Sunday, October 31, 2010

sunday sonnet #11

The text today told the story of Jesus' encounter with Zacchaeus. And here's where the story took me.

When Zacchaeus hit the streets, he had to assume
he was down the list of who folks hoped to see;
he might have done much better had he showed up in costume,
but for all his faults, he had no one else to be.
The children’s song calls him a “wee little man”
and makes him sound all Scottish, short, and cute
when he was the kind of guy to rob his mother’s pension plan –
an outcast and an outlaw and a brute.
But Jesus saw a climber who was more than just a jerk,
and called out his name in front of everyone,
looking beyond his faults and his lousy line of work
to see him once again as Abraham’s son.
The promises of grace were made
for even the shortest of the renegades.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

sunday sonnet #10

This week’s parable was the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector who came to pray (Luke 18:9-14). I was struck, in the sermon, by the idea that both men missed the mark by clinging so tightly to their view of the world, rather than praying for eyes to see what God might have to show them.

To his disciples, Jesus told a people-watching story:
Two men came to the Temple for to pray –
One was proud enough to stand in all his glory,
The other racked by guilt, despair, dismay.
One thought he was worthless, the other thought, “I’m best,”
Though both through the same gate had probably entered;
One proclaimed his purity, the other beat his breast,
And both in their own way were quite self-centered.
And I can ride the rail between the two men in the Temple,
Moving twixt presumption and persistence;
But either way I’m vulnerable to pride – its just that simple –
When it comes to grace, I take the path of most resistance.
Whether hubris or humility,
I can hide my vulnerability.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

sunday sonnet #9

The text today was the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). The story is not an easy one. One of the main things I took away from this morning was a big part of the call to live like Jesus lies in our persistence. The widow just wouldn’t give up until she got justice. Would that those at the margins of life could depend on us to be so tireless and determined.

The widow relentlessly pleaded;
To her justice the judge finally relented.
She finally got what she needed,
And I’m wondering who each represented.
Am I like judge, grown tired and cold,
numb to needs in Haiti and Darfur;
or could I be the widow who never gives up,
whose hope and persistence endure?
It’s not about tired, but tenacity:
at it’s heart, what the story is saying
is live with both hope and audacity --
practice love, practice peace, practice praying
I will live out more of what Jesus meant
When I persist beyond my discouragement

Friday, October 15, 2010

blog action day: living water

Today is Blog Action Day.

The topic is WATER, namely the lack of safe and sanitary drinking water for a large part of our fellow human beings on the planet. Most of the stuff that has come my way in preparation for today has been overwhelming to me. The statistics are poignant, but also paralyzing. It’s hard to know where to start. You may have read them as well, but I picked out ten things from this well documented list to illustrate the issue.

  • 1 out of every 8 people on the planet lacks access to safe water supplies.
  • More people in the world have access to a cell phone than to a toilet.
  • 3,575,000 people die each year from water-related disease.
  • Only 62% of the world’s population has access to improved sanitation – defined as a sanitation facility that ensures hygienic separation of human excreta from human contact.
  • Diarrhea remains in the second leading cause of death among children under five globally (1,500,000 deaths per year). It kills more young children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.
  • In just one day, more than 200,000,000 hours of women’s time is consumed with collecting water for domestic use. This lost productivity is greater than the combined number of hours worked in a week by employees at Wal*Mart, United Parcel Service, McDonald’s, IBM, Target, and Kroger,
  • At any given time, half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.
I know. The statistics are daunting and the problem seems overwhelming. No wonder we got so excited to see the Chilean miners rescued. It was a terrible situation that was actually solved. If only we could deal with the rest of our world’s problems thirty-three people at a time.

This water issue is solvable, however. The problem is not water supply but water purification. People are dying, mostly, not from lack of water, but because the water they have is their drinking water, their washing water, and their toilet, as well as the dumping grounds for whatever industry is upstream. And there are people out there coming up with solutions as hopeful and as revolutionary as what we saw watching the miners come to the surface. One of those is my brother and his church who are doing work in Bangladesh, among other places. I wrote him as I was preparing for this post and here’s what he wrote back.
The region where we are working is a rural area filled with villages that sustain their existence through fishing and farming, primarily. These are families that live on a few dollars a day. Wonderful vibrant villages filled with awesome people -- so loving and welcoming. We have made so many wonderful friends. We are there offering micro loans, establishing schools (high illiteracy rate), health clinics, agriculture training, eye glasses, dental clinics, distribute mosquito nets (so far, about 5000 have been given out), and general encouragement for the families.

The issue we have found, over the past three years we have been there, is that the water is killing them. There is no clean water for them to drink and the water coming from the wells is contaminated with so much -- mostly heavy metals: arsenic, mercury. We have been working with some scientists from Dow Chemical, and an organization called Aqua Clara International to develop some way to improve the current technology (which is small, reproducible filters) so that the families can use that will filter these elements. They have made great progress and we should have a prototype on the field in the next year or so. They have done great work around the world to provide clean drinking water for people. It’s wonderful to see. Amazing -- and greatly needed.
What he’s talking about is something that can be done in a five-gallon bucket. Something that is portable, useable, affordable, and doesn’t require teams of NGOs to maintain. Something that could be a micro loan kind of industry for a small village. Something that could change the world.

We need to support dreamers like these – the ones with big hearts and skinned knuckles – so we can do more than drown in despair and statistics while our brothers and sisters are killed by the water they drink.

Please do what you can. Start by signing this petition.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

can I get a witness?

T. S Eliot’s amazing poem The Waste Land has found me twice in the last few days.

First, let me confess. I love the poem and I am moved by the poem, but I am far from understanding it. Still, it keeps coming after me. The first touch was at school, reading Robert Cormier’s novel, The Chocolate War, in which Jerry Renault, the young protagonist, tapes a poster in his locker that borrows a line he attributes to Eliot’s poem (I have since learned it is from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock):

Do I dare disturb the universe?
Jerry is trying to figure out his place in the universe, as well as working to discern whether the point is to stay under the radar or to make choices that offer a chance for more than one might reasonably expect out of life. I made mock ups of the poster, as it is described in the book, and handed them out to the class when we got to the chapter where it is mentioned. They looked as confused as I feel trying to make sense of Eliot’s Latin and German. I have more time with them.

The second instance was in my reading this afternoon of Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels, which was a gift from my friend, Sonya. Part of what I liked about Gordon’s connection to the poem was that it grew out of a confusion of her own.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” These words from Eliot’s Waste Land involved me in an interesting misreading that went on for several decades. I had habitually misread the plural “ruins” as the singuar “ruin.” I was shocked to find out what I had done, and not pleased with Eliot’s words: I preferred my own invention. I had interpreted the line to mean that the words were a preservation against personal ruin. But “ruins” suggests a public spectacle – like the Parthenon or the Acropolis – and what would be the point of shoring fragments against these colossal wrecks? Such an act becomes an act of witness rather than of self-preservation.
Gordon and Eliot know what Jerry is beginning to learn: when we disturb the universe we set things in motion we can neither predict nor control. Life is less cause-and-effect, in any sort of direct sense, and more of a Ray-Bradury-butterfly effect: who knows what comes of the choices we make other than every little move matters. I wrote a few words in the margin next to the last sentence of the paragraph as quickly as they came to me:

This is the watershed of Christianity in America.

At the risk of sounding too self-congratulatory, I think I may be on to something. Between pitches for the pledge drive this afternoon, I listened to some government official talk about the rising terror threats aimed at our nation. I don’t doubt that there are people in the world who want to do us harm and I also don’t doubt that cranking up the Fear Making Machine is good politics as the midterm elections draw near. Regardless of who is doing the mongering, the call to fear is the call to self-preservation: we must do what it takes to (God, I hate this phrase) “secure the Homeland.” Give up rights. Take away rights. Damn the torpedoes and the consequences. Forget talking softly and get something bigger than a big stick. The bottom line quickly becomes utilitarian, mercenary, and cynical. If self-preservation is our core value, the circle of those we can trust will only grow smaller, whether we’re talking about our country or our Church.

Till I read Gordon’s words, I had never thought of bearing witness as the opposite of self-preservation. When I saw the word “witness” in its context, I thought of the organization,, which sums up its mission in the slogan, “See it. Film it. Change it.” For the last twenty years, they have been giving cameras to people in parts of the world no one sees so they can tell their stories in hopes, not of self-preservation, but of radical change.

Jesus kind of change. Gordon, again:
The radical challenge of Jesus: perhaps everything we think in order to know ourselves as comfortable citizens of a predictable world is wrong.
Much of the conversation in American Christianity has to do with how we save the church, or how we change the church. The conversation may be well intentioned yet it is a conversation centered in self-preservation. We want to keep our doors open. We want to be at the center of things. We want to be culturally significant. We talk a lot about correcting the universe, but not so much about disturbing it.

When we come to church, we come looking for comfort, for hymns we love, not for disquietude. I love being a part of a community of faith where often is heard an encouraging word, and I wonder if we would do well to hang one of Jerry’s posters behind the Communion table to remind us that life is about as predictable as the God who breathed it into us and that our mission has nothing to do with being God’s Gatekeepers and everything to do with going out into the highways and byways and bring everyone who is hungry to dinner.

But there’s more.

I’m not trying to be a travel agent for a guilt trip here. I’m trying to voice my own disquietude born of my reading today, which means I have to go back to Gordon one more time. She is responding to the parable of the Prodigal Son, particularly the encounter between the father and the older brother, in which the father says,
“Everything I have is yours.” The good boy is not left bereft. But what has been lost has been found. What is acknowledged here, what is given the greatest weight, is the terrible blow of loss. The loss has seemed final, and then: reprieve. Resurrection. A new chance. A rebirth whose wage is celebration. “We had to celebrate and rejoice.” had to: an injunction, a duty. The duty of celebration.
And the story ends here. With an assertion of the rightness of celebration. The propriety of joy.
When we, as American Christians, read the parables we would do well to cast ourselves as the older brother, the rich man walking past the beggar, the jealous workers, and any other part that describes those who see themselves as the dutiful and the deserving. Everyone of the parables sounds the same disturbing note: we are called to live generous and joyful lives.

And trust God will take care of us all.


Monday, October 11, 2010

reposting: life is a restaurant

Today is National Coming Out Day. I thought I would mark the day by reposting something I wrote last year. Though my job has changed, my gratitude has not.


Part of what makes working in a restaurant kitchen interesting is you never really know who is coming for dinner and when they are planning to come. At the Durham restaurant we take reservations, so we do know the answer a good bit of the time, yet last Sunday night we had reservations for forty and we served ninety by the time the evening was over. More than half of the people just showed up to become part of that evening’s story.

The Duke restaurant is even less predictable because our major client base is the student body and, even though we are a fairly spiffy sit-down restaurant, we are, in their minds, a dining hall. Who needs to make reservations for the dining hall? One night last week a group of seventeen walked in for dinner. They were followed by two groups of seven, two groups of six, and three groups of four, and all of them were seated within fifteen minutes of each other.

In what has become an unintentional series of blog posts, I thought I might add life is a restaurant to the list: you spend most of your time getting ready, you don’t know who is going to show up or how long they will stay, and the point is to feed people and let them enjoy being together. Not bad.

The idea has set me to thinking about the people who have wandered (wondered?) into my life, though I have to say the metaphor breaks down a bit here because the ones who came to mind were people who fed me as much or more than I did them. They came to mind because of what is going on at our church. We are getting ready for a big celebration of our own in early October marking the tenth anniversary of our congregation’s choice to be intentionally Open and Affirming, which is to say we welcome everyone. Period. The O&A designation has particular significance to the gay and lesbian communities because they are not always sure where they are welcome, when it comes to church. We wanted to make it clear.

I grew up Southern Baptist, so I know all the arguments and verses folks use to say gays and lesbians have to straighten up (pun intended) to be acceptable. I’m not writing to pick that fight. I started to write, “The conversation is difficult because no one comes in willing to have their minds or hearts changed.” Here’s the thing: I’m writing about this metaphor because it’s how my heart and mind were changed.

I’m chasing a metaphor, remember?

In the restaurant that is my life, I’m grateful for more people than I can count who have dropped in, but tonight I want to point to four people – four gay men – whom God used to shape my life. The first is my friend, Jay, who was my first gay friend. I don’t mean he was the first gay or lesbian person I ever met, but he was the first one with whom I developed a long-lasting friendship. When we lived in Boston, he came up from Texas every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas for about a decade and then, when he moved to Boston, he lived with us for a year while he was finding work and getting on his feet. We share history that connects us and stories that bind us together as intentional family. I’m thankful for Jay who has helped me learn to be a better friend.

The summer before I turned forty, I fell into an existential crisis about writing. I had said for years I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t feel like I was writing anything. So I signed up for a summer session at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, which is where I met Timothy Findley. I worked with him in the workshops that week and then he served as my mentor in a one-year correspondence course to write a novel. (Yes, I did write a novel. No, it has never been published.) In conversations during the week, Tiff and I talked about writing and faith and life. He had started in the theater and was working in a play with Ruth Graham and Thornton Wilder when he published his first short story. Graham read it and told him to write. We made a strong connection with one another and continued writing after the class was over. Tim was an excellent writer, a thoughtful and faithful person, and he was gay. I’m grateful for Tiff who helped me recognize I am a writer.

My favorite Christmas gifts over the past few years have been experiences rather than possessions. Ginger does an amazing job of finding things for me to see and do that last long after the events are over. One of the best gifts she ever gave me was a class in Byzantine Iconography. I don’t mean to learn about them, or to admire them, but to paint (actually, the verb they use is to write) icons. For a week one January, and then weekly for many months to follow, I sat in the studio with Chris as he invited me into the spiritual practice of iconography. I learned ways to pray I had not known before. I learned so much about the history and significance of the images we were creating. I learned I was pretty good at writing the icons. And I found a real friend in Chris as well, whose gentle and vulnerable spirit was as much a window into heaven as the icons were. And he is gay. I’m thankful for Chris who showed me I am an artist and taught me how to pray with a brush.

The summer after we moved to Marshfield, I feel into a deep depression. I’ve written about it any number of times in these pages, so I’ll spare you the story now. One of the people who helped me find my way and make meaning of those dark days was Ken, who began as a my counselor and became my spiritual director as I sought to shift from looking at the depression to trying to find a more holistic perspective. Ken and I share a love of poetry and, on more than one occasion, he would end our session by saying, “I have a poem for you,” and he would hand me a photocopied sheet of something by Mary Oliver or Rumi or who knows that appeared to have been written just for me. I don’t know anyone else who incarnates the grace of God anymore than Ken. And Ken is gay. I’m grateful to Ken for helping me see life is full of meaning, even when I was depressed.

All four people helped shape my life and my faith. God has spoken to me through them, God has incarnated grace and love and hope and faith in their words and actions. I am the person and the Christian I am today because of the love and care of these four men. These four gay men. Don’t get me wrong. They don’t get all the blame. There are many others, gay and straight, whose love has carried me. Still, in the restaurant that is my life I could not feed those who drop in had it not been for the nourishment offered me by these four friends.

Every Sunday at our church, Ginger begins by quoting a UCC slogan:

Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey,
You’re welcome here.
Yes, I know it’s the UCC and that we are the liberals whose theology, as one Texas Baptist pastor used to say, “killed the Church of England.” (Another friend says it this way: if Christianity were a neighborhood, we’d be the last house on the left.) I also know, at the very bottom of it all, it’s about what you do with people way before what you do with Bible verses. One of the choruses I learned in youth group in the Seventies we sang last Sunday:
we are one in the Spirit we are one in the Lord
we are one in the Spirit we are one in the Lord
and we pray that our unity will one day be restored
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love by our love
yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love
Come, the table is now ready.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

sunday sonnet #8

The sermon today was on the ten lepers whom Jesus healed and the one of them who returned to say, “Thanks.” As I thought about the story, I was struck by how much time we who are accustomed to comfort and privilege spend trying to explain pain and suffering, as though they were things other than life. It seems to me When Bad Things Happen to Good People would not be a best seller in Darfur. Ginger quoted Nouwen today: “Wounds are openings for new vision.”

I guess we should remember Jesus healed them from afar –
they became “clean” as they walked along the way.
After years of being told that they weren’t worth one thin dinar,
perhaps they felt there was nothing left to say.
But one came back to Jesus and sort of shattered the illusion
that the down and out somehow deserve their lot,
and shot down, of course, our own sort of logical conclusion
that the privileged deserve all that we’ve got.
We talk about the nine as if we’d have been the one
aware enough to relish a return;
that’s you and me however, sinking with the setting sun –
that grace is gift is hard for us to learn.
The greatest miracle of attitude
is being healed of our ingratitude.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

sunday sonnet #7

I spent the weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains helping with a retreat for Holy Covenant UCC from Charlotte, so I was not at my church for worship or World Wide Communion Sunday. The focus of the retreat was on the Psalms. Nancy Allison, a longtime friend and the pastor at Holy Covenant, pointed out that the references in the Psalms to being “sheltered under God’s wing” were talking about something that wasn’t permanent: a respite before a return to the realities of human existence. I am back down the mountain now and preparing to face the week ahead.

As I drove down the mountainside,
the radio waved a warning
of terror attacks both far and wide
and thunderstorms a-forming.
One puffy cloud in the evening sky
Stretched softly like a wing,
The Rock of Ages drifting by,
and I could not help but sing,
“Tune my heart to sing thy praise” --
words I know by head and heart
that say the living of these days
calls us to courage and to art.
Safety is not a fertile thing;
out of our pain we learn to sing.