Tuesday, December 28, 2010

not with a bang, but with a whimper

The good news is the people at the Apple store rock and my MacBook will good as new. The only bad news is I won't get it back until Friday, which means my blogging will have to wait until the new year. I will close out this one with much gratitude and keep good notes so I can tell you what's been on my mind.

Happy New Year.

Peace,
Milton

marking time

Yesterday this blog turned five years old -- and my MacBook started acting up, which made it difficult to write. Such is life.

Thanks for being a part of the conversation.

Peace,
Milton

Friday, December 24, 2010

advent journal: god's punctuation

I was in the self-checkout line at Kroger this afternoon, about six people deep, when the guy in front of me started talking. He was twenty-two, I’m guessing, a good four inches taller than me, and in a Kroger uniform. He had one Christmas card in his hand. That was all. As we stood there, he began talking about how the management didn’t get why they needed more checkout stations and how they wanted to expand produce when the guy who has worked in produce for thirty-five years knew it was a big mistake and the stream of consciousness rant about the perils in produce and the catastrophe at checkout continued until without the slightest punctuation he said “and my dad died last March 11 and I’m the one who found him and Christmas used to be a really big deal to my family and I didn’t want to work today and now we’re all getting together and we don’t really know what to do.” The period on his run-on grief was the call to step up to the empty terminal and check out. He paid for his card, looked over his shoulder, said, “Merry Christmas,” and walked away.

A few years back, my denomination, the United Church of Christ, used a Gracie Allen quote -- “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.” – as the tag line for our “God is Still Speaking” campaign. We live in a world of run-on grief, runaway pain, and sentences that appear destined to end in despair. Tonight is the night we celebrate God’s punctuation in the Incarnation. The pain the young man and his family are sharing tonight is not the final word. Nothing can separate us from God’s love shown to us in this baby that grew up to be Jesus.

The night is far spent; the day is at hand. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.

Merry Christmas.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, December 23, 2010

advent journal: the enveloping air

During our quick trip to New York this week, we spent the better part of one afternoon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art losing all sense of direction and finding bits of wonder, love, and praise in many of the paintings, photographs, and sculptures that inhabit the place. Eventually, we wandered in amongst the Impressionists. I’m by no means an art critic, nor an aficionado, yet I know what moves me. Standing in front of a Van Gogh, Degas, or Monet is to stand in a thin place.

Yesterday, as we rode the bus from Grand Central to JFK, I pulled out my Harpers Magazine to stretch my mind a little and found an article by John Berger called “The Enveloping Air: Light and Moment in Monet.” Berger is one of the most compelling artists, writers, and thinkers of our time, which means he is also doing theology whether or not he intends to do so. As our big bus bounded through the traffic in Queens, I was reading about the current Monet exhibit in Paris and what Berger saw as he reexamined canvases he had seen again and again for many years, not unlike the way in which we will reexamine the scene that unfolds before us once more as Christmas approaches. To say the images of inhospitable innkeepers, curious shepherds, heavenly hosts, and a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger are familiar is to master the art of understatement. We aren’t looking at anything new, except that we are looking anew, which makes all the difference.

Or so it struck me as I read Berger on the bus. As is my pattern, from time to time, I offer a lengthy quote; bear with me.

Monet once revealed that he wanted to paint not things in themselves but the air that touched things – the enveloping air. The enveloping air offers continuity and infinite extension. If Monet can paint the air, he can follow it like following a thought. Except that the air operates wordlessly and, when painted, is visibly present only in colors, touches, layers, palimpsests, shades, caresses, scratches. As he approaches the air, it takes him along with his original subject, elsewhere. The flow is no longer temporal but substantial and extensive.
The air takes him and the original subject where then? To other things it has enveloped or will envelop but for which we have no fixed name . . . . Monet often referred to an instantaneity he was trying to seize. The air, because it is part of an indivisible substance that is infinitely extensive, transforms this instantaneity into an eternity . . . .
In rethinking Monet I want to suggest that visitors to the exhibition see the canvases there not as records of the local and ephemeral but as vistas onto what is universal and eternal. The elsewhere, which is their obsession, is extensive rather than temporal, metaphoric rather than nostalgic.
Yes, I know it’s a lot to take in. But mentally meander with me for a bit, won’t you?

The first house Ginger and bought was in Charlestown, Massachusetts and it was built in the 1840s. We renovated most of the house, and did much of the work ourselves – particularly the demolition part. As I pulled the plaster and lathe that was as old as the house off the walls, I found little trinkets that had been trapped inside for almost one hundred and fifty years and I thought about the air that had been sealed in by the builders who first brought the house into being. As I tore away the walls, I unleashed their breath and their stories that had been a part of the house down all the days. There were moments when it felt as though they were moving in the room with me, not as ghosts but companions. As I sealed our breath back into the walls, we became a part of the lineage Monet described: “the enveloping air offers continuity and infinite extension.”

The very atmosphere that surrounds us is what connects us, from the first breath of God that brought the universe into being to the first breath of the baby before Mary wrapped him and placed him in the manger to all the reenactments and retellings that will happen in our homes and houses of worship in the next couple of days. In the colors and shades and scratches and palimpsests of our own pageants and carols, we touch eternity for an instant, or with an instant – a moment when we are born anew, again together with Christ. The flow, as Berger says, becomes no longer temporal, but “substantial and extensive.”

My blogging friend, Bill Kinnon, wrote with wonderful indignation about some who see the need to bump up the cool in Christmas to reach those who only get to church once or twice a year. One church he mentioned spent eight thousand dollars on 3D glasses to wow the audience into wonder. All the tech tricks in the world won’t come close to how the shepherds felt when the angels came upon that midnight clear because the heavenly hosts were not about spectacle as much as story. They were painting the air the shepherds were breathing, connecting them to Bethlehem, to the Magi, and to all the Christmases to come, all the way down to us, gathering to sing carols in the middle of wars and recessions and loves and losses. We cannot afford for the story to become the stuff of nostalgia or manipulation. From the moment God breathed the universe into existence, the enveloping air has held us and connected us unflinchingly. To borrow Ginger’s gentle imperative to us each Sunday before worship, “Breathe in the breath of God and breathe out the love of God.”

Monet’s images have ended up on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs, mouse pads to place mats, all of which miss the point just as everything from plastic nativities to 3D glasses don’t see the light in the moment at the Manger.

Berger closed his article with this thought:
One of Monet’s favorite flowers was the iris. No other flower demands so forcefully to be painted. This has something to do with the way they open their petals, already perfectly printed. Irises are like prophecies, simultaneously astounding and calm. Maybe that’s why he loved them.
“How silently, how silently,” wrote Philips Brooks, “the wondrous gift is given.” The night is far spent; the day is at hand – and not just any day. We are not waiting to be told a story to make us feel warm and fuzzy, or to be fascinated by some new-fangled telling. We are waiting for the dawn to break, for the Child to be born again in our time and our culture, for the shards of light to pierce our hearts in this moment, for the air that we breathe to connect us with all the enveloping air and the love from which we can never be torn away.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

advent journal: who I saw today

Here’s Who I Saw Today:

a high school friend who met
me for breakfast and a walk
around Midtown Manhatthan;

the man who drove the shuttle
to JFK fighting through traffic
and still had energy to smile;

the TSA identification checker
who never changed his facial
expression as he worked;

the server at our favorite
Mexcian restaurant in Durham
who welcomed us home --

all indicators that Christ
will be born again -- but this
time piece by piece by peace

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

advent journal: evening walk

we were walking
back to our hotel
as the moon was
climbing the ladder
of night above us

we were walking
down the avenue
against the current
of tourists and taxis
leaning into the wind

we were walking
away from the show
we had come to see
full of the laughter
and lightness of life

we were walking
into a night that will
give birth to the day
that takes us back
to what home holds

we were walking
as we have for miles
and years together
down the path of
a well-worn love

Peace,
Milton

Monday, December 20, 2010

advent journal: connect the dots

On this Solstice night, we are chasing daylight in New York City. I surprised Ginger with a trip to see one of her all-time favorite things, now on Broadway: Pee Wee’s Playhouse.



There are days to write and reflect and there are days to bask in the sheer joy of love and what it means to be together. I am grateful for days like these.

Connect the dots, la la la . . .

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, December 19, 2010

advent journal: tomorrow

Tomorrow I
get to show
the person
I love most
how much
I love her
how much
I get her
with a
surprise
that has
her name
written
all over it
I wonder
if this is
a hint of
what God
felt like on
Christmas Eve.

Peace,
Milton

Saturday, December 18, 2010

advent journal: the connection was broken

My friend David died a year ago today. I wished I could have talked to him about the repeal of DADT and the failure of the DREAM Act and his daughter's graduation and what he was doing for Christmas and what music he had been listening to and what the plans were for camp next summer. But I couldn't. I did, however, spend a good bit of time talking to the Frontier Communications computer voice and a few of her human minions.

the connection was broken

this morning so I called
and talked to a computer
who had been made to
sound helpful and buy time
I had not planned to sell

it’s been a year since
we talked to each other
I even dialed your number
today to leave a message
it, too, has been disconnected

after an hour I was back
online and exhausted from
how long it took to find
someone who could help
and you are still gone

even though I stared at
our picture on my desk --
we were both smiling
at Christy’s wedding
I can still remember
Peace,
Milton

Friday, December 17, 2010

advent journal: day of service

we made a deposit
at our local food bank
524 pounds of groceries
math doesn’t do much

for poetry, but here are
the numbers: they need
112,329 pounds of food
everyday – every day

we had eight ninth grade
boys who unloaded the
truck and then stood on
the scale together

one ton of teenager
who had brought half
their weight in food
hoping to be of help

the woman at the scale
answered their questions
balanced their hope with
the weight of the world

we went back to school
then home for the holidays
she stayed to wait for the
other 111,800 pounds

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, December 16, 2010

advent journal: getting to the story

“History is written by the winners.”
So wrote one of my students in a list of ten quotes that were meaningful to him that I had asked him and his class to find and explain. His take on the quote was: “If you win, you get to be important.” Perhaps. Or at least you get to feel important, or say that you are since you won the right to control how the story gets told.

The quote came back to me twice today. First, I thought about it while listening to an NPR report about the CEOs who met with President Obama to talk about how to get the economy going. Part of the discussion had to do with the some two trillion dollars that big business in our country is holding on to; Obama wants them to turn some of that, anyway, into job opportunities, so we can get back to being Number One in the world. There was nothing particularly notable about the report, other than the really rich guys – the ones who make 263 times the salary of their average worker -- were the ones who have the ear of the president. The second time came in a note from poet and friend, Nathan Brown, quoting a line from a poem by Charles Bukowski (I’m expanding his quote a bit):
                  it’s not
                            the known great
but the great who died unknown;
                 it’s not
                            the history
of countries
but the lives of men.
Once upon a college, I was a history major. I was fortunate for my first professor to be Wallace Daniel, who taught his classes with novels rather than textbooks and was far more interested in how people lived that who won the war du jour. One of the things I learned from Wallace was that the story of humanity was more vital and varied than the polarities of most history books, which do reduce it down to who won and who lost. When we begin to talk about what people ate, where they lived, what they did for work, how they thought of family, and how they made meaning out of their existence, then we get to the essential questions on which we all feed and thrive.

If we only hear the stories of conquest and power, we will starve to death.

Or at least miss the point or what it means to be here. If power were the point, the Incarnation would never have happened. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us not so God could show us what real power looked like, but to remind us, as John says, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.” Jesus’ birth narrative calls forth a cast of also rans and ragamuffins, the weary and the unwashed, to hear the angels sing. The Christmas story is humanity’s story, told in the losses and the near misses, at the margins and the fringes, among the unknown and the unforgiven, who heard the angel choir. Those who followed centuries later with crusades, military and otherwise, wandered horribly off script. The history of Christianity may be one of how it conquered the world, but that is not the story of our faith. Two thousand years of people gathering to pray together, to sing together, to eat together, to re-member shattered lives together: now, there’s a story.

In various ways over the past week, I’ve heard different members of our government from different branches talk about the need for us to “get back on top in the world,” which isn’t a helpful goal. Deciding what matters most is to be Number One leads us to spend all of our time looking in the mirror while we think we have a great view of the world. Besides, who decides who is Number One? Neither Billboard nor the BCS has a chart for that. The perspective sets us up for an all or nothing approach. As one of my other students said, in response to the quote with which I began, “Second place is just another name for loser.” The next step is to win at all costs, because all that matters is winning.

Though I’m sure Jesus lettered in several sports at Nazareth High, he shied away from sports metaphors in his parables. He talked about farmers and poor people. He talked about banquets for everyone and fathers who forgave unflinchingly. And he talked about lilies that rocked because they did little else but be themselves. Oh, yeah – and the meek would inherit the earth.

The Incarnation is not a statement of supremacy, not a call to conquest, but a tangible invitation to community, to connectedness, to a life more profound than winning and losing. No one’s keeping score: we are loved, we are loved, we are really loved. Every last one of us.

Even the rich and powerful.

Peace,
Milton

P. S. -- I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

advent journal: wishing for a sing-a-long

I've been staring at the screen for a couple of hours now.

I had a couple of ideas I was chasing, but my mind kept coming back to the sadness that has marked my day because it was one year ago today that I got the call that my dear friend, David Gentiles, had been injured in an accident in his home. He died three days later. I miss him terribly for a number of reasons, not the least of which is we both loved John Denver. In fact, a month or so before the accident we sang back and forth to each other on the phone one afternoon for no other reason than he was listening to John Denver records (yes, vinyl) when I called. So, tonight I offer one of our favorites -- and a version of it that I know would bring a smile to his face.



Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

advent journal: get yourself awed

300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

No, that’s not my salary offer to pitch next year, nor is it the number of Cheetos I have consumed in my life time. 300 sextillion is the latest estimate of the number of stars in the universe, which is three times what astronomers had previously thought. As we learned from Hubble’s “Deep Field” pictures, every time we look out into the darkness, we find more light.

Or, perhaps, it’s the other way round.

The story is not new, but I thought about it again today because of another NPR story on Voyager 1, a spacecraft launched in 1977 to look at the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, which is getting close to the outer edge of our solar system and will move on into interstellar space in about four years. Melissa Block talked to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium and asked him what had been the most amazing thing he had learned from Voyager and he talked about seeing the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The images were clear enough to see mountains and ice. They aren’t just big balls of gas, he said, they are worlds.

As I meandered the web before I started to write, my friend Sonya pointed me to this article by Mark Morford that talked about the sextillion stars and finished with one other thing:

Oh and BTW? 300 sextillion, says our sly scientist, also happens to be the rough sum total of all cells inhabiting all human bodies on planet earth at this particular moment. One sextillion stars, one sextillion cells. Isn't that fascinating? Isn't that an odd coincidence?


Well, no, say the wise ones. Not really. Now pipe down and get yourself awed.
I put it all together and I come up singing hymns:
O Lord my God when I in awesome wonder
consider all the worlds thy hands hath made
I see the stars I hear the rolling thunder
thy power throughout the universe displayed
then sings my soul . . .
On the continuum of wonder, we sit somewhere between the two sextillions, cellular and celestial, stealthily bombarded with opportunities for amazement from both directions, even as we, the inhabitants of this world, are consumed by our fears and distractions, along with our ever-expanding sense of ourselves. Yet, the sum of all our arrogance doesn’t come close to 300 sextillion ramekins of rage (or whatever the measurement might be); our fear stands dwarfed by the brilliance bound for us at the speed of, well, light.

Maybe that’s why every time an angel shows up in the gospels he leads with, “Do not be afraid.”

Yes, it’s dark out there and, as David Wilcox says, “there’ll always be some crazy with an army or a knife.” But all the IEDs and RPGs, all the cancers and car crashes, the Alzheimers, all the terrorists and tsunamis, all the smart bombs and stupid politicians, all the wars and rumors of wars don’t come close to outnumbering the 300 sextillion stars – the light gaining on us – and all the cells that are our built-in reminder of what has been true since Creation: nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Bill Mallonee has a song called “Look at All the Stars.” The last two verses say:
there are some who’re blind by choice
and there others who are not
and I’ve kept so many faces
but my own I’ve long forgot
father often took me here
he was like a little child
long before the lights went out
I can still see him smile
he said look at all the stars
oh my look at all the stars
yeah I brought you here to see
all the things I never see
brought you to this highest peak
so you’ll me what I’m missing
when the clouds are blown apart
I hear the moon shines like a cup
in that silver velvet blue
the heart of God it opens up
look at all the stars
you say look at all the stars
oh my look at all the stars
Pipe down and get yourself awed: say, “Oh, my, look at all the stars.”

Peace,
Milton

Monday, December 13, 2010

advent journal: measurements

I can show you a cup of flour,
or a pound of sugar, but
I am at a loss to quantify
how much grief weighs,
how long a heart stays broken,
how far it is to forgiveness, or
the speed of the sound of loneliness --
even as I strain to comprehend
how a heart like yours
can hold a galaxy of grace,
how sorrow becomes weightless
in the gravity of your love,
how home is as close as you
calling my name in the dark.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, December 12, 2010

advent journal: you say it's my birthday

On this Sunday of Joy during Advent, our children led us in a Posada, which is a tradition from Mexico and other Latin American countries. We had three “inns” set up around the church and the children traveled, following Mary and Joseph, to each door. They knocked and said, in unison, “We must find a place to stay. We are weary and the journey has been long. Perhaps these kind people will let us stay here.” Then half of the congregation sang, “In the name of heaven, I ask you for shelter for my wife is tired and she can go no farther.” The innkeeper then answered the door and told them they were not welcome because they were strangers and not known and the other half of the congregation sang, “You cannot stay here. You are a stranger. You are not welcome here. You must go away.”

We repeated the scene twice, but then they came to the door in front of the altar and this time the innkeeper welcomed them and we all rejoiced. Then the children came down the center aisle and I realized they each had something in their hand given them by the innkeeper: sugar cookies. To paraphrase Ginger’s benediction at the end of the service -- what better way to capture what this season means: Christ is born and have a cookie!

The end of the service was the beginning of celebration for me because today was my fifty-fourth birthday. I knew Ginger had things planned, but I didn’t know what any of them were because our tradition is for the birthday to be a day of surprises. What unfolded was a day of food and friendship, or affirmation and celebration that was astounding. Our former foster daughter, Julie came down from Boston with her girlfriend to be a part of the weekend. We had beignets for breakfast, Turkish food for lunch, Fullsteam beer and various snacks for dinner, and then closed out the night at the restaurant where I used to work. In the gaps along the way, I checked Facebook to find one happy wish from every chapter of my life. Here, at the end of the day, I feel connected, celebrated, affirmed, and loved, loved, loved.

When I have a chance to watch awards shows on television, I often think how wonderful it is for those who act or sing for a living to have chosen a career where people are intentional about handing out awards and affirmation. I wish every career path offered such a chance for that kind of recognition, and for everyone to say thank you to those who have helped them get where they are. My birthday felt like my award show today. And I am filled with gratitude.

Peace,
Milton

Saturday, December 11, 2010

advent journal: log work

I spent the afternoon at a Mushroom Workshop with my friends from Bountiful Backyards and I came home with a couple of shiitake logs and a few words.

log work 
we took oak logs
and drilled small holes
filled them up with
mushroom spores and
sealed them shut with
beeswax so we
could take them home
and wait to eat
flavorful fungi
in a season
some months away

dinner tonight
will be someone
else’s harvest
the waiting is
an essential
ingredient
nothing that grows
comes fully formed
what’s true of ‘shrooms
goes for mangers too
Peace,
Milton

Friday, December 10, 2010

advent journal: examined by love

This evening we gathered around our dinner table with friends, as is our Friday night custom, and one of them, John, said, “I have a poem to read.” What followed were words full of flavor and sustenance by a poet named Thomas Centolella, who was a new name to me. I would be remiss if I did not pass along to you what was given to me.

In the Evening We Shall Be Examined on Love
And it won’t be multiple choice,
Though some of us would prefer it that way.
Neither will it be essay, which tempts us to run on
When we should be sticking to the point, if not together.
In the evening, there shall be implications
Our fear will change to complications. “No cheating,”
We’ll be told, and we’ll try to figure the cost of being true
To ourselves. In the evening, when the sky has turned
That certain blue, the blue of exam books, books of no more
Daily evasion, we shall climb the hill as the light empties
And park our tired bodies on a bench above the city
And try to fill in the blanks. And we won’t be tested
Like defendants on trial, cross-examined
Till one of us breaks down, guilty as charged. No,
In the evening, after the day has refused to testify,
We shall be examined on love like students
Who don’t even recall signing up for the course
And now must take their orals, forced to speak for once
From the heart and not off the top of their heads.
And when the evening is over and it’s late
The student body asleep, even the great teachers
Retired for the night, we shall stay up
And run back over the questions, each in our own way:
What’s true and what’s false, what unknown quantity
Will balance the equation, what it would mean years from now
To look back and know
We did not fail.
I am grateful that John left the typewritten page with the poem here because I want to roam around in these lines over the next few days, but tonight the take away for me was, “forced to speak for once from the heart and not off the top of their heads,” which we did in the almost three hours that followed his reading of the poem, each of us around the table doing our best both to tell stories and to listen. On evenings like this, friendships grow deeper and hope takes root like the ivy that refuses to relent in its attempt to climb the side of our house.

It was good to be here.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, December 09, 2010

advent journal: looking for scout

We’re beginning to make the turn towards home in To Kill a Mockingbird in my American Lit. class. We had a discussion today about the way in which a crisis exposes both the things that tie us together and the things that tear us apart. Maycomb, the little town where the story takes place, had some deep divisions around race and class that stayed mostly unspoken until Atticus Finch, a white lawyer, agreed to represent Tom Robinson, an African-American man who had been accused of raping a white woman. She also happened to be dirt poor. In a few pages, the biases and boundaries of the small town were exposed as though a sirocco had blown through blowing all the top soil into the next county and leaving everything out in the open.

In one of the most powerful scenes, a group of white men come to the jail to exact their version of justice on Tom. Atticus is sitting on the porch of the jail (Where but the South do you have a jail with a big porch?) to be a human barrier between the lynch mob and his client. The men respect Atticus but don’t intend to be deterred. What none of them knew was that Scout had followed her father to the jail and was hiding in the shadows. As the tempers begin to flare and the volume begin to grow, Scout recognizes one of the men as the father of one of her classmates and she calls out to him and asks about his son. The shouting stops and the man answers the question. Scout calls out in greeting to some of the other men who greet her in return, and, within a few minutes, start heading for home, humbled by a ten-year old prophet.

Her forthrightness turned a light on the lynch mob and called them into honesty.

Though I won’t feign understanding of all of the implications of the Wikileaks mess that is going on, I do think about Scout calling those men by name when I hear another story explaining what was in the diplomatic cables. I am not na├»ve. I know the world has convinced itself that secrecy and even deceit are a necessary part of diplomacy and politics. And look how well it’s working. From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to elections in Haiti to civil war in Sudan to the arrogance and incompetence of our own leaders in Washington, our leaders sit just as Buddy the Elf accused the false Santa: on a throne of lies. And they probably smell like beef and cheese, too.

Power is the primary currency and it has left us bankrupt.

At least in the book, there’s a sense that the men came to themselves, much like the prodigal son, and realized they needed to stop what they were doing and go home. Listening to the congressional rhetoric, the win-at-all-costs-anything-for-power mentality feels conscious and brazen. Wikileaks or no, they are going to keep on keeping secrets and banking both power and money because that is what they think matters most. While Congress let the Dream Act and the chance to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” fall by the wayside, the same Wall Street firms that imploded our economy are paying out $90,000,000,000 (yep – 10 zeros) in bonuses (so they need those tax cuts to continue, don’t you know).

King Herod, who would have done quite well in Washington, was willing to wipe out every toddler in the land because he was afraid of whom Jesus might become. Two thousand years later, we as the Body of Christ aren’t scaring anyone hardly at all, or expecting much to change. Christmas will come and Washington will go on having prayer breakfasts and listening to lobbyists without any sense of irony and very little integrity, ceaselessly campaigning for the next election.

I am not saying I expect our government or this nation to be Christian. It is not by definition. I am saying for people created in the image of a subversive, inside out, unabashedly loving God who picks the poor every time, we have work to do to make speaking up our daily practice rather than letting it become an occasional event.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

advent journal: words with john

John Lennon was killed thirty years ago today.

(I know, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.)

Here is the poem I found digging through his words tonight.

 words with john
there are places I remember
all my life though some have changed
hold on world, world hold on
It's gonna be alright
you gonna see the light

you may say I'm a dreamer
but I'm not the only one
all i want is the truth
It's gonna be alright
you gonna see the light

I feel sorrow, oh I feel dreams
everything is clear in my heart
everything is clear in our world
It's gonna be alright
you gonna see the light

love is the answer and you know that for sure
love is a flower you got to let it grow
all we are saying is give peace a chance
It's gonna be alright
you gonna see the light

you say you want a revolution
well you know
we all want to change the world
don't you know know it's gonna be alright
you gonna see the light

why in the world are we here
surely not to live in pain and fear
grow old with me the best is yet to come
It's gonna be alright
you gonna see the light
Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

advent journal: surprise

caught by surprise
we say -- like a fly ball
or a base runner --
caught, perhaps
like a falling heirloom –
in the nick of time

but not tonight –
I was . . .

taken by surprise
like a hostage or
a dog from the shelter --
out of my routine
and off to the theater
by the dancer I know best

then we walked
under the lighted trees
as we always do --
to find the familiar
is so flush with wonder
is no surprise at all

Peace,
Milton

Monday, December 06, 2010

advent journal: nothing new to say

When we came out of the restaurant, the air was raw – even people who know what real winter is would have shared my weather report. The wind was biting and we all braced ourselves as we walked to the car. We went out on a winter’s night because Reuben, my father-in-law, turned eighty today. We wanted to take him to Maggiano’s Little Italy because when we celebrated his seventieth we went to their restaurant in Boston, so we carried on the tradition, even in a different city.

But much has changed in ten years. And in the last two weeks.

Reuben’s Alzheimer’s appears to be picking up the pace of his disappearance, so these days of celebration and remembrance carry even greater significance. As we drove across town to the restaurant, he sang any number of songs that came to mind, beginning with his greatest hit, “Nothing Could Be Finer (Than To Be In Carolina),” and moving through much of Eddie Arnold’s catalog. When we got up from the pub table where they had us wait until our dinner table was ready, he took time to straighten all the chairs before he joined us. We asked questions about memories he can still find and he talked about growing up and going overseas in the Service. And then he effusively expressed his love for Rachel, his wife, and his eyes glistened and danced before they faded, once more, back into blankness. As we drove home, Ginger wished him happy birthday to remind him of why we were out in the cold and he began singing, “Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me,” with great gusto.

My task before we left for dinner was to make a caramel cake, which has been rather elusive in the years before we moved to Durham. Around here, people actually know what that is. For those of you not from the South, let me say it will meet whatever sugar fix you have. I have tried several recipes over the years and Reuben has been gracious in eating them and enjoying them, but they were never the same as he remembered as a child. Today, thanks to whoever it is that writes Smitten Kitchen, I found a recipe that made the cake I have been looking for. We got home from our sojourn and finished the evening with a good shot of sugar infused with a lifetime of memories. He made it to eighty. We are all here together in Durham, along with the pups.

What we are living through doesn’t get fixed by following the Star.

Christmas will come, Christ will be born, and Reuben will still be disappearing. We will have to tell him it’s Christmas – more than once. And what it feels like for us to live through this year is not new ground. As many Christmases as there have been, there have been people living in pain, losing one another, wondering what difference it makes that unto us a Child is born – which is not as cynical or as hopeless as it sounds. Much of the hope is the resonance of woundedness: we are not the first. We stand in the lineage that begins with certain poor shepherds and winds its way through hospital halls and houses, down the days shared by friends and families who know life’s crushing load all too well.

And Mary brought forth a son who came to both redeem and resonate: God with us.

When I came up to write tonight, I had a song swirling inside me, which I subsequently found on Youtube and watched, cried, and sang along several times before I began typing. The song is Kathy Mattea’s “Where’ve You Been?” (written by Jon Venzer and Don Henry). It tells the story of a couple who were married sixty years before one began to disappear. The final verse says
claire soon lost her memory
forgot the names of family
she never spoke a word again
then one day they wheeled him in
he held her hand and stroked her hair
in a fragile voice she said
where've you been
I've looked for you forever and a day
where've you been
I'm just not myself when you're away
I get to this point in my posts and I think, “I’m saying the same things over and over.” I am pulled to repeat carols and Patty Griffin lyrics I have posted over and over, I come back to what it means to be community – together, and what it means that God climbed into our skin and joined the circle of woundedness and wonder. I find comfort in the repetition because it’s one of the ways I am drawn to resilience. I read T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” and come to the lines where he says
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This:
And I can feel him banging those words on the desk, the repetition compelling me to pay attention and let the words make their indelible mark on my heart by tapping at it again and again.

One of the people with whom Reuben shares a birthday is Peter Buck of REM. They have also been victims of my repetition over the years because “Everybody Hurts” is a hymn, as far as I’m concerned.
when you think you've had too much
of this life well hang on
'cause everybody hurts
take comfort in your friends
everybody hurts
don't throw up your hands
oh no don't throw up your hands
if you feel like you're alone
no no no you are not alone
On this night when the dark and cold are deep inside, when the light in Reuben’s eyes flashed for a fading moment, and when all I know to do is to cling to those I love and words I know so that Christ will be born again in my time, I have nothing new to say. But what I have is enough.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, December 05, 2010

advent journal: incidental contact

The first Sunday of the month means we celebrate Communion at our church, as in many Protestant congregations. Of all the things we do together in worship, Communion lands at the top of the list for me: we remember the story that binds us together in word and in action, we feed one another, and we do some thing that every Christian who came before us has done all the way back to that First Supper in the Upper Room.

I come away from the meal each month feeling filled and connected.

This afternoon, Ginger and I went to an assembly of Durham CAN (Durham Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods) which is a community organizing group made up of a wide cross-section of people from across the city who connect to bring about change in our city. They organized neighborhood audits a couple of months back where people walked the streets of various neighborhoods – particularly some of the poorer ones – and made note of all the things that needed to be fixed. They gave that information to the city. Today, the City Manager stood before the assembly and one of the Durham CAN leaders asked him if he would be accountable to come back in ninety days and report on how the needs on the list were being addressed. He said he would.

Durham CAN doesn’t raise money or hire lobbyists. They connect people in the community and bank on the relationships to call people to accountability. The trust of the organization is in the power of relationships. After the meeting ended, Ginger introduced me to Mauricio, whom she had met at an earlier meeting.

“I want you to tell Milton your story,” she said to him.

Mauricio is from El Salvador and came to the U. S. in early 1980 at the encouragement of his mentor, Bishop Oscar Romero, who helped him and several other your Salvadorian men get out of the country to tell El Salvador’s story and to escape being killed by the death squads. Romero himself was assassinated in March of the same year. I was speechless. I was standing next to someone in Durham, North Carolina who was standing next to me because of the actions of one of the heroes of my faith. For a moment, I stood in a small church connected across miles and years to someone who had helped to shape my faith, connected hand to hand, person to person.

When we left the meeting, Ginger and went home, fed the pups, picked up the pot of chili I made this afternoon, and headed for Fullsteam to break bread or at least eat chili and drink beer some folks who had been at the assembly and a few others who were just coming for the food and fellowship. The chili was hot, the beer was cold, and the conversations were rich and flavorful. I met some wonderful people. As we were getting ready to leave, one of the folks with us pointed out a large table of Duke Divinity School students and mentioned several of them had gone to Wheaton College in Illinois, where our nephews went to school. Ginger and I walked over to the table, introduced ourselves, and then asked if they knew Ben and Scott and several faces at the table lit up. For a moment, I stood in a pub connected across miles and years to two guys I love deeply through people I can’t even call by name but who share the affection for Ben and Scott.

The incidental contact of an introduction, a conversation, or passing the Bread and the Cup is the stuff of glory, or community, of incarnation. We make our way across oceans and opinions, across aisles and attitudes in small steps and gentle gestures much more than huge leaps and grand actions. We serve one another, hand to hand, all the way back to the Upper Room.

Peace,
Milton

Saturday, December 04, 2010

advent journal: vegetative state

the farmers’ market is an act of faith,
the sky starting to smell like snow . . .
we are all dressed like vegetables
are the last things on our minds, yet
we are as determined as the kale to
make the most of this descending season.

one friend finds me in the sweet potatoes
and we swap stories for sustenance;
he talks of reading with his daughter
great stories of friends and loyalty and
I think of my friends: tenacious as turnips,
hardy as collards, and true as beets.

Peace,
Milton

Friday, December 03, 2010

advent journal: us with us

Years ago, at a youth camp with my dear friend, John, I watched as he led his group in a visible expression of their connections with one another. One person started with a ball of string and tossed it to another while holding on to the end. Then she told the other what the connection meant to her; that person tossed it to another and so on until they had created a visible expression of the love they shared for and with one another.

It matters to feel connected.

One of the ways that we stay alive is trusting that those kinds of connections are still there and then days come when we need a more tangible sense of the tenacious tether of love: we need to see it, to say it, to step in and do what it takes to tighten the bonds and pull close together. Tonight is one of those nights for the very friend who showed his kids how to love each other. The story is his to tell, but the short version is his life took a hard turn this week and he is leaving the church where he has pastored without knowing what is coming next.

Another tangible expression of love, for me, has been Patty Griffin’s song, “When It Don’t Come Easy,” particularly for her stunning articulation of what love looks like:

if you break down I’ll drive out and find you
if you forget my love I’ll try to remind you
and stay by you when it don’t come easy
Tonight’s post, therefore, takes a more personal tone than usual in its focus. On the way to Bethlehem, I want my friend to know he is not alone. I want to remind myself of the same. The angel’s response to Joseph’s fear and questions about the unknown that lay ahead was to tell him what to name the child: Emmanuel, God with us.

Yes. And us with us, too.

Here’s is Justin McRoberts’ cover of Patty’s song.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, December 02, 2010

advent journal: allergic reaction

they catch me
coming and going
my eyes itch
my sinuses clog
like an old drain
whether the trees
are budding
or the leaves
are taking their
parting shot
on their way
to death
how can some
thing as simple as
coming and going
budding and falling
cause so much
pain and discomfort
in the midst of
beauty and color?

I think I'm still
talking about leaves.

Peace,
Milton

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

advent journal: fully human

At church last Sunday we lit the first candle for hope. At school this week, we are preparing to send out midterm progress reports. At my school, the reports have both a grade and a narrative. Most all of my students struggle in one way or another; some more than others. One boy is new this year and is having a hard time. Even at a school aimed at the kids that don’t fit in a more conventional structure, he is an outsider. It’s painful to watch. He had been at school about a month when he asked me at the end of class one day, “Mr. B-C, am I a bad person?”

“No,” I replied, “you’re not.”

“Then why don’t people like me?”

I didn’t have an answer. This term, he has stopped doing most all of his homework. Today, I pulled him aside, along with our academic dean who is wonderful with kids, not to chide the boy but to see if I could find some way to reach him. Over the past several days, when I have asked for his homework, his head drops, he lets out a deep sigh, and his body physically deflates. He looks defeated and disgraced all in one motion. As we talked this afternoon, he sank deeper and deeper into the chair as he talked about feeling paralyzed by perfectionism. He wasn’t turning in the work, he said, because he didn’t think it would be good enough and he would feel like a failure.

Three different times I told him the homework assignments (reading journals) were things he got full credit just for turning them in. If something was not right, he could revise it without penalty. Then I would ask him what he heard me say and he would talk about not being good enough. We talked long enough to agree that his best way out of the hole he has dug for himself was one assignment at a time. Bird by bird, if you will. I didn’t ask him to make any promises other than he would turn in the next reading journal, which is due on Friday. He agreed. As I drove home, I remembered a poem I wrote a decade ago about a young man who was being beaten down by high school. I dug back through my files and found it.

high school
say you start with
a thousand candles
tiny little beacons
beaming together
in adolescent brilliance
say you blow out one
it doesn’t take much
this one here
at the edge
in the back
say you blow out one
no one will notice
one each night
just one
how could it matter
come back
in a thousand nights
the eyes
will have nothing
left to say
only the light over
the kitchen sink
goes out
with the flick
of a switch
the light inside
dies incrementally
My student thinks failure is the default setting for what it means to be human. No matter how hard he tries, sooner or later he is going to come up short – too short – and be exposed for the failure that he is to the core of his being. And he’s not alone, which makes me wonder if perhaps grade reports in the middle of Advent are not so out of place. One of the most powerful implications of the Incarnation is what Jesus being born “fully human” says about what it means for any of us to be human. Yes, we are all capable of doing damage to our selves and to one another, but because of the birth in Bethlehem, because the Word became flesh, I am reminded that my student is not most human when he is deflated and despairing and neither am I.

It is good to be human. Jesus said so with his birth.

Keep lighting candles.

Peace,
Milton