Thursday, September 30, 2010

stop, look, and listen

I went to a workshop this afternoon at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke because I’m taking my kids there in a couple of weeks to see the exhibit called “The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.” I have to say I was surprised at how many different ways vinyl records could be made into art beyond the recordings, album covers, and liner notes. Some of the art was about the record and some used the records to make the art.

One of the latter, Dario Robleto, spoke to the group of teachers gathered for our afternoon enlightenment. He said one of the things that informs his art is the “DJ culture,” as he called it, which, he said, has been around a long time. The “principle of Dj-ing,” as he called it, is to take the fragments of life you find around you, the shards of the past, and make a new thing.

He showed us pictures of his work from a collection called, "Sometimes Billie Is All That Holds Me Together.” He took pieces of clothing that he found – some by the side of the road – and repaired them, grinding and melting vinyl records of Billie Holiday songs to make the buttons. And then he took the refurbished clothing, or at least most of it, and put it back into circulation. Another was called “Shaker Apothecary.” This time, the title was quite literal: he built a Shaker apothecary cabinet. Playing off of the shaking of the Shakers down to the shaking of the dance crazes 0ver the years, he ground vinyl records of the dances and mixed them with “matiching” botanicals (“The Hustle” with Devil’s Claw Root and “Peppermint Twist” with Dandelion Root, to name a couple.), I suppose as the cure for what ails us.

Someone asked if he knew how to make buttons or cabinets before he got the ideas for the projects. “No,” he said. “When I decide what I want to do, I go learn how to do it.” I listened to him and thought, “He’s moving slow enough to pay attention so that he sees pieces to pick up the rest of us have walked by. – and he’s taking time to learn what he needs to learn to communicate.”

Monday morning I heard an interview with Lee Hamilton on NPR as I was driving to work. Hamilton has been involved with US foreign policy, both in and outside of government, for over forty years, going back to LBJ, and is now retiring from his position as head of the Woodrow Wilson Institute for Peace. During the Cold War, he was one of our negotiators with the Soviets. When asked about Iran, he leaned back in his memory to answer:
I think Iran is a much more complicated government than we think it is in this country. The hostilities between the two countries are very deep on all kinds of issues, not just the nuclear issue. And the big challenge we confront now is: How do you establish an authentic channel of communication, sustained over a period of time, to address these problems?
Let me go back a minute. I was in the Congress during the period the Soviet Union was in control. We used to have meetings with the Soviet parliamentarians. I'd get up and read a speech. They'd get up and read a speech. At the end of the speech, we'd toast each other with Vodka and say we were for peace in the world and prosperity for our grandchildren, and nothing would happen. And we kept doing that year after year after year after year.
Then something changed. And what changed was we put the speeches away and we began to talk with one another about the issues. That was the beginning of the thaw. It took us forty years to get there. The point is that - and it applies to Iran - the problems are exceedingly difficult, but you've got to keep trying to solve them, even though you're not making much progress at the time.
He, too, was taking time to pick up chards of hope trampled into the dust of despair to see what new could be made. Robleto talked about setting his art free by taking it back to where he found it and then letting it do its thing. Hamilton did much the same thing when he allowed himself to humanize the people sitting across the table from him, rather than see them as Soviets. They listened to each other, they talked to each other, following the same dynamic as Robleto’s art installations: set it free and see what happens.

Art set free, whether manifested in a melted record or a thawed relationship, is fearless. Good art takes time; fear is always chasing a deadline. There’s no time to listen or look, much less create. You have to run scared, and unable to trust. I thought about the kids I’ll be bringing to the museum in a couple of weeks. Teaching is a lot like melting records to make buttons and talking to Russians for forty years because I have to put my art out there, if you will, and rarely get a chance to the impact, or to be around when those caught in the crossfire of being an American teenager find a better place. The fear that lurks is less about the kids and more about failure. Our standardized test culture, though perhaps well intentioned, feeds the fear: we only have time to pass the test.

As I walked through the exhibit this evening, I could already hear some of my kids whining about how boring the museum is and wondering in a poor stage whisper why they have to be there. But I will trust that one day long after both the exhibit and I have been replaced, someone with whom I share a classroom in these days will see shards of his or her own, the worn seeds of creativity and hope, and will take the time, outlasting the fear, to contribute a verse, a painting, a melody, or maybe just another button.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, September 26, 2010

sunday sonnet #6

Based on the last few Sundays, today's text included, you would think Jesus talked a great deal about taking care of the poor. Ginger quoted George Buttrick ("Fundamental neighborliness is a barometer of the soul.") and then asked these questions: What issues do we dodge? How do we gate ourselves off from the world? Whom do see as too disgusting to invite? Whom do we not think about?

How we hear a story depends on our perspective
and where we find ourselves within the scene;
so when we try to hear Jesus’ directive,
our point of view can color what it means.
the sharp dressed man, a Scrooge before his time,
ignored the poor, sick man outside his gate;
then rich guy died, and wealth turned into whine,
for Hell was not a temporary state.
Any way we slice it, we’re like the rich guy in this tale,
though it’s hard to see ourselves in such a role;
the poverty unanswered in our world’s our epic fail,
‘cause we're the ones with capital and control.
One question stands quite worthy of a mention:
what does it take to get our full attention?
Peace,
Milton

Thursday, September 23, 2010

here's to you my little loves . . .

It was the Late Eighties.

Those were the days when CDs were new and my collection was highlighted by bands like The Alarm, U2, Big Country -- to name just a few -- and The Call. The guitars ripped, the drums pounded, and the keyboards did that thing keyboards did in the Eighties. Those bands were having fun and trying to say something, too.

Michael Been was the lead singer for The Call. Off and on over the years I have heard mention of him, but the band didn't take off like some of their contemporaries, so he was hard to find. But he was always a thoughtful songwriter, full of faith and doubt, asking good questions to music and willing to sing with all his heart.

I went looking for him tonight only to discover that he died a little over a month ago of a massive heart attack while on tour with his son's band. He was sixty years old.

In his memory, I offer a few songs. First, "Let the Walls Come Down."



The second, Everywhere I Go."



And my personal favorite, "Let the Day Begin."


here'w to the babies in a brand new world
here's to the beauty of the stars
here's to the travelers on the open road
her's to the dreamers in the bars
here's to the teachers in the crowded rooms
here's to the workers in the field
here's to the preachers of the sacred word
here's to the drivers at the wheel
here's to you my little loves
with blessings from above
let the day begin
Thanks, Michael.

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

the mixed lot of being human

I stopped by the bookstore this afternoon, after spending the day at a workshop to learn how to use the software supplied by our yearbook company, with the hope that Mary Gordon’s book, Reading Jesus: A Writer's Encounter with the Gospels, had come out in paperback. (These are not hardcover buying days at our house.) I heard about the book when it first came out and have been anxious to read it. Since there was only one copy and it was hardback (no paperback just yet), I did the next best thing and stood in the “Religion” aisle of the Barnes and Noble and read the introduction.

It rocks. Come on, paperback.

One line, in particular, grabbed me such that I wrote it down in the little notebook I carry with me: “When I try to understand a flavor of fear I do not share . . . ” The line kept coming back to me as I drove home, listening to news that the Senate balked on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or finding out tonight they were equally as uncourageous when it came to the DREAM act, because I don’t understand the flavor of fear that flails against gays and lesbians, or immigrants. When I sat down to write, I found the introduction, thanks to Google Books, and read the whole sentence.

When I try to understand a flavor of fear I do not share, the impulse that produces the traditional fire-and-brimstone preaching and the even more contemporary don’t-worry-be-happy versions, I imagine that people who are in its grip feel the way I do when I’m experiencing turbulence on an airplane.
Her incarnational and faithful logic also comes through in an interview I found from Bill Moyers’ Faith and Reason. (Yes, this is going to be one of those posts with long quotes.)
And I think that I have to go back to a religious position, which is that if reading the Gospel means anything, if Jesus means anything, it's about seeing everybody, every human being as Jesus. That's what makes sense. That -- therefore, every human being is of enormous value. Every human being is sacred. So it seems to me the only thing that stops me from going out and shooting people in Hummers is a religious belief that, even though I don't like them, they are sacred and valuable in the eyes of God. And that does stop me. Because I could really, you know, go out on quite a spree.
The line about the Hummers will get a smile out of Ginger. One more:
But I think it's very important to understand that-- and I guess the reason I like Christianity, I thought it was a hit-- is that it is incarnational, that Jesus is flesh and spirit. One of the things, details, that I like in the resurrection account is after Jesus comes back, he eats broiled fish. They actually tell us -- they give us a menu. Luke gives us a menu. He ate broiled fish. So in his glorified body, he is still with other people, with an appetite for specific food. I think the genius of Christianity is that it insists on a physicality, which is sacrilized . . . [a]nd I think Christianity, at its incarnational best, honors the mixed lot of being human.
As Americans, we have been running scared since September 11, 2001. (Actually, I think it started much earlier, but we broke into a sprint nine years ago.) Since then, we’ve been doing what frightened people do: lashing out at whomever we can find to blame, trying to show how strong we are and that we can fight back, looking for someone to blame, and making sure everyone knows how big and tough we are. We have done little to abate the things out there that are truly frightening.

I’m reading The Crucible right how with my eleventh and twelfth graders. Arthur Miller does a masterful job of showing how the flavors of fear that infect us all can easily blend into a toxic recipe of tragedy and destruction, causing us to lose sight of our commonalties and seeing only the devil in each other.

What Gordon reminds me is the Incarnation is God’s way of saying, “I’m with you.” Jesus’ time on earth inextricably linked Creator and creation in a way they had not been before, answering Joan Osborne before she even had the chance to ask, what if God was one of us. We, too, are one of us. Us includes the immigrants, the gay and lesbian soldiers, the screaming fundamentalists, along with Hezbollah and the Hummer drivers. Oh – and I guess I should include Congress in that number as well.

That’s a tough one.

Here where we live, in the Baskin-Robbins of Fear, we can only find courage together, just as we can also band together as an hysterical, witch-calling mob. We can incarnate the fear, or we can remember:
listening is the opposite of fear
welcoming is the opposite of fear
justice is the opposite of fear
peace is the opposite of fear
courage is the opposite of fear
and love chases fear away.
No wonder lashing out in anger draws a bigger crowd. This is hard work.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, September 19, 2010

sunday sonnet #5

The lectionary text today was one of Jesus' more difficult parables to understand. Here's what the text and Ginger's sermon took me.

We met today to worship, pray, and sing,
and heard the call to shrewdly help the pauper;
my mind played “Money Changes Everything”
the lectionary led to Cyndi Lauper.
I looked up shrewd. It says: perceptive, artful, keen --
someone who sees the worst and and can discern
how to flip the tables rather than rage ‘gainst the machine,
and use new math to measure the return.
“You can’t serve God and riches,” was the parable’s punch line,
but the room gets hard when we talk of faith and stuff;
we look at class divisions as though by divine design:
they go without; we never have enough.
Jesus might not have packed quite the punch had he
grown up in a gated community.
Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

catch me, please

At several different junctures in my life, Parker J. Palmer has befriended me and mentored me through his writings (in particular, The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak). I have never met him, nor have I ever heard him speak, yet I have found a healing resonance in his written words that have helped me in my vocation, my depression, and my faith. On Sunday, therefore, when I passed the table in the hall at church where there is always a stack of Christian Centuries and saw he had written the cover story, “Taking Pen in Hand,” I picked it up and brought it home.

I will take it back, I promise.

I was pulled, in particular, by two paragraphs, which means here come a couple of long quotes.

All of our propositions and practices are earthen vessels. All of them are made by human beings of common clay to hold whatever we think we’ve found in our soul-deep quest for the sacred or in its quest for us. If our containers prove too crimped and cramped to hold our treasure well, if they domesticate the sacred and keep us from having a live encounter with it – or if they prove to be so twisted and deformed that they defile rather than honor the treasure they were intended to hold – then our containers must be smashed and discarded so we can create a larger and more life-giving vessel in which to hold the treasure.
Doing that is called iconoclasm. It is a good thing to do when it needs to be done. Failing to do that is called idolatry, which is always a bad thing. So even in the church, we need to commit conceptual suicide again and again – if we are serious about the vastness of the treasure in comparison to our flawed and finite words.
Though I might suggest we would do well to read that passage at any or all of our churches’ annual meetings, the real power of the words hits me on a more personal level. Yes, one of my favorite quotes from the Chronicles of Narnia is that Aslan is not a tame lion. Yes, I have preached more than one sermon and had more than one conversation about the wild, untamed God to whom we belong. Still, I read the article and thought to myself, “It’s been a long time since I let God catch me by surprise.”

This blog is a couple of months away from being five years old. I feel good about my writing here and wish I had managed to turn a couple of my ideas into books. I’m back to teaching for a living and cooking for family and friends in a way that I feel I was built to do. My marriage is my favorite thing about my life. I keep playing my guitar and wishing someone would stop me on the street and ask me to be in their band. I have felt free of my depression for a year and a half and I am grateful. I am learning new things about what it means to be family in these days. Life is good.

And I wonder.

I wonder about the man I have talked to a couple of times at the grocery store who works with refugees from Nepal who are trying to make a new life here. I am showing the kids at school a movie about the continuing, though invisible, crisis in Darfur, Sudan, which I have kept up with for years and written about occasionally. I still think about opening a cafĂ© like One World Everybody Eats where people pay what they can – or maybe a food truck, just because I like food trucks.

I’m not restless or unhappy, and I wonder – because people like Palmer speak to my heart:
“Why write,” said Jose Oretega y Gasset, “if this too easy activity of pushing a pen across paper is not given a certain bullfighting risk and we do not approach dangerous agile and two-horned topics?”
And why believe in God if the God we believe in is so small as to be contained and controlled within our finite words and forms? The aim of our writing about faith, and of our living in faith, is to let God be God: original, wild and free, a creative impulse that drives our living and our writing but can never be contained within the limits of who we are and what we think and say and do.
However the circumstances play out, I want to be caught by surprise. I love the imagery in that phrase: caught – like a child is caught when he or she falls, or a person is caught by a camera in that serendipitous moment where the image reveals a lifetime of feeling – by surprise – as though God was waiting to turn on the lights and yell when I come into the dark house at night.

I’m praying for the grace to open every door with a sense of anticipation. After all, Aslan is not a tame lion.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, September 12, 2010

sunday sonnet #4

Ginger had a chance to go to Big Tent Christianity in Raleigh this past week. I didn't get to go, but got to hear some great stuff second hand. Tonight's sonnet comes from some of those gleanings and the question I am left to ponder: what are the responsibilities of a privileged disciple?

Seventeen million children go to bed hungry every night,
and I wonder how it is that fact can be;
the answer, said the speaker, is right there in plain sight:
they simply don’t know either you or me.

If we knew them, goes the logic of discipleship and grace,
we would never let them sleep without a meal;
yet the truth is we pass by them, even see them face to face --
introductions let us start to help and heal.

We cannot help our neighbors if our neighbors we don’t know,
or if we decide who’s worthy of our care.
As disciples who are privileged, we need to let our riches go
along with the excuse, “We’re unaware.”

I know I state the obvious to say discipleship is hard:
every motion matters; grace offers no discards.
Peace,
Milton

Saturday, September 11, 2010

these are

the dig in the dirt
go to bed tired
spread out the gravel
plant the trees and vegetables days

the creak in the knees
crust in the knuckles
come back in five years
to see how it all worked out days

the plot the resurrection
slam the door open
say thanks for the help
give thanks for the pups days

the listen to the same riddles
watch him disappear slowly
watch him sit in silence
learn what it means to be family days

the all that I hoped for
never saw it coming
wish there were another way
keep our promises to each other days

the I’m with you
I'm with you
I’m with you days

Peace,
Milton

Monday, September 06, 2010

sunday sonnet #3

I had a church-less weekend since Sunday was my turn
to stay at home with Reuben, who is ailing;
I planted in the garden and gave the beds a turn
While he sat and snored and set the “z”s a-sailing.

I was not there to stand in line to taste the Bread and Cup,
the food that’s fed the faithful across time;
but today I shared a meal with friends we'd gathered up,
and found our supper sacred and sublime.

“Remember me as often as you do this,” we repeat
in our ritual of worship and redemption;
but the Body is re-membered most every time we eat
when we share the meal with focus and intention.

After sharing food with friends, there is this that must be said:
‘tis no surprise they recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, September 05, 2010

delayed sonnet

The Sunday Sonnet will be a Monday Sonnet because of power issues at the house tonight. I would like to say thanks to Duke Energy for responding so quickly.

Peace,
Milton