Monday, August 30, 2010

capitulating to can't

During the middle of my junior year in high school, my family moved to Houston, Texas and I became a student at Westbury High School. I knew no one in the building and began as a new student in January. It was the worst transition of any of the several transitions I made from school to school as a missionary kid.

I don’t remember if it was that semester or the next, but I do remember it in was Algebra II where I encountered the worst teacher I ever had. (I also remember her name but am choosing not to write it here.) During the middle of class, as she was explaining something, I raised my hand and asked a question because I didn’t understand.

“I don’t have time for stupid questions,” she said, and went on with the class.

In that moment, I decided I wasn’t good at math. I limped through the semester with a C and, since I had completed my requirement for graduation, never took another high school math class, convinced it was an equation I could not solve. Then came the ACT, which I needed to take to get into Baylor, and the math section. The scores came in the mail, and I opened the envelope to find I had made a 32 on the math section, enough to place out of my B. A. math requirement at Baylor. I never had another math teacher after her and I have spent most of my life convinced I don’t know how to do Algebra, which, for a guy who went on to major in History and teach English, is not the end of the world, but it’s not the truth.

For all the things that teacher did wrong, I have to come to terms with the choice I made under those circumstances. I decided I was no good at math. I capitulated to her bullying, if you will. And I continued to buy the lie, even when more reliable information came in after her time had passed. I’m not sure I would have turned in to the Texan forerunner of Good Will Hunting, but I sold myself short.

As a teacher, I remind myself of her most everyday not only because I don’t want to do the same kind of damage, but also because I imagine what she said to me was an incidental comment. She wasn’t gunning for me; it just felt that way on the receiving end. I know what it feels like to get to the end of the day and feel tired and exasperated, which is actually when I try to remember her most. I won’t feel any less exhausted or exasperated by unloading on one of the young people trapped in the room with me in my hour of darkness. Let it be. let it be.

I teach now in a school aimed at students who, as we say, have not been able to thrive in a conventional classroom. Most of them have either names or letters to identify their learning issues. Sometimes we speak of them in technological metaphors, talking about their processing abilities. The information matters and is often helpful, and I also wonder if it has unintended consequences. Even today, I handed out composition books and asked them to open to a fresh page and free write, as we say in English classrooms.

“I can’t write,” said the young man sitting to my left. And I was back in Algebra.

He struggles with writing, particularly by hand – that is true. He finds it easier to talk than write. Also true. His handwriting could be confused for hieroglyphics. Oh, yes. But he can write, and write pretty well when he chooses to step beyond belief in the limitations he has been handed. I’m not trying to push him to be a poet, still I don’t want to capitulate to “can’t.”

The other thing I have noticed about my students is they appear to be passionless. I am struggling to find something they are interested in doing, and I don’t mean just in English class. I asked them to fill out an interest survey intended to help me learn how they learn best, and several of them hardly checked off anything.

“I’m not interested in much,” one of them said.

“Why not?” I wanted to reply, but didn’t know how to do it unaccusingly. How can an eighth grader already have the curiosity kicked out of her? How can a ninth grader feel that life at his age has already peaked in interest? I can’t help but wonder if the lack of confidence is connected to the lack of curiosity. In my own experience, we seem most willing to fail at that which captures us.

I gave up on math, but not on writing. I don’t remember any high school teacher gushing over my prose or poetry, but I do remember feeling confident enough to keep playing with the words, asking questions, and writing and failing and writing again. The words mattered enough to me to be willing to fail.

And to find great pleasure.

It’s hard to talk about failure and not talk about the Red Sox. As September comes, those of us in Red Sox Nation stand poised to have our hearts broken once more or to have another story for the ages. This year’s team has been besieged by injuries, the nightly lineup looking more like their Triple-A farm club than their normal roster. Even the young ones know the story, it seems, because they keep showing up and giving their best. Wherever we finish in the standings come the first of October, we will talk about this season and the heart of this team.

And so I point to grown men playing a boy’s game to say to my young students who are old before their time, don’t lead with your limitations; feed your passions; ask questions; fail gloriously, more than once.

And I will listen to my own advice.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

sunday sonnet #2

In response to today's Gospel reading, Luke 14:1-14.

The parables of Jesus unfold in word and deed:
it’s the living, breathing stuff of Incarnation;
the healing of a blind man, the sower sowing seed
tell the story of the Spirit’s provocation.
He healed someone on the Sabbath and then told a simple tale
Of a banquet with the seating chart reversed.
In both dialogue and action he was determined to derail
all the roles and rules so carefully rehearsed
and intended to reminds us who is first and who is not,
for grace is not disposed to such an order.
We’re called to heal and feed with everything we’ve got,
No matter who they are, or how they crossed the border.
The Word becoming flesh was an act of insurrection;
open hearts and healing hands, our response to Resurrection.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

sunday sonnet #1

The opening line of this poem was the closing line of our call to worship this morning, and it gave me the idea for a rather ambitious poetic undertaking over the next couple of months: the Sunday Sonnets. You might think of it as my attempt to have Shakespeare meet the Psalms.

Sunday Sonnet #1
In the shelter of more than I can comprehend
I struggle for the words that might explain
why my unbelief remains reluctant to suspend
and my skepticism holds its sway again.
In the storms that wreck and ravage all around
I wonder if the words I need exist;
I sing, “I once was lost, but now I’m found,”
and pull my fingers open from their fist.
In the line of saints and sinners where I stand,
I can see the blessed and broken passing on
all the pain and promises they know firsthand,
and all the stories that will lead me home.
In the grasp of grace, in dawn and despair,
I stand in need of both forgiveness and repair.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

be a love dog

Since the early days of this blog, I’ve kept a counter to see how many folks clicked in, thanks to Stat Counter. I had not used the service long before I found they also had a map showing me where folks were when they clicked. Almost every week, there has been someone in Azerbaijan who showed up on the map, and I have often wondered what he or she made of this strange little collection of writings, not to mention how he or she found me in the first place. I mention the person to say I have no idea who reads what I write. My Azerbaijani audience notwithstanding, I assume most of my readers are Christian. Tonight, at least, I am writing specifically to them (you?).

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve listened to the rumble over Park 51, the proposed Islamic Center in Lower Manhattan and have chosen to not say anything because, well, the whole mess seemed more election year theatrics than anything else. This afternoon, however, I heard a story on NPR about protests against the building of an Islamic Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee and heard one of the protesters say, "We're Christians and this religion represents people that are against Christians. That's something we need to look at, you know, because you're going to have a lot of trouble down the line."

How heartbreaking that a sentence that begins with “we are Christians” could end in such fear and despair.

There is an Islamic Center in Murfreesboro already; the new, larger one is needed because the congregation has outgrown their space. As far as lower Manhattan is concerned, there are at least a dozen mosques and Islamic centers in close proximity to Ground Zero, and that which some have labeled “hallowed ground” is populated with everything from a strip joint to fast food chains to street vendors. Saying the new center is too close makes about as much sense as saying no new Christian churches should be built in downtown Oklahoma City because of Timothy McVeigh’s ties to the Christian Identity movement.

They’ll know we are Christians by our love, not by our fear.

And the call in these days is for us to be known as Christians – that we speak and act first from that allegiance – rather than as Americans. The history of human conflict, including the history of Christian-Muslim relations, is marked by the manipulation of religion for military gain. The Crusades, for example, were more about power than piety. The nationalization of religions across the centuries has proven mostly to be bastardization of belief, rather than a furthering of faith. Most of us, particularly the most vocal of us, I would suggest, have only a minimal understanding of Islam. I won’t claim expertise when it comes to the Qu’ran, and I feel sure the vast majority of Muslims meeting from Murfreesboro to Manhattan are not plotting the overthrow of Christianity anymore than Christian congregations from coast to coast are united in reviving the Crusades. Yet, it seems only the radicals and the ridiculous on both sides manage to get to the microphones.

Today, as part of our opening activities at school, we did an exercise called “My Job, Your Job” where we talked with the kids about what our responsibilities were as both students and teachers to ourselves and to each other. One of the things that made the list was it was everyone’s job to speak up when we saw someone being treated unfairly or being bullied. Don’t wait for someone else to speak up, or for someone to stand up for themselves; step in and speak out. As I listened to the NPR story on the way home, I couldn’t help but wonder where we were, as Christians, when it came to speaking out and standing up for our Muslim sisters and brothers who are becoming targets of an insidious hysteria and hyperbole.

I don’t mean we necessarily have to make the news; the media are not listening to or looking for coherent and compassionate voices, for the most part. I do mean finding ways to make contact – face to face contact – in the places we live, in our towns, on our streets. Interrupt the conversations in the coffee shops to say Muslim is not a synonym for terrorist. Go by the local mosque or Islamic Center and figure out how to incarnate love to them. Don’t let fear be the last word.

Be a Love Dog.

I’m stealing the phrase from Rumi, a Muslim mystic and poet, because he said it as well as it can be said. Here’s the whole poem:

One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling our, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing you express
is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.
The future of our faith does not depend on the fate of our nation. It does, however, depend on the integrity of our own incarnation of the love of Christ to those around us, particularly those labeled as “enemies,” whether the label is accurate or not. “God did not give us a spirit of fear,” Paul wrote to Timothy, “but of power and love, and of a sound mind.”

Let us use those gifts with purposed abandon in Jesus’ name.


Monday, August 16, 2010

soundtrack for the dog days

In the middle of these dog days of summer, several tunes have found their way to me and are worth passing along. Let's start off with a little blues: Eric Bibb singing "Don't Let Nobody Drag Your Spirits Down."

Thanks to my friends at eMusic (if you decide to sign up, tell them I sent you and we both get free tunes), I learned about Kina Grannis. This song is called "Valentine" and is a great summer song.

I have known of Christine Kane for awhile, thanks to a friend here in Durham, but didn't now this song: "She Don't Like Roses."

Josh Ritter has always lifted my spirit with this song, which is actually about winter moving into spring, but what the heck; here is "Snow is Gone."

Sara Watkins is perhaps best known for having been a part of Nickel Creek. I am loving the stuff she is doing on her own. This is "Where Will You Be."

For many years, David Rawlings has played guitar behind Gillian Welch. Now, as the David Rawlings Machine, they have switched places. This is "Ruby."

Feel free to find a cool spot and sing along.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

bless be the tales that bind

This has been a weekend steeped in stories.

Saturday night Ginger and I participated in the Inaugural Triangle Red Sox Nation Whiffle Ball Homerun Derby, which was a fundraiser for the Jimmy Fund, one of the Red Sox primary charities. I took my swings, hit four homers, won two pounds of coffee at the bean bag toss, enjoyed the burgers, dogs, and beer, and listened to different folks tell their Sox stories. One guy remembered the day in his childhood when he and his dad helped Ted Williams change a flat on a back road here in North Carolina, and, he said, “I’ve been a Sox fan ever since.”

Part of the evening was an auction of Red Sox memorabilia –even Sox-Yankees tickets – and one of the items was a framed copy of a photograph of Carlton Fisk trying to coax the ball he had just hit into fair territory during Game Six of the 1975 World Series. His homerun won the game, caused a Game Seven, and, as Sean, our state governor for Red Sox Nation said, “created the greatest moment for Sox fans until 2004.” Of the more than a hundred people gathered, most all of us knew the story, though only a small minority were older than thirty-five.

They knew the story because it had been passed on as one of the tales that bind. You didn’t have to be there to know the elation of the moment any more than you had to have seen Game Seven to have your heart broken. Again.

On the drive home it wasn’t hard to make the jump from the Sox stories to sermon stories, since this morning’s passages talked about Moses and the “great cloud of witnesses” calling us on in Hebrews 12:1-2. Those verses have captured me since I was a kid because of that exact phrase: a great cloud of witnesses – everyone in heaven in the stands pulling for us. I was in high school, I guess, the first time I heard Bill Gaither’s “The King is Coming” (yes, I know somehow I seem to manage finding a Gaither Vocal Band video), and have often wondered if the verses from Hebrews were behind the lyric,
regal robes are now unfolding
heaven’s grandstands all in place
heaven’s choir is now assembled
start to sing amazing grace
Our first spring in Boston, we made our way down Boylston Street to the finish line the day before the Boston Marathon and saw the grandstands all in place, waiting for a fan front to blow in and the clouds to gather to cheer on those who made it home from Hopkinton. Though I am not, nor have I ever been a runner, I understand the fuel for both survival and solidarity is found in story. Even in the midst of the running metaphor, we are reminded Jesus is the author of our faith: THE storyteller.

Our opening hymn this morning was a tune I knew (“Lead on, O King Eternal”) and a lyric I did not: “Lead on, O Cloud of Presence.” I failed to write down the writer and composer’s names, but here is their excellent text:
lead on, o cloud of presence, the exodus is come
in wilderness and desert our tribe shall make its home
our slavery left behind us, new hopes within us grow
we seek the land of promise where milk and honey flow

lead on, o fiery pillar, we follow yet with fears
but we shall come rejoicing though joy be born of tears
we are not lost, though wandering, for by your light we come
and we are still God's people, the journey is our home

lead on O God of freedom, and guide us on our way
and help us trust the promise through struggle and delay
we pray our sons and daughters may journey to that land
where justice dwells with mercy, and love is law's demand
I’m a couple of days away from inviting my students to dive into some of my favorite stories with me to see what we can find. What I want to have happen is for Holden Caulfield and Stephen Kumalo to come alive for them, and for me. We, as readers and storytellers have the power to raise the dead. As I think listening again to Moses’ story, I realize that part of what happens in our telling and retelling is we breathe new life into those dry bones, if you will: we become the cloud of witnesses as we watch Moses and Miriam and Mary run the race that was set before them. When we tell their stories, we remember the circle is unbroken, both now and by and by.

One of the John Denver songs that helped me learn to play guitar says
I listened to what the good book said and it made good sense to me
talking ‘bout reaping what you’re sowing people trying to be free
now we’ve got new names and faces this time around
gospel changes, Lord, still going down
Let us keep telling the stories; blessed be the tales that bind.


Sunday, August 08, 2010

things have not gone as I planned

what were intended to be days
have become weeks – six, in fact
and these last few days of my summer

find me trying to finish the deck
instead of other august projects
and, of course, I never intended

to catch and cut my finger on
the protruding nail, or sweat
through four (count ‘em) t-shirts

one day, cooler and far away
from now, I will be sitting under
an october sun with a cool drink

and warm friends and will say
“I helped build it” in response to
an affirming comment without

remembering being hot and hurt
and reach for my guitar without
a thought for the cut on my finger