen to classroom, I will keep cooking, just as when the motion was reversed some years ago I found ways to teach.

As a writer, I suppose I should have the best words to speak to my situation, yet I’m going to lean into a poem that has found me at several crossroads: Stanley Kunitz’ “The Layers”:

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
I find myself feeling grateful and humbled and hopeful and sad, as though all those emotions each ran their respective four way stop sign to come crashing into me.

I will borrow more words for my closing prayer from Dag Hammarskjöld:
For all that has been, thanks; for all that will be, yes.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

lenten journal: o, brother

A certain man had two sons.

It’s the way Jesus started a lot of the parables, including the one we call the Prodigal Son, which, I might add, is named for the younger sibling. It’s one of those stories I’ve heard so many times I can picture it without even having to think to hard, though I must say in my mind’s movie the story somehow fits better in West Texas than in Palestine. Maybe it’s just imagining the father staring down the dusty road day after day, and that he was able to see the boy walking way down the road, that makes it feel like his ranch was somewhere between Lubbock and Amarillo, or that barbecue was the celebratory food, but that’s how it feels to me.

Either way, the youngest son’s rebellion and repentance is the stuff of movies and novels, the kind of story that tugs at your heartstrings and lets the tears swell up with the violins in the background. It is a wonderful picture of grace. The boy demanded his inheritance, essentially telling his father he wished he were dead and disgracing the family, and headed off to the bright lights of the big city, losing both all the money and himself. When he bottom, he was slopping pigs and thinking their food looked good. Even going home as a total failure would be better than the way he was living. So he walked home, practicing his plea for forgiveness over and over and over. But while he was still way down the road, his father saw him and ran to meet him because the father had been waiting for him to come home. Forgiveness flooded in before any sort of confession took place, love conquered shame and sin, and all that mattered was the boy who had lost himself had been found.

But Jesus didn’t know when to quit. Even though there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, he kept going. There were two sons, remember? The eldest brother was coming in from a hard day at work, as he had done most all of his life, and was surprised to find a party going on in the middle of a workday. That never happened. When his father told him they were celebrating his younger brother’s return, the eldest son was not up for joining in. All he could see was he had been dutiful and compliant and dutiful and it hadn’t gotten him either the inheritance or a party. As Hoyt Axton used to sing,

work your fingers to the bone
and what do you get?
bony fingers bony fingers.
When the father tried to explain his extravagance, the oldest brother was incredulous: I did everything you told me to do and you’ve never even given me a goat to cook with my friends; doesn’t being dutiful deserve to be rewarded? In the economy of God’s grace, it seems, the answer to that question is, “No.” Love and forgiveness are not earnable. They are gifts – painfully free gifts. If we are being dutiful and diligent because we think it’s going to pay off, we’ve missed the point.

And the point is made well in a story from a book I picked up years ago called The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello. It is a collection of stories and parables from different faith perspectives. The story Is simply called, “Good News.”
Jesus began to teach in parables. He said:
The kingdom of God is like two brothers who were called by God to give up all they had and serve humanity. The older responded to the call though he had to tear himself away from his fiancée and his family and go oft to a distant land to spend himself in the service of the poor. Years later he was imprisoned for his work tortured and put to death.
And the Lord said, “Well done my good and faithful servant! You gave me a thousand measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of beatitude. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
The younger boy ignored the call. He married the girl he loved and prospered in his business. He was kind to his wife and children and gave occasional alms to the poor.
And when he came to die, the Lord said, “Well done my good and faithful servant! You gave me twenty measures of service. I shall now give you a thousand million measures of beatitude. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
When the older boy was told that his brother was to get the same reward as he, he was surprised. And he rejoiced. “Lord,” he said, “had I known this at the time you called me I know I would have done exactly what I did for love of you.
We don’t have to go to the far country or lose everything or be baptized in shame to understand the extravagant love of God, but we do have to understand extravagance. We do have to come to terms with a love that cannot be earned. Both the brothers thought they knew how to make life pay off. Both of them were wrong. One came home asking forgiveness, and the other . . .

Well, Jesus quit telling the story before the older brother responded to his father’s explanation. I wonder if the point of the ending was for those of us who hear the story to realize we are more like the eldest brother than the youngest when it comes to understanding that God loves everyone: the people who make more money than we do, the people who get the jobs we want and are less qualified, the people who appear to be president of the Dumb Luck Club, the people who do damage to others without apparent punishment, the people who disagree with us, the people who take advantage of us, the people who have no idea what real love is.

Yes, them. All of them. And us, too.

How do we respond to love like that?


Saturday, March 13, 2010

lenten journal: the church uncomfortable

I continued my reading of Nora Gallagher’s Practicing Resurrection and only got about five pages in when I a quote that brought the rest of the day rushing back to me.

A spiritual director told me once that God is found on the edge of things, in the margins. About a drunk who sleeps on Trinity’s porch he said, “You can ask him not to drink on the porch but you can’t ask him to leave. He lives in the part that makes the church uncomfortable and that’s where Jesus lives.”
We had a workshop on stewardship this morning at church. Eighteen of us gathered around the tables in the Fellowship Hall to listen to Jena Roy, a friend from Massachusetts, as she challenged us to look at how we see ourselves, who we wish we could become, what we worry about when it comes to our church, and what we would change. The group was engaged and engaging, working hard to listen to one another and to share honestly, and the morning was full of good things that left us with even more questions. And that’s a good thing.

We are a relatively small church (about a hundred and fifty active members), and we are a theologically liberal church that works hard to put hands and feet to our faith: we would be one of those “social justice” churches that frightens Glen Beck. As we listed the things that we saw as strengths of our congregation and then moved on to “stumbling blocks” and “opportunities,” we didn’t come up with three distinct lists. What were strengths to some were the stuff stumbling blocks were made of, and most everything provided the opportunity to make ourselves uncomfortable, which is where Gallagher’s words took me even though she was talking about something completely different.

The limits of our language come into play when we talk about our relationship to church because we use the same word for the physical building and geographical location that we use for the spiritual community we call the Body of Christ. We don’t have another way to describe what we do on Sunday morning other than to say, “I’m going to church,” but the separation in that sentence makes it problematic, at some level, when we want to say (0r sing), “We are the church.” When we talk about going to church, we think of it as a place of comfort and warmth, which is right and good, but when we talk about being the church we have to be willing to be uncomfortable.

As the conversation moved around the table, one person commented that we didn’t do our members a favor by suggesting they give two percent of their income to the church. “We’re letting ourselves off easy,” she said. Another, who is currently looking for work, said she has realized in the midst of her job search that, for the first time, she is taking into account the effect the job will have on the time on her life in church. “I’ve never thought of things this way before,” she said. The two comments came together for me in that being the church means we are willing to change the way we live to be a part: the way we spend money, the way we use our time, and even what we do for a job.

Part of the life of any institution is a push for self-perpetuation. The church is not exempt from falling into the pattern of using most of our energy to “keeping the doors open.” The call of the gospel is not to self-perpetuation, however, but to spend ourselves in the present, to not hold back. (Consider the lilies.) Our assembling ourselves together is, almost by definition, at cross-purposes with itself, pun intended. (Lose your life to find it.) And we haven’t even gotten to the relational energy it takes to be with one another. Most all of the epistles that make up the last half of the New Testament were written to deal with problems in the early church, with the questions and quagmires that grew out of trying to live together in Jesus’ name. The issues we raised around the table this morning were ours, but they were by no means original. This is the part of the church where drunks sleep and Jesus lives, where getting together matters more that getting my way, listening is a crucial incarnation of love, giving our offering is an act of discipleship and not a charitable donation, and committing ourselves to one another is more important that getting our way. After all, we are not a civic organization or a book club; we are the church.

Tomorrow night marks the last night of this particular menu at the Durham restaurant. Those who come to dinner on Tuesday will get a whole new menu of offerings. For those of us in the kitchen, it means coming into the same room to prep and cook, but to do so with new ingredients and new recipes, to set up the line differently, and to learn new patterns of cooperation with each other. The change is good, important, and uncomfortable work, and it’s the way the restaurant stays fresh. The church, like the restaurant, has its seasons, whether we’re talking about the liturgical calendar or the ebb and flow of life, and might do well to appropriate the metaphor. We might not have to ditch the whole menu, but we need a steady diet of change and choices that challenge us to see with fresh eyes and learn new patterns of faithfulness and compassion.

Our workshop this weekend was a new item on our church menu. I’m grateful for the work that went into making it happen, for those who gave their time to be together, and for the freedom we gave each other to made uncomfortable that we might see with fresh eyes where Jesus lives among us.


Friday, March 12, 2010

lenten journal: thirty-seven times

Abel spent the afternoon
prepping the vegetable plate:
slicing shiitakes and scallions,
reducing the risotto, and
spreading the mixture on
sheet pans to let it cool.
Then he enlisted me to make
the rice balls and roll them
in Japanese breadcrumbs.
He cut sweet potatoes,
blanched greens, and
roasted garlic to make
the cream sauce.

The thirty-seven people
who ordered the dish were
offered both a visual and
culinary treat: the sauté
of spinach and sweets
on one side of the plate;
the small swatch of sauce
creating a bed for the three
golden crusted arancini;
the last ladle of cream
draped across the top,
with a sprinkle of scallions.

But only those relegated to
the kitchen were fortunate
enough to see how tenderly
Abel stacked the sauté;
how he nestled the small orbs
on their side of the plate as
though they were as fragile
as they were flavorful;
and the affection with which
he baptized them with the
puree of garlic and goat cheese;
the smile that sent the dish
to the diners. Thirty-seven times.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

lenten journal: true colors

The whole scene arrived in the middle of a week when the story of the Prodigal Son is the lectionary passage, about as gift wrapped as a sermon illustration could be. Nomar Garciaparra, longtime and well-loved shortstop for the Boston Red Sox who was traded away, came home day before last, to retire. Though the terms under which he left in the summer of 1974 were not good at all, and it was the October that followed – and perhaps, in part, because of the trade – that the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in eighty-six years.

He has traveled to California and Chicago and back to California, trying to find his place. I must also say, for the record, that the Sox haven’t had a steady shortstop since. Every time Nomar came back to Boston, regardless of the colors he was wearing, the Fenway Faithful gave him a long standing ovation. We loved Nomar, even from afar. Besides, he was the only player we ever had whose name rhymed with homer, as in, “Come in Nomar, hit a homer.” (It has to be done in a heavy Boston accent – “Come on, Nomah, hit a homah” – and it rhymes the same way country singers think rain rhymes with string.)

Nomar knew it was time to retire and he also wished he could retire in his Red Sox uniform. Spring training is in full swing, and he is not playing for anyone. So the Sox offered him a contract: a one day, minor league contract that allowed him to become a part of the organization once again, and then he retired, at home. He’s happy and all those folks (like Ginger) who still have their Garciaparra t-shirts can wear them again. Nomar belongs to us. Period.

"The dream to play baseball in the big leagues started here," he said at his news conference held at City of Palms Park before the Red Sox played a spring training game. "I really wanted to have that be the last uniform I ever put on.”

As I was walking home tonight from the restaurant, I found myself humming a soundtrack to my thoughts about Nomar’s last homestand:

and I see your true colors shining through
I see your true colors and that’s why I love you
so don’t be afraid to let them show
you true colors true colors
are beautiful like the rainbow
In the King James version of the story in Luke, it says the prodigal son “came to himself” as he was feeding the pigs and realized it was time to go home for good. He realized he was prodigal, as in wastefully extravagant, and he had used himself all up, along with his possessions. The dictionary offers a second definition for prodigal: “giving in abundance; lavish or profuse.” We might also use the same adjective for the father, who welcomed his son home with extravagant forgiveness and a barbeque to boot. They shared a propensity for extravagance; the father, however, knew how to spend himself in love. Such were his true colors.

Yes, I’m a Sox fan and I know I might be stretching the story a bit here, still I’m willing to stretch because one of ours that got lost has come home. He was humble enough to ask and the Red Sox ownership were generous enough to find a way to make it work. What it means for Red Sox Nation is, when we tell our stories (and we do tell stories), we can say he is one of us. Whatever happened between 2004 and now is what happened, but the real story is he came home. And my guess is it was no different at the Prodigal Household in the parable. As they bit into the brisket, they told stories, too, of how the boy had run away, and how the father had pined at the front door day after day. “And then you came home,” someone said. And they laughed and cried and told the story again, talking, I’m sure, with their mouths full.

We are at our best with our arms wide open. It’s true for both Bible and baseball.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

lenten journal: what the kids said

I can’t say I have ever heard God speak out loud, but I think I’ve come close.

Whatever God’s voice actually sounds like, I think I come close to hearing it when our children lead worship. Last Sunday, they led our call to worship by lining up in front of the Communion table and singing with holy gusto:

I am the church you are the church
we are the church together
all who follow Jesus all around the world
we are the church together
the church is not a building
the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place
the church is a people
we're many kinds of people
with many kinds of faces
all colors and all ages
from all times and places
and when the people gather
there's singing and there's praying
there's laughing and there's crying
sometimes, all of it saying
I am the church you are the church
we are the church together
all who follow Jesus all around the world
we are the church together
Their singing was evidence of the Incarnation, shown in the abandon with which they inhabited the words they sang and the tenacity of their hand gestures; they weren’t fooling around. As they began our Communion service, they called us to incarnate our faith not only as we passed the Bread and the Cup, but also as we passed the Peace during the service and as we passed the snacks at Coffee Hour. I could hear them singing again as I read the words of Augustine at lunch today, quoted by Nora Gallagher:
You are the body of Christ and its members. . . . It is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table. And it is to what you are that you reply. Amen. (23)
“The Word became flesh,” John says at the beginning of his gospel. Paul’s use of the body of Christ as the metaphor for the church suggests the Word stayed flesh. As Mary Oliver says, “The Spirit likes to dress up like this: ten fingers, ten toes, shoulders, and all the rest.” We are the Church, the Body, the Word still made flesh: Love with skin on. Together, that is.

I love the line in the song that says, “The church is not a resting place.” I remember my father telling a story years ago of a person leaving church one Sunday morning and telling him they would not be back. “I don’t come to church to be made uncomfortable,” they said. If we are the church, then we are not only Love with skin on, but also Pain and Grief and Hope and Joy and Despair incarnate. We are people deciding to be together, which means to be both comforted and uncomforted. It means we ought to be looking at one another and at our world with the same holy gusto with which our children sang.

Though Gallagher had changed subjects somewhat as I moved on to the next chapter, I found a connection between Augustine’s admonition and her thoughts on prayer:
I have always been wary of the “surrender to God” school of prayer, which seems to make one more passive than is necessary in a relationship that doesn’t seem to encourage passivity. (39)
Listening is not a passive act. If I’m paying attention – attending to my life – I am engaged and alive. “Be still and know that I am God” is not a call to being a blessed blob, but a direction for discernment and intentionality.

Be still and know.
Come and see.
Take and eat.

Together, we inhabit the Mystery, we incarnate the Love: we are the Church. Together.