Tuesday, December 27, 2011

six years on . . .

On Tuesday, December 27, 2005, I began writing this blog with these words:

I've been staring at the "posting" screen for several days now trying to figure out how to join the world of food bloggers. Since I'm writing from a Mac and I don't know much about HTML, I'm still not sure about adding links and so forth. I wanted the blog to look less plain, but I decided to work with what I have rather than wait for everything to be perfect.
Tonight, Tuesday, December 27, 2011, I am still working with what I have rather than waiting for everything to be perfect. That train never comes. What has arrived in my life over these six years is a feast of friends and connections and experiences, along with the practice of writing which has helped me, challenged me, inspired me, and humbled me.

I am grateful for the journey.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

advent journal: fifty-six christmases

fifty six  christmases

and it matters more than
ever that Christ is born again
in the carols round the tree
in the sharing of meals
in the gift-wrapped bits of love
in the quiet streets of the city
in the empty chair at the table
in the ache of growing
and knowing too much
in the memories that hang
on the tree and in my heart
more than ever this year
I need Jesus to be born


Friday, December 23, 2011

advent journal: first supper

we have several mangers on our mantle
made of materials from ‘round the world
each a collection of the usual suspects
along with a contingent of livestock

but there’s no food

the magi made the effort to bring
incense and offerings, but not one
covered dish made the journey
the shepherds too were empty handed

on his way out Jesus gathered
his friends and fed them a meal
to remember over and over
every time you eat he said

but for all the angels and alleluias
all the stars and promises
how can it be no one thought
mary and joseph might be hungry


Thursday, December 22, 2011

advent journal: here's how love comes to town

here’s how love comes to town

on the back of a donkey
in the womb of a teenager
to a sleepy little town
without a decent hotel

on the smile of a friend
in the heart of a stranger
who shares your grief
and makes room for it

on the whisper of hope
in the ear of the darkness
calling out our names
as if we all mattered


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

advent journal: god.with.us.

On this longest night, we gathered in our church sanctuary for our annual “Blue Christmas” service, which is designed to offer sanctuary to those who are grieving in the midst of the festivities, no matter what the loss. Ginger had candles across the altar at the front of the church, along with those in our Advent wreath and a table set for dinner (using our Christmas dishes) at the front as well. My friend Terry and I opened the service with “I Wonder as I Wander.” I sang the first verse acapella and then he wandered and wondered on his harmonica, drawing us all deeper into the darkness and the hope.

We then sang “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which is one of my favorite carols. I love the intentional simplicity of the lyric:

in the bleak midwinter frosty winds made moan
earth stood hard as iron water like a stone
snow had fallen snow on snow snow on snow
in the bleak midwinter long ago
As we sang together on this longest night of snow stacking up, I thought about how those in the early church tied celebration of Jesus’ birth to the solstice. Some say it was to counteract, or even appropriate, pagan cultures and celebrations. But as I sat in the service tonight, thinking of Jesus who was born nowhere near either any December or snow on snow, I found a compelling pull to celebrating Christmas right now. Tomorrow night, you see, will be a little bit shorter than tonight, and the one that follows even shorter still. We sing of frozen water and snow drifts and celebrate Jesus’ birth just as the planet is turning back to the light as a way to remind ourselves that it will not always be winter or dark or painful. The tiny baby in Bethlehem, who never knew of snow or much of winter, is born in our time and in our culture just as the tide is turing.


The promise of a Messiah was centuries old by the time Mary and Joseph settled in behind the inn. The Messiah that showed up was not yet fully formed, so everyone had to wait another thirty years for him to come into his own. When the angel came to tell Joseph what was going down, he comforted the carpenter by saying, “You should name him ‘Emmanuel,’ which means “God With Us.”

God. With. Us.

Whether the night is long or the day full of summer, whether the snow is stacking up or the sunshine beats down, God is with us. We are not alone.

Terry and I also performed one of my favorite hymns, “Come, Ye Disconsolate.”
come ye disconsolate
where’er ye languish
come to the mercy seat
fervently kneel
here bring your wounded hearts
here tell your anguish
earth has no sorrow
that heaven cannot heal
I learned the hymn as a child and it sounded much like this. This afternoon while I was rehearsing, my friend Jay and I found this version that changed the way I thought of the song from a great old hymn to a great old bluesy gospel number. The discovery gave me the freedom to sing a bluesier version myself. We also found an “original lyric” to the hymn that changed the third line of the second verse to sing:
joy of the desolate
light of the straying
hope when all else is dead
faithful and pure
Whatever night Jesus actually came into the world twenty centuries ago, for most it was a bleak midwinter of the heart, a season of grief that meant most everything was dead or frozen, the trees had turned to skeletons, and the dark seemed endless.

So it was tonight as it was long ago.

We finished our time together singing of the hopes and fears of all the years, yet what we felt were those that belong to this year, to pain and despair. How good to sit together, to wonder together, to sing together and remember the boy was named Emmanuel.

God. With. Us.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

advent journal: penultimate


on this tuesday night
we sat around the table
as though we had
all the night we wanted
to eat and drink and
laugh and talk and hope
we even had time for pie

tomorrow night
our prodigal planet
will wander as far
as it ever does from
the light of the sun
and then start back

what a gift that we can
live out a prophetic parable
with pork chops and pecan pie
leaning into the light
even as we head deeper
into the darkness


Monday, December 19, 2011

advent journal: advent-ku carols

a midnight clear
angels bending near the earth
peaceful wings unfurled

there in a manger
little lord Jesus laid down
cattle are lowing

angels heard on high
and the mountains in reply
gloria Deo

wander as wonder
poor orn’ry people like you
and like me (not I)


Sunday, December 18, 2011

advent journal: nothing new to say

Two years ago today, my good friend David Gentiles died. Losing someone that close brought new feelings for me. Yesterday marked nine weeks since we buried my father-in-law, who was the first of our parents to die. The grief of these days is new to me, but as I sat in church this morning, for reasons I don’t know, it struck me that what is new to me is not new.

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
"See, this is new"?
It has been already in the ages before us.
(Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)
If we’re talking about grief, it shows up early on just east of Eden when Cain killed his brother Abel. Whatever else we might find in that story, grief is front and center. Death and loss show up in the first chapter and have kept repeating their performances. From the beginning, we have had to learn without all the pieces of our hearts intact. Grief entered the story early, along with jealousy and anger, but so did grace and hope and redemption. Even God’s love is not new. It is, in fact, the very raw material of all creation, the very stuff that brought the universe into existence, long before humans came on the scene convinced that we were the most essential element and nothing of great significance – or, certainly, more significance – than ourselves had ever happened.

One of my favorite readings of the Creation Story was new to me when I was in seminary, though it dated back to Irenaeus in the second century. He felt Adam and Eve were created as children and God’s admonition to stay away from the Tree was to give them time to grow up. Their sin in eating the fruit was in growing up too fast and thinking they knew better than God.

There is nothing new under the sun.

As I think about what is new to me, whatever the feeling or experience might be, I realize we go through life much like the explorers before us “discovering” things that were already there. The only people who thought Columbus discovered America were those back in Spain who thought they were the center of their very limited universe. To people already on the “undiscovered” land had known about it for centuries. As I discover new experiences, new ages, and new feelings I am stumbling on to well-trodden paths as though I am the first to walk there. What I am feeling is not new. I am, instead, connecting with a memory older than time itself, offering me the chance to feel humility, resonance, wonder, and hope alongside of my grief.

Yesterday I waited on a man at the computer store who had his daughter with him. He held her the whole time we were talking. She had jet black hair that framed her young face and black eyes that glistened they were so dark. She smiled every time I looked at her. “Your daughter is lovely,” I said. “How old is she?”

“She has a birthday tomorrow,” he replied. “She will be two.”

She was born the day David died. As one heart as big as the world left the planet, this young one found it all new. I wonder as I wander . . . .

This afternoon, I found myself singing Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,”which describes a boy growing up from a child to adulthood. The chorus sings:
and the seasons they go round and round
and the painted ponies go up and down
we're captive on the carousel of time
we can't return we can only look
behind from where we came
and go round and round and round
in the circle game
This morning, I finished my Advent stint as the prophet. After four seasons here in Durham, some of our children don’t know of Advent without me. As I turned to face them when I reached the back of the sanctuary as the congregation and I were finishing the song, I could see the three and four year olds singing, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Circling round the seasons to do again what we have done before, to look for new eyes and new ears, to pray for Christ to be born again in our time and our culture is at the heart of what it means to be both hopeful and human. It’s not about looking for what is new but remembering what it true.

What is true is we were created with the capacity for wonder, with the ability to be caught by surprise by what has been there all along. We sat in the theater in High Point on Friday watching Scrooge be dragged about by the three ghosts until he came to the new realization that people mattered more than things. We all knew the old, old story, just as Dickens was writing down a tale that preceded him dressed in different clothes. And it was worth repeating.

I will keep repeating these days of loss and learn how much it matters to keep remembering and listening that I might discover more of who I am and who God is.

Here’s the good news : there is nothing new under the sun. Surprise!


Saturday, December 17, 2011

advent journal: innkeepers

I’ve been thinking
about the innkeeper
actually all of those
in Bethlehem who

have taken a bad rap
over two millennia for
not making room
as if no vacancy

is some sort of sin
it was after all
Jesus being born
did they not know

did they not see
than angel choir
the way the animals
all laid down

as though posing
for a nativity scene
is it that hard to notice
when Jesus shows up?

that last question
is rhetorical ---- right?


Friday, December 16, 2011

advent journal: goo is love

I love to tell the story for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest . . .
We took our high school kids on a field trip to High Point, North Carolina to see a production of “A Christmas Carol” today. The 10 a. m. performance played to a hall full of school kids of varying ages. The cast did a good job telling an incredibly familiar story. It’s not as though we were going to be surprised how Scrooge responded to the three ghosts who haunted him into embracing his humanity. As familiar as it is, it’s not a story that gets old for me. I love the idea that we can learn, that even the most jaded of us can find light again, that, as Huey Lewis sings, “You don’t need money, don’t need fame, don’t need no credit card to ride this train . . . .”

That’s the power of love.

Scrooge didn’t see anything new, he just saw it with new eyes – or a new heart – and it all looked different. He’s easy to judge. Seeing and hearing the story again and again, however, somehow makes him more understandable. I don’t mean that to justify him. I mean when life leaves us weary and burdened any of us can lose perspective. Today, as we watched, I was struck by how Scrooge moved from being motivated by guilt and shame with the first ghost to finding joy with the last one, once he realized he could make a positive difference with small gestures in the same way he had made life miserable for many with small gestures.

Driving back to school we passed a cemetery. On the side of the hill facing the road someone had taken long thin boards, painted them white, and laid them out to spell a message to passers by. One of the boys riding with me, who is autistic, read the words as he saw them, “GOO IS LOVE.”

I smiled. “I think it says, ‘GOD IS LOVE.’’

“That makes more sense,” he said.

God is Love. That’s the old, old story with an ending you can see coming for miles. It has been told over and over, and we are telling it again this year as we move with Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, as we see shepherds running into town, Magi chasing stars, and Mary hiding things in her heart. Perhaps my eyes are so weary that I am looking at my reflection in the story, but they all seem tired to me. The shepherds were out sleeping in the field, the Magi had been on camels for more days than they could remember; Mary was on the verge of giving birth and rode a donkey across the country; Joseph was as perplexed as my student trying to figure out why GOO was love. All the tired travelers found their way to the manger, to the place where God poured God’s self into our exhausted existence to help us see something more.

On this tired night, I need to be reminded.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

advent journal: advent-ku, allergy edition

sick with allergies
waiting for winter to come
waiting for relief

my mind is stopped up
ideas trapped behind the wall
waiting for release


advent journal: grieving

Again, with the technical difficulties. Here is my post from last night.

imagine you have a stone
the size of your sorrow
strapped to your back
imagine you and the stone
have fallen into a lake
and sunk to the bottom
you struggle to your feet
and try to carry the stone
back to the surface
but you cannot rise
the water is pressing in
you are almost out of air
you finally open your mouth
to concede your breath
as the water rushes in
yet you can still breathe
though your body feels
full and heavy, heavy
you are left to walk under
the weight of the water
unable to rise beyond
able to walk and to breathe
when you thought you
wouldn’t last the night

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

advent journal: road trip

road trip

here is a well-traveled
metaphor: life is a road
a highway headed west
wait -- not the interstate

think two lane blacktop
that hits all the lights
in every small town
intentional inconvenience

that fills the booths in
soul food cafés filling
stations of the heart
where whoever comes

out to the car or
up to the table is
wearing a name tag
and a big smile maybe

sadness in their eyes
either one an invitation
we are people whose lives
are drowning in details
without express lanes

waiting to see what lies
just beyond the bend
of the next sorrow
traveling side by side

on our way home full
of grief and gratitude


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

advent journal: technical difficulties

The post is written, but our Wifi is down. All I can do is leave this message from my phone. I will post tomorrow.


Monday, December 12, 2011

advent journal: the double nickel manifesto

I had not intended to publish a manifesto today, or any day for that matter, but this post at brainpickings.com set me to thinking what my manifesto would be at this juncture of my existence. Before I could begin to answer that question, however, I wanted to figure out exactly what a manifesto was. I was familiar with the word, but in a sort of cultural sense. I wanted more specificity. I found this from the Online Etymological Dictionary:

1644, from It. manifesto "public declaration explaining past actions and announcing the motive for forthcoming ones," originally "proof," from L. manifestus (see manifest).
I then went in search of personal manifestos and found several here. I offer some of the highlights. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote a list of “fellowship assets” for his apprentices:
  1. An honest go in a healthy body.
  2. An eye to see nature.
  3. A heart for nature.
  4. Courage to follow nature.
  5. The sense of proportion (humor).
  6. Appreciation of idea as work and work as idea.
  7. Fertility of imagination.
  8. Capacity for faith and rebellion.
  9. Disregard for commonplace (inorganic) elegance.
  10. Instinctive cooperation.
I love Number Eight.

John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design offers ten laws for business, design, and life.
1. Reduce: The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.
2. Organize: Organization makes a system of many appear fewer.
3. Time: Savings in time feel like simplicity.
4. Learn. Knowledge makes everything simpler.
5. Differences: Simplicity and complexity need each other.
6. Context: What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral.
7. Emotion: More emotions are better than less.
8. Trust: In simplicity we trust.
9. Failure: Some things can never be made simple.
10. The One: Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful.
Leo Tolstoy had some interesting ideas which included:
Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater.
I have spent the last week working on what I am calling “The Double Nickel Manifesto.” I am happy to admit that every item represents something borrowed and learned from someone else. After all, originality, as one of my preaching professors used to say, is simply knowing how to hide your sources. The point of life is not to be self-sufficient. Thanks to everyone who has contributed. I also imagine this to be a work in progress. Maybe I’ll have a “Five and Dime Manifesto” when sixty rolls around.
The Double Nickel Manifesto.

Laugh a lot.
Walk a lot.
Look for every way you can to let people know you love them.
Try new things.
Practice old things.
Be honest and truthful.
Don’t hang on to anger.
Learn about the world and inform your compassion.
Be kind because everyone is fighting a great battle.
Don’t get too comfortable.
Remember life and faith are both team sports.
Make change normal.
Fail gloriously and often.
Don’t let fear get the last word.
Talk about what hurts.
Look for ways to connect.
Live like there are no discards.
Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.
Fall in love with a Schnauzer.
Marry out of your league.
Make music.
Be a regular somewhere.
Write it down.
Be thankful.
Make a memory out of every meal.
Don’t eat alone.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

advent journal: blessed are those that mourn

I looked forward to being the prophet this morning at church.

The verses that were mine to inhabit as I put on my robe and walked down the aisle of the church are some of my favorites from Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
I love the verses because of their beauty and power, because of the way Jesus appropriated them to say what he was about, and because of their compelling call to justice that has echoed down the centuries. But that was not what caught me this morning. As I practiced before church, I had an English teacher moment as I read: I was moved by a pronoun and its antecedent.

Verse three continues the sentence from above:
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that God may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
They – those who will be the carriers and perpetrators of love and redemption and justice are Those Who Mourn. Compassion and justice are born out of mourning, out of pain, out of woundedness. I was reminded of the definition of compassion I learned from reading Henri Nouwen many years ago: compassion is “voluntarily entering the pain of another.” And we can do that when we know what it is to hurt, to mourn, to miss.

Last night, our friend Diane took us to hear Amy Ray, one half of the Indigo Girls, who was playing a solo gig at Motorco Music Hall, a wonderful little venue here in our neighborhood. During the evening, Amy gave the mic to a woman who was calling us to action to help defeat the referendum in May that would restrict the definition of marriage in North Carolina. As she talked, she said, “Remember justice means we have to think about more than just us.” The word play hit home. I thought of Micah 6:8:
What does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Every action he mentions calls us to notice more than just us, to open our hearts, and to share in the pain of those around us. God moved over time from the words of the prophets to the Word who became flesh: the Incarnation is a living, breathing call to compassion.

I gave into the temptation to read the article on the Huffington Post about Mitt Romney offering a $10,000 wager to Rick Perry over whatever as though $10,000 was chump change. Neither of them can count themselves among those who operate out of the their understanding of the pain people are carrying – or at least they don’t show that side in their public personas. When it comes to discussing politicians, they are far from alone. As Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke or led marches or did whatever he did, he was able to foment real change because he was living right out of Isaiah’s words. He knew mourning by name and he knew how to make meaning out of pain. Leadership in the truest sense is not about power or charisma or connections or money. It’s about compassion, about relationship. The angel’s only comfort for Joseph, whose future had been upended by the reality of a pregnant fiancée, was to say, “The child will be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’”

With. Us. Those words call me back to one of my old standards when it comes to poetry, “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The hope of the Incarnation comes alive for me in the prophecy – and reality – that the world will be changed by the brokenhearted. Come, all who mourn, all who grieve, all who ache for loves lost, all who are acquainted with failure, all who know all too well that they are not enough, for God is calling us to proclaim liberty for the captives, to set the prisoners free, to bring good news to the disenfranchised, to comfort others who mourn, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk side by side with God.

Power didn’t come down at Christmas. Neither did orthodoxy.

Love came down at Christmas. Love is what matters most.


P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

advent journal: advent-ku

I remain intrigued
by the prospect of angels
who must say, “fear not”

as introduction
to good tidings of great joy
that come at a cost


Friday, December 09, 2011

advent journal: moving pictures

For the last several days I have been changing the profile picture on my Facebook page as I shuffled through some pictures of my childhood. I don’t remember all of the situations, or even all the locations beyond a generality, but I do recognize myself in a more profound way than just seeing a younger version of me. Amazing.

moving pictures
I have shed enough skin
to clothe a thousand cobras
forgotten enough memories
to fill a well of lifetimes
and posed for pictures
most all of my years
whether the picture was
taken before or after,
near by or far away,
I recognize myself
like Peter Pan re-
finding the Lost Boys
I have lived enough days
to know I can’t go back in time
what a joyful surprise, then
that memories would come
forward full of grace
and call me by name

Thursday, December 08, 2011

advent journal: mash-up

I am old enough to remember buying Simon and Garfunkel’s record Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme when it came out in 1966. It’s the one that had (besides the title track) “Homeward Bound” and “The 59th Street Bridge Song” and a couple of lesser known ones that became favorites of mine: “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” and “Cloudy.” The last track on Side Two is what made me think of the record today. It was a mash-up, in today’s jargon, of “Silent Night” and a reading of the seven o’clock news.

While I was eating lunch in my classroom I got first word of the shootings at Virginia Tech. That news came along side of John Corzine’s testimony before Congress, Rick Perry’s latest craziness, stories of European struggles, the posturing at the climate conference in Durban, among other things and I remembered being a kid in Zambia in 1966 wondering how to make any sense of the world and finding resonance with those feelings today, forty-five years later. It would be simplistic of me, however, to say not much has changed. I posted a picture on Facebook of when I was a kid in Lusaka and a guy I grew up with there made a comment about it not three minutes after the photograph went live. The world is different than it was then, but the pain and perplexity of what it means to be human seems consistent all the way back to that first Silent Night and beyond. It feels worse now because we’re the ones living these days.

I know it’s nice to imagine the night of Jesus’ birth being calm and serene, with thoughtful and attentive folks gathered round, but the truth is Jesus was born in traffic, if you will, stuck in the barn of a sold out motel in what was, I’m sure, not Bethlehem’s finest street. There was a war going on then, just as his nation was being governed by men who were more concerned with self-promotion and self-preservation than they were effective and meaningful leadership. Most everyday of Jesus’ life could have used both carol and commentator as soundtrack for the creative tension from which he called people to choose love as the ultimate value.

Another song came to mind today because this is also the thirty first anniversary of John Lennon’s death. In 1971, he released “So This is Christmas (War is Over).
and so this is Christmas
for weak and for strong
the rich and the poor ones
the world is so wrong
and so happy Christmas . . .
When that song came out, we were living in Fort Worth, Texas and I was a sophomore at Paschal High School, getting my first taste of what it was like to be an American teenager. I was pulled by the protests against the Vietnam War, even as I am pulled by the Occupy movement today. Though I knew war wasn’t just going to be over because we wanted it to, I also knew the subversive nature of a Love that would sneak into the world as a baby on a back street wasn’t going to run and hide when the pompous and the powerful started shooting up the place.

Simon and Garfunkel were on to something. Turn on the news while you’re listening to your Christmas carols. Pipe it into church while everyone is singing. Come face to face with all that is wrong with and in our world and then sing another verse. We are waiting for Christ to be born again in our time and in our culture because, no matter what the headlines, Love will outlast the lawyers, guns, and money.

Sleep in heavenly . . .


Wednesday, December 07, 2011

advent journal: today there was not enough light

today there was not enough light

to light the morning sky
before I got to work
to help my student see
the error of his ways
to last till the end of the afternoon
for me to get home before dark
to burn away the clouds
of grief that cover our house
so we sat together on the couch
surrounded by schnauzers
and watched the little tree lights
do their best to shine

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

advent journal: good to grow

Sunday night I went over to the Pinhook, one of local bars, for the Fifth Birthday Celebration for Bountiful Backyards, our friends who helped create our little urban foodscape at our house. They do awesome work and I was happy to go and celebrate with them. The other reason for the evening is they are working to raise money to buy land to create a real urban farm in East Durham, one of our poorer neighborhoods. You can read about their Kickstarter campaign here (and chip in, too, if you like).

Besides food and drink and information, the evening was full of music. Midtown Dickens, one of our cool local bands, played along with Phil Cook and his Feat, as Phil calls himself when he is playing solo rather than with his great band, Megafaun. Phil is one of the most talented and genuine people I have met here in Durham, with a smile as wide as his heart is open to those around him -- and he’s a hell of a musician. All those things together make him someone I enjoy getting to be around when I have the chance.

Sunday night I had the good fortune of walking up on a conversation between Phil and one of the guys in Midtown Dickens as they were talking about the band’s new album, which is due out in February. Phil had had a chance to hear the mixes and was quite impressed. He gave wonderful and specific feedback about how the record not only sounded but also how it showed the band’s progression. Then he said, “One of my favorite things in life is when you get to see your friends grow.”

And I thought, “Now that’s a perspective worth remembering.”

I spent a good part of the last couple of days writing up interim reports on my students to send home to parents the end of the week. These reports, different from the semester grades, have a narrative component where we have a chance to write a short paragraph about what we see happening in the lives of our students. For whatever reason, the inclination in writing such things always seems to tilt towards where the kids are falling short. Some of that is necessary. After Phil’s comment, I found myself working to find ways to invite the parents to see how their son or daughter was growing and learning. In some cases, that was quite a challenge. I do well when I can approach of my classes much the same way I go out into our bountiful backyard to see what is growing and blossoming, and what needs some extra care.

Since Sunday night, as I have ruminated on Phil’s words, I have given thanks for friends over the years who have expected, and continue to expect, me to grow. As the years go by, it is perhaps harder to find those friends and to be one of them as well. When we were kids, we marked our growth on the door frame. When we were students, we counted out life in semesters and degrees. When life moves on beyond semesters and course work it doesn’t appear to offer as many benchmarks to measure our progress. Part of it is, perhaps, there aren’t as many. For my high schoolers, every year means a new name – sophomore, junior, senior – even as specific ages offer their own sense of accomplishment: eighteen, twenty-one. Midlife sort of lumps the years together. We make the most out of the decades, but mostly to tell each other we are getting older as though getting there was achievement enough. We too easily let it slip from our mind that we would do well to encourage each other to grow.

One of the great things about life is that we get to do things more than once. Yet, phrased another way, life can become repetitious, sometimes deadeningly so. (Did I just make up a word?) We have Communion the first Sunday of every month at our church, for instance. What determines whether our ritual is a way to mark time or is our simply going through the motions? The answer might lie in Phil’s words. As we come to do again what we have done before, do we expect one another to have grown? Even if we repeat the same words and actions, we are not the same people we were a month, a year, a day ago. As we break bread and pray and sing together, let us take time to notice and appreciate how one another has grown.

As we draw closer to Bethlehem, let us take stock not of how we have aged, but how we have grown, even as we come expecting Jesus to do more than be the baby in the manger.


Monday, December 05, 2011

advent journal: poem, too

The spirit
       likes to dress up like this:
            ten fingers,
                 ten toes . . .
(Mary Oliver, “Poem”)

My father-in-law, Reuben Brasher, would have been eighty-one tomorrow; Wednesday marks eight weeks since he died.  I miss him.
poem, too
I think the Spirit
liked to dress up like Reuben:
every ounce of his being saying welcome,
a full-body smile that beamed love;
cobalt eyes as deep as the sky,
and a heart that stayed unlocked
no matter who entered.
his mind disappeared,
but his heart stayed the same –
his heart, and his eyes
the Spirit loved those eyes
because they could see
beyond our mountains of shame
to the clear blue morning in us all.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

advent journal: the mystery of the mundane

Look wherever you can find the information and you will find that our Sunday morning service at Pilgrim United Church of Christ begins at 10:30. Though it is not written down anywhere, most everyone in the room knows the service ends at 11:30, which is when it is time for coffee hour and whatever else the day holds. Our second hands are the metronome that too often sets the pace of our spiritual practice. And we are far from alone. Every church I have ever been a part of knew what time church was supposed to be over.

At ten-thirty this morning, the worship leaders processed in and Ginger asked those who had announcements to come forward and do them as briefly as possible. Those of us who had information to share followed her instructions, but the announcements didn’t finish until 10:45. After our opening hymn, several members of the Church Council made a very necessary and well done presentation about our budget, which took four minutes. We also welcomed a new member today, which added an extra litany to our time. In between those things, we lighted the Advent candles, confessed our sins, sang fragments of several hymns, followed our children as they led us in giving as they do on Communion Sundays, offered our joys and concerns during prayer time, took up the offering, and listened to Ginger’s meditation. By the time we got to the Communion Table the hour was all used up.


Ginger and the other worship leaders did a great job of not keeping time and not allowing our time at the Table to become the spiritual equivalent of hitting the drive through window and eating in the car because we were running late. We took our time, ate and drank and sang and prayed together, and then we went out to the Fellowship Hall and the rest of the day – at 11:49. Amen.

In all three UCC churches to which I have belonged we made a distinction, and an important one, between gathering and preparing for worship. The flow moves from the prelude to the announcements to some gathering word and then the introit, which means worship has begun. I find the distinction meaningful and important because it calls us to particular focus and reverence and yet, this morning I found myself wondering how the divide affects our sense of time.

Though only one of the announcements pertained to worship specifically, the others had to do with our daily life together and all the mundane details and activities that go into being church. And it all takes time. When I sat down to write tonight, I looked up the origins of the word mundane:

late 15c., from M.Fr. mondain (12c.), from L. mundanus "belonging to the world" (as distinct from the Church), from mundus "universe, world," lit. "clean, elegant"; used as a transl. of Gk. khosmos (see cosmos) in its Pythagorean sense of "the physical universe" (the original sense of the Gk. word was "orderly arrangement").
A word that began as something that carried the idea of elegance along side of the sense of belonging to the world has evolved into a word that means banal and imaginative, as though being of this world takes heaven out of the equation. Yet, as we retell the story of the Incarnation, the truth is it is filled with mundane details. What it took to get Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem was one mundane step after another. By the time the herald angels sang to the shepherds they had already finished a day full of tasks belonging to the world. Can it not be that the mudane things of life – theirs and ours – are as significant as the magnificent and the mysterious, should we choose to have eyes to see that God is in those very details?

We are beginning our second week of Advent: of waiting, of patience, of wondering, of making room, of preparing. It all takes time. Precious time.

One of my tasks this afternoon was to make a soup for the week. I made minestrone, which meant there was a good deal of preparing to do. I spent a good half hour dicing bacon and onions and carrots and celery and zucchini, and then straining the can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes and crushing them by hand before I added them to the other vegetables and added the homemade turkey stock from the bones of our Thanksgiving bird that had simmered on the stove for about eight hours one day last week.

Any dish that is well done depends on the most mundane of preparations. The cutting and dicing and peeling are all married to the heart and art of the chef’s inspiration and his or her commitment to take time, or make time, or make room for the dish to be all that it can be. Good cooking takes time, as does good worship, good fellowship, and good living.

The life God has called us to live is far more both/and than it is either/or. Rather than divide our lives into what is worldly and what is transcendent, let us live in the creative tension at the heart of the Incarnation that saw this mundane human existence as something worth becoming.


Saturday, December 03, 2011

advent journal: soundtrack for the prophet

Tomorrow I will play the prophet for the second time this Advent, and for something like the twentieth Advent in a row. Since our church follows the Common Lectionary (does that mean there’s an “uncommon” one?), the scripture passages ascribed to each Sunday follow a three year cycle. This is Year B, which is my favorite when it comes to the prophetic scriptures, and I think tomorrow’s passage is the best one of all from Isaiah 40. As I have thought about these verses, several songs from several chapters of my life slipped in as soundtrack behind them, so tonight I offer words and music.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."
Cue “Messiah” clip:

A voice says, "Cry!"
And I said, "What shall I cry?"
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.


Friday, December 02, 2011

advent journal: coffee break

it began as a ploy
to get them to finish
their vocabulary
who could blame me
on a high school
friday afternoon

“if you finish
your assignment
we’ll go to caribou” –
they made quick
work of exercises
already past due

and we walked
across the parking
lot to our lattes
with the novels
we carried as cover
to fool the front desk

we sat in a square
sipping our way
through the dregs
of a long week
taking in the aroma
of fleeting freedom

and I asked
“what do you think
of the book?”
and we conversed
like people who had
gone out for coffee

God put on skin
and wore it to death
to love and to listen
as a human being
I dropped my guard
for thirty minutes

left my question
unloaded as I asked it
and found the coffee
and cookie samples
communion enough
to remember


Thursday, December 01, 2011

advent journal: everyday equation

This afternoon, I went with our math teacher and the twelve kids that make up our little high school to a machine shop which is owned by the parents of one of the students. The teacher wanted the kids to go so they could see that math gets used in the real world. I went because I like seeing cool stuff and it meant I didn’t have to teach fifth and sixth periods.

I had never been in a machine shop before. The owner took us all through the 25,000 square foot plant, explaining what they did and showing us a bunch of pretty amazing machines and the amazing people who ran them. One machine, which was twenty feet long, had a tray into which they fed fifteen foot long stainless steel rods, which were about an inch and a half in diameter. The rods met up with a rotating head that held twenty different tools. Every minute and a half, the machine would produce a finished piece, about two inches long, that had a flat top, a threaded side, and a hollow core; it was used in fire suppression equipment on the underside of buses. They make about 10,000 of them a month. The little piece was a work of art.

Later on, we were in the room where they cleaned and packaged the various pieces for shipment to their customers. There was a box of the same pieces we had seen made.

“We are washing these by hand right now,” he said, “but you’ll see in a minute what we are making so we can clean them in our sonic bath” (it used sound waves in the water to do the cleaning). Sure enough, in the next room there was a guy operating a big machine that was drilling holes in a piece of half-inch plastic to make a tray to hold the first pieces so they could go in the sonic bath. I asked why they needed to do that. The owner went on to explain that at the company that uses them there are a group of about fifteen women who put the parts together by hand. They expect the pieces to be a certain way and, if they are not, they women get upset. Recently, it seems, there had been some problems with the consistency of cleanliness, at least to the women who were receiving the parts.

“I’ve known the owner of that company for twenty years,” he said, “and we’ve had that account a long time. But if I don’t make sure those women who deal with the parts are happy, it doesn’t matter who I know. We’ll lose the account.”

I was glad to hear who had his ear.

In the last couple of days, the news has come that our government has passed a law allowing horses to be slaughtered and sold for human consumption and another allowing the indefinite imprisonment of American citizens without charges. Even this week, Congress is flinching at extending the payroll tax holiday though they had no problem making sure their tax breaks for the elite rich in our country were extended last year. The Occupy protesters have been run out of their camps in parks around the country as though they were some kind of threat, and many arrested, though not one of the bankers and financial people who brought the country to the point that people had to protest have even been charged. In this machine shop that is our country, no one is listening to the women, or the men, in the supply room. Our leaders appear to hear and see no one but themselves and those who write big checks.

Too political for Advent? Sorry. The connection for me is that the entire drama of the Incarnation unfolded in the supply room. From Mary to Elizabeth to Joseph to shepherds to innkeepers and immigrant star-gazers, Jesus was born among those who were not policy makers or job creators or people too big to fail. I know I am far from the first to make this observation, nor is it the first Advent it has crossed my mind, but something about thinking of that one woman complaining to the point that it changed the way the companies did business gave me hope, even as I sometimes despair at the lack of leadership and vision in our country.

I don’t think America will save the world or that it is essential for us to stay “the greatest” for the world to survive. I do think the love of God that had the audacity to become incarnate in a poor couple’s kid will save us all if we are willing to find our way to the manger. Whatever happens in our world, more will be changed by people camping in parks together and eating dinners together and sharing food with one another and looking out for each other than by any grandiose gesture of government or multinational conglomerate.

The Bible tells me so.


P. S. -- After I posted this I read that the Senate killed the proposal in the bill that would have allowed for indefinite detention of US citizens outside of the country (as in Guantanamo) but the Senate defeated an amendment that explicitly said it was illegal to do so.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

advent journal: public instruction

public instruction

as I drove yesterday to the
Department of Public Instruction
I imagined a building filled
with finger-pointing people
telling other people what
to do and how to do it
I was going to be told
what I needed to do to get
my state teacher’s license
the security guard instructed
me to take the first left
the man in the licensure office
instructed me to wait
sixty working days
(I had to do math)
for their response
I found my own way out
and back to my car where
the GPS voice instructed me
how to get back home
though she did lead me
down Peace Street . . .
the dictionary says
instruction is a synonym
for teaching -- I don’t think so
telling people what to do or
how to do it or to sit up straight
is not the same as teaching
trust me I’ve tried them both


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

advent journal: can't you read the signs

Yesterday morning marked the first time in several days that I had to answer my five o’clock alarm telling me it was time to get ready for school. Gracie, our middle Schnauzer, was grateful for the return to routine because it meant she got to eat earlier and it was a return to routine, which runs high on a Schnauzer’s list of priorities.

I realized as the shower washed my sleep away that I had disconnected from my daily life quite thoroughly over the Thanksgiving holiday. I had not looked at one paper in the bag I brought home with me and had instead spent the days filling the house with the aromatics of good food and conversation. Even the couple of short shifts I worked at the computer store had not felt invasive. It was good.

My first period class is a Sociology elective which I am teaching because there is no one else to do so. The social studies teacher left early in the year and they just gave us more classes rather than replace him. I was able to find a useable curriculum, thanks to our Academic Dean, but I’m still scrambling. One more hill – remember? Today, the lesson was an experiment in nonverbal communication. I had a page full of signs – fifty of them – and the kids had to decipher the meaning of each one, or so said the instructions on the handout I found in my notes. We started down the list. The first was a line drawing of an airplane.

“Airplane,” said one of the boys.

“Yes, that’s what it is,” I responded, “but look at the question: what does it mean? What does it represent?”

The kid furrowed his brow and said, less confidently, “Airport?”

“Good,” I said. “You’re getting the idea.” And we kept working our way down the page.

Signs, signs, everywhere signs . . . but even the Five Man Electrical Band had to know the signs weren’t always easy to read.

Tonight I met folks from our church at the shelter where I turned down a job last year. I love going there. Tonight, I made individual meatloaves (think big giant meatballs) for three hundred. We have a great group of people who come to prepare and serve the meal, which we do four or five times a year. I chose not to go there because it was a big job and they didn’t offer enough paid time off to keep me from burning out. As good as it felt to cook there, I couldn’t shake the sense that it was not the right move. I made meaning of the signs as best I could and tonight I was back using my one night off this week from my two jobs to dig elbow deep into ninety pounds of ground beef and have a great time.

do this don’t do that
can’t you read the signs
The gospel narratives that tell us the story of Jesus’ birth are filled with signs, and with people who read them and act. When Gabriel tells the young girl, Mary, what was going to happen to her all Luke records is that she said, “Let it be as you said.” Joseph freaked at first in his angelic encounter, but followed the signs all the way to Bethlehem. All it took was a starlight concert to get the shepherds to abandon their charges and head to town. And then, of course, there were the Magi who had been star-gazers for years quite happy to sit out on their porches and stare into the dark until that One Star started shining – and off they went.

Sometimes I wish those who wrote the stories down had done so in a time when storytelling was a bit more evolved, where process and detail mattered a bit more. Our gospel writers had their poetic moments, but they were theologians more than tale spinners. They wanted to get to The Point, which was when God gives a sign, do what the sign says. Still, I wish one of them had taken time to write how Mary looked at Gabriel and said, “Dude – I’m fourteen!”, or Joseph shook his head and responded, “My mother is going to freak out.”

Every significant move I have made in my life, or Ginger and I have made together, I can say, we did with a sense of assurance that we were responding to a call – following a sign, if you will. We made good choices, sometimes hard choices; we have found great things and we let some things go.

As all of us have done.

When I look at my life, over the last ten or twelve years in particular, the voice of the Holy Spirit starts to sound a lot like the woman in my GPS when I make a wrong turn: “Recalculating . . . .” Perhaps that is why I find comfort in imagining the line from the Magnificat to the Manger was not necessarily a straight one. I also imagine that four weeks out from Christmas Mary was as ready for the baby to come as anyone. This year, Advent falls between signs for me, I suppose. I am not at a settled place in my life (old friends, feel free to laugh loudly at the idea that my life has ever been settled) and the signs are not clear. There are no angels or choirs or voices other than the daily reminders that I am called to live in the in-between, in the “recalculating,” and the love as deep as the dark.


Monday, November 28, 2011

advent journal: words from a young poet

I left my notes for my post sitting on my desk at school this afternoon as I was heading for the second shift at the computer store. I came home tonight to discover these words from Nate Klug, a new poet to me and a fellow UCCer.


In the middle of December
to start over

to assume again
an order

at the end
of wonder

to conjure
and then to keep

slow dirty sleet
within its streetlight
I could not help but share my discovery and hope that I have the good fortune to bump into him somewhere along the road.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

advent journal: one more hill

As I sat down tonight to begin writing this Advent Journal, I decided to go back and read what I had written as my first Advent entry over the previous five years. In my 2006 post, I found this poem by Barbara Crooker:

In the Middle
of a life that's as complicated as everyone else's,
struggling for balance, juggling time.
The mantle clock that was my grandfather's
has stopped at 9:20; we haven't had time
to get it repaired. The brass pendulum is still,
the chimes don't ring. One day you look out the window,
green summer, the next, and the leaves have already fallen,
and a grey sky lowers the horizon. Our children almost grown,
our parents gone, it happened so fast. Each day, we must learn
again how to love, between morning's quick coffee
and evening's slow return. Steam from a pot of soup rises,
mixing with the yeasty smell of baking bread. Our bodies
twine, and the big black dog pushes his great head between;
his tail is a metronome, 3/4 time. We'll never get there,
Time is always ahead of us, running down the beach, urging
us on faster, faster, but sometimes we take off our watches,
sometimes we lie in the hammock, caught between the mesh
of rope and the net of stars, suspended, tangled up
in love, running out of time.
The poem is worth repeating because she describes how life feels for me right now. Her opening line reminds me I am not alone. As Advent begins, I am a day over two weeks away from my fifty-fifth birthday. At one time, the age matched the speed limit, but no more. Both driving machines and metaphors have picked up speed. It is also one of those birthdays I can remember my father marking. Of the generations of Cunningham men prior to my father and including Milton the First, none lived past fifty-seven. When my dad turned fifty-five, I also remember him turning more somber, more pensive. I was twenty-six, in the middle of the open heart surgery that is Clinical Pastoral Education, and full of my own angst. We were trying to reach each other from a distance and that particular birthday made us both afraid that we would run out of time before we made things right, though neither of us knew how to say it. One story relayed to me by a friend who heard my dad preach (and which I now tell with a much bigger smile than I could muster then) was that he began his sermon by saying, “In life you have to learn the difference between a problem and a predicament. A problem you can do something about; a predicament is something you must learn to live with. I used to think my eldest son was a problem. I have come to understand he is a predicament.”

As I turn fifty-five, my father is now eighty-three and we have found each other and he has given me hope that fifty-seven is not quite as daunting a birthday as it hangs on my horizon, and yet . . . I had hopes it would feel more settled.

Here, in the middle of my life that’s as complicated as everyone else’s, I am working two jobs. I am teaching, as I have been for the last couple of years, and my school is struggling to stay afloat. I am also working evening and weekends at the Apple Store as a safety net of sorts, but also because I need the health insurance they offer (even to their part time people). Neither job is a lifetime placement, even as I will say wholeheartedly I am grateful for both. We buried my father-in-law, Reuben, just six weeks ago and have now lived through the first holiday without him. My dear friend, David, would have been sixty tomorrow. I am learning that grief is only going to become a larger ingredient in the days ahead. I have said more than once that I embrace the idea that the journey is the destination, and yet . . . I top one hill only to see one more hill. These are not Big Picture Days for me. I am making lists, marking times, cutting my calendar into bite sized pieces, and hoping five or six hours of sleep will be enough rest because that is what the days demand.

It will not always be this way, but it is this way now.

What is also true about these days is they are filled with a sense of gratitude that is as strong as I have ever known. My fifty-five years stack up into a treasure trove of friends and memories from those made around our table over the last few days to connections that go back to my childhood. The days are hard, but they are not hopeless.

Still, there is one more hill.

In the past six months, I have written twenty-three posts. My discipline in Advent is to promise to write for the next twenty-nine days (if I’m counting right). In past years, I have come to these days with books to read and ideas to hold up like gems to the light. This year, I come like the pilgrims in The Way, which we saw last night, who stumbled into town and into each other without much sense of the larger journey other than how far it was to the next meal and bed. What the movie reminded me was that meaning stumbles in as much in the minutiae of daily life as it does in the Big Picture discussions that we sometimes find space to share.

In his wonderful poem “Journey of the Magi” T. S. Eliot writes:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Yes, and those are not the only voices. Let us speak to one another, learning again how to love, and committed to walk together over one more hill.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

go home to your friends

Ben and Scott Cunningham are wonderful songwriters and musicians, and awesome people as well. They are also my nephews. As a band, they call themselves The Olive Tree and they have just released a new collection (am I still allowed to call it an album?) that they offer as a free download at bandcamp.com. Here is how they describe the project:
A long time ago, there was a man who was deathly sick, broken down, and pushed out by everyone. One day, that man saw Jesus get out of a boat at the base of a hill, and he ran to him. Jesus healed this man. Then he turned to get back in the boat, and the man begged Jesus that he could be with him. But Jesus replied, 'Go home to your friends, and tell them what the Lord has done for you.'

This album is an attempt to do just that.

You can listen here though the player below, or go to their website and download it for yourself, along with some of their earlier work. You will be glad you did.


Monday, November 07, 2011

there are few things . . .

in all our living and in all our dying
we belong to God, we belong to God
             “Pues Si Vivimos,” Mexican folk hymn

if the night didn’t lie in the darkness
then the daylight will be hard to find
               Lyle Lovett

there are few things . . .

. . . as large as emptiness
. . . as loud as absence

listen . . .

. . . to the echoes careen
in the caverns of the heart:

     (he is not here)

            ((( not not not

                        here here here )))

and wait . . .

. . . for the last word
. . . for one little light:

          (you are not alone)

there are few things . . .

. . . as incandescent as love


Tuesday, November 01, 2011

all saints sonnet

there is no place where I walk
where someone has not walked
no conversation I might have
that’s not already talked

what is new in my big world
is mostly new to me
that those who have come before
have kindly let me see

as if it were the first time
and then underneath the new
a sacred sense a heart shine
a thin place with a view

all the saints now come and gone
remind me I am not alone


Monday, October 17, 2011


there’s a difference
between a loss
and an absence
in the same way
a deep cut is not
an amputation

we are not
mourning one
who is lost but
one who has died
he is not missing
he is gone


Saturday, October 15, 2011

saying goodbye

I've been quiet here for the last several days because we have been saying goodbye to my father-in-law, Reuben Brasher, who has been living with us for the last fourteen months as his Alzheimer's made him disappear and who crossed over Wednesday afternoon.

We are in Birmingham with family and friends to bury him today.

He was a wonderful, loving man who left behind a legacy of kindness and grace and bad jokes. I loved him dearly and am grateful I got to be part of his family.

Go in peace, Reuben.


Monday, October 03, 2011

tiny desk astronomy

on nights like this
I gaze into the night-sky
to see a sky filled with
desk lamps in the dark
casting light for one
tired poet after another
milky ways of metaphors
supernovas of near misses
swirling star-clouds
of what matters most


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

jesus, steve earle, and the gay pride parade

A couple of Sundays have passed since Ginger preached on the parable about the workers who get hired at various times during the day and then all get paid the same at quitting time (Matthew 20:1-16). It’s a bothersome parable on its own terms, made even more difficult when heard in American congregations filled with those who have been trained to raise up our so-called “self-made” heroes. The bullet points in the World Geography textbook from which I am asked to teach spell it out (without irony):

• The political system of the United States has been vital to the economic success of the country.
• The government established in 1789 reflected a shared belief in individual equality, opportunity, and freedom.
• These ideals supported an economic system based on capitalism, or free enterprise.
• One of the notions behind free enterprise is the belief that any hardworking individual can find opportunity and success in the United States.
The issue in the story, however, is not a question of effort or work ethic, but of opportunity. “Why do you stand here idle all day?” the master asked. “Because no one has hired us,” they answered. Had he been willing to take them all on the first trip, they all would have been willing to go.

But that’s not my point.

Some time during the week prior to her sermon, Ginger asked me what I thought about the parable. My initial response was to say our attitude about the story depends on where we find ourselves in it. If we think we are the ones who were hired first and worked longest, then the story feels unfair. If we see ourselves as those fortunate to get hired at all, grace abounds. The Saturday after her sermon, I sat in the hall of our Durham Performing Arts Center to hear one of my songwriting heroes, Steve Earle. In recent years, he has become an articulate spokesperson for progressive causes, an ant- death penalty advocate, and a disseminator of grace. His road to the present state has taken him through several failed marriages, a heroin addiction, and a stint in federal prison. As I listened to him speak and sing, I thought, “This is a guy who knows what it feels like to get found late in the day.”

A week after his concert, my Saturday was filled with our church’s involvement in the North Carolina Pride Festival and Parade. For almost thirty years, Durham has hosted our state’s gay and lesbian pride festival on Duke’s East Campus. For the last four years, my involvement has been on two fronts: leading the music for the inter-denominational Communion service and carrying the banner for our church in the parade. A couple of years ago, we decided we would have a short hymn sing before Communion, which takes place in an outdoor gazebo in the middle of food booths and other vendors. That first year, I chose songs I knew and loved. As we started singing “I’ll Fly Away,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” people began to gather and sing along. Some of them began to weep. I had, unwittingly, tapped into something deep. These were the songs of their childhood, of their faith before they came out and were told they no longer belonged. As we sang, they were able to reclaim what had been taken away from them in some sense. What once was lost became found.

Not all of them are old songs. One I particularly is listed as “For the Fruit of All Creation” in our hymnal. The final verse, which is my favorite of most any hymn says:
for the harvests of the Spirit
thanks be to God
for the good we all inherit
thanks be to God
for the wonders that astound us
for the truth that still confounds us
most of all that love has found us
thanks be to God
The parade route was heavily lined with well-wishers this year (and a few protestors), thanks to the North Carolina legislature’s decision to put a constitutional amendment to ban equal marriage or any kind of same-gender civil union on the primary ballot next May. As we walked and waved, people waved back and, when they saw we were a church group, said, “Thank you.” That scene played over and over. Somewhere along the route I, the straight white guy, heard the parable with new ears.

Yes, I was on to something when I said how we heard the story depended on where we saw ourselves in it. But I had missed one perspective. From the time I was first introduced to parables, the default setting, when it came to reading, was to assume the king or master or father in the story was God. What if that were not necessarily so? What if, instead of seeing ourselves as workers, we were the one hiring? What if we bring about the realm of God by going back to make sure everyone goes to work in the vineyard?

If God’s realm is one where parents forgive before their long-lost sons even ask forgiveness, where shepherds leave the whole flock to search out the lone lost sheep, where someone will spend the whole grocery budget to celebrate finding one coin in the couch cushions – and it is, then as the Body of Christ we are those called to keep going back, to keep hiring anyone who will work, to make sure everyone has enough, and to remind everyone that there is more enough love and grace to go around – especially those who were taught they did not belong. Isaiah proclaimed:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound
In this story called life, we are cast as those called to incarnate the love of Christ to the whole wide world.

How can we afford to do otherwise?


Friday, September 23, 2011

thank you for being a friend

Yesterday was my best friend’s birthday.

Burt Burleson and I met at Baylor some thirty-five years ago this month. He was a freshman and I was a junior. I don’t remember the exact circumstance nor can I recall our days of getting acquainted; all I remember is we have been friends ever since. From Baylor, we moved up I-35 to Southwestern Seminary, which neither of us would have survived had it not been for the other. We were housemates there and then again in Dallas where he was Youth Minister at Lake Highlands Baptist Church and I did CPE at Baylor Medical Center. We’ve done more camps and retreats and youth banquets than I can count. Yet, whatever that number, it is eclipsed by the number of nights and days we have talked and dreamed and laughed and cried and played guitar together.

In the fall of 1986, I can remember calling Burt to mark that we had been friends for a decade. The significance for me, as one who had spent his life moving, was he was the first friend I had known for ten years and known where they were for all those ten years. Today I sent him a note to say the streak is still going. Thanks to Facebook, I have found lost friends from childhood, or they have found me, but Burt has been the Friend Who Stayed and for that I am deeply grateful.

Martin Marty once wrote in a little book called Friendship, “We have friends and we are friends in order that we do not get killed.”

As I stack up years, those words ring more and more true. Though Burt is not solely responsible, I am alive because we are friends. And I am grateful.

That just feels worth saying out loud.

As Andrew Gold sang in 1978 (before “The Golden Girls”)

and when we both get older
with walking canes and hair of gray
have no fear, even though it's hard to hear
I will stand real close and say,
thank you for being a friend


Thursday, September 22, 2011

traffic jam

the freeway of love –
that’s what we’ve called it
since the first week
we moved here
and began navigating
life in our new city

and we smiled
when traffic reports
of snarls and slow
downs brought back
memories of route 3
and real traffic

four years on
I wonder if
anyone has ever
calculated which car
moves things from
a crawl to a halt

which circumstance --
the pinhole in
the upstairs pipe
the sick schnauzer
my allergies your
disappearing dad

leaves us caught
once more in the rush
hour of the heart
stuck in grief
minds still racing
no exit in sight

but we can sing . . .
life is a highway
god bless the broken road
we’re going riding
on the freeway of love
and we can’t look back


Thursday, September 15, 2011

away or toward

Tuesday morning I went to work late so I could cook breakfast for a meeting with Clergy Beyond Borders who were meeting at our church as a part of their national tour. I made Blackberry French Toast and Figs Stuffed with Goat Cheese. And then I sat down to eat around a table of people of faith in God and in one another. There were three imams, two rabbis, a Fransiscan priest, some Protestant ministers, a couple of Unitarian-Universalist ministers, and some non-minister types as well. We ate and we talked.

As we talked, I realized I had been unwittingly prepared for the encounter by my friend Terry Allebaugh, whom I’ve mentioned before as the best harmonica player I have ever heard and who also is the founder and director of Housing for New Hope, an organization committed to ending homelessness in Durham. After our inter-faith service on September 11, he commented that he was moved to think that people were going two directions on that day: some were running away from the burning buildings and others were running into them to see whom they could save. Then he went on to say he wondered sometimes which way he would have run had he been in New York that day. “Then again,” he said, “it’s a live question everyday: which direction am I going? Depending on the day, it could go either way.”

Between Sunday and Tuesday, Terry’s words haunted me – and sent my mind and heart on meaningful sojourns. First, I thought of Jesus’ admonitions about the wide and narrow ways, and how few found the narrow way. Perhaps, I thought, the narrow may might be the road running toward. As we went around the table at the breakfast and those who were a part of CBB shared their experiences, they talked about taking time to listen to one another’s stories and to eat together – yet another narrow road. Taking time to listen doesn’t make most schedules these days.

Then I thought of the words of one of my favorite theologians, George Carlin, who had a great routine (that I was unable to find on Youtube) built around the idea that we as humans only do two basic things: we go out and then we come back.

We run away and we run into.

At the breakfast, they passed around a sheet with the “30 Commandments of Inter-Religious Dialogue” listed, which was written by Imam Yahya Hendi, “reflecting on fifteen years of experience in inter-religious dialogue.” The list was brilliant.

5. Thou shall never apologized for what is authentic in your own tradition.
8. Thou shall be quick to apologize and slow to take offense. And never too arrogant to say, “I am sorry.”
10. Thou shall accept the passion which others bring to the dialogue.
17. Thou shall not belittle nor misinterpret a smile.
20. Thou shall be inclusive in your language and actions.
21. Thou shall be patient.
24. Thou shall be courageous.
25. Thou shall be compassionate.
And then there was Number 26: Thou shall have hope.

When it was my turn to speak, I pointed to Number 26 to say it was a beautiful and difficult commandment. I said there, as I did in my last post, that fear had become the primary American value, which made listening of little value. We know how to run to opposite polls and yell at each other. To have hope is both crucial and difficult.

Imam Hendi listened well and responded by telling his story.

Imam Hendi and me
“My background is Palestinian,” he said. “If you look closely, you can see this scar on my face.” Under his mustache was a thin line that ran from his lip into his cheek. “When I was seven, I was beaten by several Israeli soldiers. I am now forty-five and I still don’t know why. But I made a choice after that beating to learn about those who had hurt me. So I learned Hebrew and I learned about Judaism and I learned how to talk to them. I have hope.”

“I do, too,” I answered. “I am just struck as we sit here at how utterly futile it seems in the face of everything that is happening. And how much it matters that we commit our lives to fail boldly in God’s name, to have faith in God and in one another.”

The most profound way we can set our lives to run into – to run toward – is to run toward each other. As I write that sentence, I realize it feels easier to run toward the inter-religious dialogue than an intra-Christian discussion sometimes. I see many of those with whom I share a Baptist heritage whose pain and hurt has led them to see faith and the church as something to grow out of, or grow beyond, or run away from. I pray that is not the final direction they choose.

Deuteronomy 28:6 says, “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out” – a benediction for both directions of our lives, for, as Terry says, on any given day we don’t know which way we will be moving. And, as George Carlin says, it’s always one or the other. Whichever the direction, may it be with intention, courage, and hope.

I close with the benediction from our service at Pilgrim last Sunday:
Leader: May the Lord bless you and keep you.
People: May God’s face shine upon you and may God be gracious to you.
Leader: May God give you grace this day never to sell yourself short.
People: Grace to risk something big for something good.
Leader: Grace to remember that the world is now to dangerous for anything but truth.
People: And too small for anything but love.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

once below a time

I know.

Every blogger in America is working on something to say as we near the anniversary of September 11, 2001. I remember that crystal blue Tuesday morning as Ginger and I drove up the Southeast Expressway from Marshfield heading into Boston for a day of appointments. I remember the gradual awareness that the sky was more empty than clear, that cars were beginning to pull over and stop along the freeway, that WBUR was bearing awful, even unbelievable news of what was happening in New York, and then D. C., and then in a field in Pennsylvania. I remember parking the car so she could go and visit a parishioner who was dying in the hospital and I could go for my doctor’s appointment, which meant we had to leave each other and then find each other again without much help from our cell phones. I remember sitting in the Chili’s in Hingham unable to eat as CNN played the loop of the planes hitting the Towers endlessly. And I remember going with Ginger that night to open up the sanctuary at North Community Church – our church in Marshfield – so people could come and sit or pray or simply be together.

The story of that day began eight days before: September 3 – Labor Day, which was the day I went into the free fall that I learned to name as Depression. The storm clouds had been gathering for some time, but I had not given them much heed. For the previous decade, Labor Day had marked my last day of summer before I returned to teaching high school English. That September I had planned to step out of the classroom, since we had moved too far away for me to continue to drive back to Winchester High School, and I was going to write as if it were my job. Instead of walking into a new chapter of my life, I crashed and found myself more broken than I knew. In the days that followed September 11, I remember seeing an image of a man falling from one of the Towers. I knew how he felt. I had never felt the kind of despair and shame and worthlessness that swallowed me that day, though I am sure I was not the first one in the world to feel it.

In his memoir, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days, Frederick Buechner began by speaking of his childhood before his father’s suicide as “once below a time,” using a phrase he borrowed from Dylan Thomas.

“Once below a time,: he says in his poem “Fern Hill,” meaning, I assume, that, for a child, time in the sense of something to measure and keep track of, time as the great circus parade of past, present, and future, cause and effect, has scarcely started yet and means little because for a child all time is by and large now time and apparently endless. (9)
I find meaning in the phrase by taking it quite out of the context of both men because it has little to do with my childhood or coming of age, but more to do with coming to terms with the covered up wounds and wrongs that had festered and darkened until they pulled me down below a time where I struggled to breathe and remember who I was. It was almost eight years before I began to feel as though I was upon a time once more. I did not find my way back as much as I was found by God’s love and grace incarnated mostly through Ginger who clung to me with sacred tenacity even though my depression cost her perhaps more deeply than it did me.

As we were getting ready for church on September 9, Ginger said, “If you can, I think you should ask for prayer this morning.” When the time came to share our joys and concerns, as we like to say, I raised my hand and did my best to say I needed prayer because I was depressed in ways I had never been. After the service, one person came up and said, “I know how you feel. I feel that way, too. I just didn’t know we could talk about it out loud.” What I learned that day I have relearned many days since: my pain, however deep and profound to me, is not unique. There is a reservoir of grief, despair, and loneliness that connects us all. When I think it is about me, all I can see is the endless darkness that falls below time. When I understand I am a part of a spectrum of pain and joy, both unspeakable, I have the chance to stumble into grace.

In the days that followed September 11, we all hung our flags on our fences and porches and found solidarity for a few weeks that has eluded since, for the most part. Much of the world offered resonating words. One French newspaper carried the headline, “Nous Sommes Américains” – we are all Americans. Yet, our solidarity soon focused our fears in a way that made us quick to tell the rest of the world they were not us, nor were we interested in being them. Our grief and pain were not things they could understand. To those in Rwanda and Uganda and Congo, to those who had survived Hitler’s death camps, to those whose cities had been bombed in Germany and Vietnam, to those who had lived through despicable regimes in Chile and Cambodia, we have not sought resonance but too often have made it seem as though we feel our pain has somehow superseded them all.

Ten years on, we have let our fear get the best of us and it has torn us to pieces.

In 1994, when the Towers still stood, David Wilcox wrote a song called “Show the Way” that I wish were our national anthem (and, yes, I know I have quoted them before):
you say you see no hope
you say you see no reason we should dream
that the world would ever change
you're saying love is foolish to believe
'cause there'll always be some crazy
with an army or a knife
to wake you from your day dream
put the fear back in your life
look, if someone wrote a play
just to glorify what's stronger than hate
would they not arrange the stage
to look as if the hero came too late
he's almost in defeat –
it's looking like the evil side will win
so on the edge of every seat
from the moment that the whole thing begins
it's love who mixed the mortar
and it's love who stacked these stones
and it's love who made the stage here
although it looks like we're alone
in this scene set in shadows
like the night is here to stay
there is evil cast around us
but it's love that wrote the play
for in this darkness love can show the way
so now the stage is set
don’t you feel you own heart beating in your chest
this life's not over yet
so we get up on our feet and do our best
we play against the fear
we play against the reasons not to try
we're playing for the tears
burning in the happy angel's eyes
it is love who makes the mortar
and it's love who stacked these stones
and it's love who made the stage here
although it looks like we're alone
in this scene set in shadows
as if night is here to stay
there is evil cast around us
but it's love that wrote the play
for in this lifetime love can show the way
He’s right. It’s not over yet. After all, it’s only been ten years.