Sunday, February 27, 2011

sonnet #19

The lectionary is still camped out in the Sermon on the Mount. Today's passage was Matthew 6:24-34, best known for Jesus saying we cannot serve two masters and that the lilies of the field know how to trust better than we do. Ginger and I had good discussions about how we were to read the verses when we know there are Christians who die of hunger everyday and whose needs are not met. Then we began to talk about this passage as a follow up to Jesus' outlandish words about living non-violently and began to see both as calls to community and generosity: when I can trust God to be generous without making sure I'm taken care of first, I can begin to feel a little more lily-like.

Ginger finished her sermon this morning asking us, "What would it take for us to humble ourselves before God?' I'm still working on my answer.

sunday sonnet #19 

The question is just what we’re after
while living our days on the planet:
we’ll choose between God as our master
or ourselves in control, just like Janet.
The lilies we’re called to consider
as trust in it’s best incarnation;
Jesus we don’t take for a kidder –
the image requires explanation.
“Don’t hit back,” he said just before –
the point being to pull us together,
the self-centered hunger for more
eats away at life’s basic tether.
The lilies compel our ability
to live out our faith with humility.

Friday, February 25, 2011

declaration of . . .

we may hold
these truths
to be self-evident
life, liberty, and
the pursuit
of happiness

even truths
have their limits
when we wrote
those words
we were young

and isolated
and thinking mostly
of ourselves
now, we are older
and established
and powerful

and something
has been lost
in the translation
of your cries
for freedom:
our gas prices

are going up
along with our
fear and anxiety
we know
you have suffered
but the world

was working
pretty well
like it was
change is hard
when it costs us
for you

to be free
we hope
you understand
perhaps this truth
or, at least,
reality lives
in the shadows:

our comfort and power
matter more (to us)
than your freedom
we do understand
your yearnings
can't that be enough?


Thursday, February 24, 2011

let's talk about it

Whether it's Gadhafi or Guantanamo, torture is wrong. Thanks to Amy Laura Hall to organizing an event that gets us talking about it out loud. Come to Durham and join the conversation, please.


Monday, February 21, 2011


I am still unaccustomed
to the spring sun shining
down in February after so
many years of snow on snow,
nor have I grown to grasp
what is already growing
in our yard: gentle shoots
of promise, tree buds of
tenacity, but I do know
enough to dig and clear,
to rake and remulch,
to prune and prepare . . .
and then come inside
smelling like hope,
like the good earth,
and already hungry
for the vegetables
I have yet to plant.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

sunday sonnet #18

I preached this morning, using part of the same passage Ginger preached from last week. (The sermon is in the previous post.) A sermon and a sonnet in the same day is hard work.

We read the same passage in church today
as last week -- about loving enemies
and turning cheeks when violence aims our way –
though Jesus’ words, they leave us ill at ease.
We see competition as our raison d’etre –
Non-violence is not on the table;
Love, joy, peace, and hope are quite the quartet,
but his plan, well, it’s just not that stable.
If you don’t fight back then you will get whacked,
Yet, look at Ghandi, Mandela, and King;
Their courage and resistance to fight back
Meant love could do a new and blessed thing.
Turn cheeks and open hearts to forgive;
Love is the only force that lets all live.

what love looks like

“What Love Looks Like”
Matthew 5:38-48
A Sermon for Pilgrim United Church of Christ
by Milton Brasher-Cunningham
February 20, 2011

In these weeks leading up to Lent, we have been traveling through the Sermon on the Mount, as it has been called down through Christian history. Early in Jesus’ ministry, it seems, he stood in front of a large crowd who had gathered, trying to understand who he was and what he was calling them to do, and he laid it out for them, and for us, in terms so clear that we have struggled with them ever since. Jesus was leaning into the Jewish law, part of which we heard in the passage from Leviticus earlier, and then taking it beyond those boundaries, beyond what felt appropriate, beyond what seemed even possible. Hear the passage again, this time from The Message:

Here's another old saying that deserves a second look: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Is that going to get us anywhere? Here's what I propose: “Don't hit back at all.” If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
You're familiar with the old written law, “Love your friend,” and its unwritten companion, “Hate your enemy.” I'm challenging that. I'm telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. [God] gives [the] best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.
In a word, what I'm saying is, Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.
I like the way Eugene Peterson deals with Jesus’ admonition to be perfect as God is perfect: “grow up,” he says. The Greek word unfortunately translated as “perfect” has more of a sense of wholeness or maturity; be “grown up” is not a bad way to say it. Think of the world as something other than a junior high playground fight. The point is not to get even. In fact, when we read Jesus’ sermon, the point is not even to win. The point is to love one another as God loves us and them. Every last one another.

And I think it’s hard to come to terms with what Rich Mullins called, “the reckless raging fury that we call the love of God.” It’s hard for us as human beings in general, and I think it’s particularly difficult for us as Americans, because our society is built on the premise that the only ones who matter are those who have fought their way to the top. “We’re Number One!” is our national motto, engrained deep in the muscle memory of our culture. Jesus didn’t talk about winning; he talked about loving in a visceral and tangible sense: don’t hit back, don’t seek revenge, don’t live with resentment, love your enemies. Ronald Goetz says,
God’s love is like the rain -- refreshing when it falls in moderation and with regularity, but terrifying and destructive when it comes in blowing, blinding sheets.
Jesus said it falls on us all -- and the point is to make sure everyone gets soaking wet.

The larger applications of the specifics in these verses are the most apparent. Since we live in a world desperately in need of both dentures and guide dogs, the futility of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” seems obvious, and yet we continue to choose retribution over reconciliation at most every turn. So it matters that we say out loud, and to ourselves, that torture is wrong, that the way we treat many of our prisoners in this country is unconscionable, that the death penalty should be abolished.

When we hear Jesus’ words, we can call up images of the students sitting at the lunch counters in Greensboro, or the children being rolled by the water cannon in Birmingham, or Ghandi and his followers being beaten for trying make salt – all of which are visceral examples of Jesus’ admonitions, but where do we see ourselves in those words? In our culture today, which is paralyzed by polarities, bent on making sure our enemies get blamed, and becoming more and more determined to let our national “recovery” happen on the backs of the poor, how are we living out Jesus’ call to compassion and discipleship? How can we?

I think it is perhaps easier to apply Jesus’ words to larger societal issues than it is to talk about how to live nonviolently in office buildings and classrooms and homes and grocery store lines and, well, churches. Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the powerful,” or “Blessed are those in control,” or “Blessed are those who get their way.” At the root of our need for power and control is fear: fear of not being enough, fear of being taken advantage of, fear of losing, fear of not being remembered, to name a few. There is something in us that worries about being forgotten.

I knew a man many years ago who was an excellent guitarist and a studio musician in Nashville. His name was John Goin. He said the trajectory for his profession went like this:
who is John Goin?
get me John Goin.
get me a young John Goin.
who is John Goin.
We will not be remembered by what we built or what we conquered or who we beat. We will be remembered by how we loved. Don Henley was right when he wrote:
I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness – even if you don’t love me anymore.
“How many times should we forgive someone for the same offense?” The disciples asked Jesus. “Seven?”

“Seventy times seven,” was his answer. Grow up and love your enemies.

Mary Gordon points out that, “Nothing in Jesus’ diction could be paraphrased by the words “it would be best if” . . . or even “it would be good if.” His prescriptions are detailed, specific, and unequivocal. . . . But there is a certain thrill to the impossible prescription. And isn’t it possible that only the vision of the impossible makes the great a possibility? Without the challenge of the impossible, would we be doomed to the mediocre?”

Knowing what love looks like, how can we settle for less?

I must say, the more I dealt with this passage during the week, the more one face came to mind when I tried to think of those whom I know who understand this kind of love more than I, and that was our own John Blackburn. I knew him as one who made a point to find me in coffee hour, who was dedicated to teaching English on Wednesday nights, who was passionate about how our faith frames our view of creation. I didn’t know until after he died that he had been Provost at Duke, among many other things. He was what love looks like: full of grace and compassion.

May we all have the courage to grow up and grow into our calling to love one another as God loves us. Every last one of us. Amen.


Friday, February 18, 2011


“Where do allergies go when it’s after the show
and they want to find something to eat?”
-- Paul Simon, “Allergies”

as best I understand
the reason my eyes
are red and puffy
and my nose stuffy
is my body is trying
to protect me from
bad things in the air
a knee-jerk response
shutting down my
air ways and blurring
my vision as a way
of keeping me safe
and I wonder how
else in my life I am
rushing to judgment
slamming my heart
shut and leaving me
unable to breathe
deep the breath of God

Sunday, February 13, 2011

sunday sonnet #17

The text today was Matthew 5:38-48; we also reread the beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. "Peacemaking is rarely peaceful," Ginger said, "logic, faith, and reason have to be invited into our hearts."

To live each day in faithfulness as I walk upon this sod
Means I must open up my eyes to see
There is one true Creator, one loving, holy God --
and understand that said God isn’t me.
God who hung the heavens and smiled sunsets into being
loves every last one of us – every last one.
And we are called to drop all the distinctions we keep seeing,
quit keeping score and get some loving done.
We all have wounds and scars and sores and our fair share of sin,
we all have those whom we hold in disdain;
so logic, faith, and reason have to be invited in
that we might love beyond our hurt and pain.
To walk on this earth gently
Means to take each step intently

Monday, February 07, 2011

love is the drum

in the music of life
love is the drum
the big bass drum that
resonates in your breast bone
through every movement of grief
the tremulous tympanic tones
in the symphonies of sadness
the steadying rhythm during
the frantic choruses of fear
the hope of the high hat
in the gentle jazz of joy
the tender tap behind
the waltz of wonder
in the music of life
love is the drum
love is the drum


Sunday, February 06, 2011

sunday sonnet #16

The blind man Bartimaeus, who sat begging at the gate,
Knew Jesus soon was headed out of town,
So he called out in hope that Jesus’ exodus could wait
Long enough to shed some sight around.

The disciples huffed a bit and told him to sit tight,
But Bart kept on with what he had to tell
Till he got to say to Jesus what he wanted was his sight,
And Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well.”

Unlike Bartimaeus, some of us are blind by choice
And have lost the faith to see what we could see:
That Jesus calls us to be his eyes and ears and voice,
To heal and feed and set the prisoners free.

Let us pray to recover our sight;
Let us pray to be the light.


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

on vocation and vacation

I turned down a job last week.

I was surprised, actually. The position was Chef and Kitchen Manager for a local shelter that serves about 650 people a day. I would have had a chance for my careers as minister, chef, and teacher to integrate in a way I have not experienced. I even went for a “cooking interview,” which was quite an experience and a wonderful day. I wrote about it this way in a note to some friends who were praying with me as I went through the interview process:

. . . and it was like being on a cooking show. I arrived at 6 am to find they had pulled some thin-cut bone-in pork chops out of the freezer (a donation from a Muslim charity who had received the pork and could not use it). I found a #10 can of orange marmalade, a big jar of spicy brown mustard, and about ten regular sized cans of cranberry sauce and decided we would grill the chops (there's a grill in the kitchen) and then finish them in the oven with the sauce. I found about 40 cans of baked beans and also got about 62 cups of uncooked white rice to which I added four #10 cans of Ro-tel tomatoes and some broccoli I found in the walk-in. (Did I mention they said to cook for 200?).
My first volunteer was an old man who could not speak, only growl (Errrgghhh) and I had him open the beans which, when I turned my back to check on the grill, he dumped in the pork sauce. So I fished them out. The big square skillet where we were cooking the rice didn't come on correctly at first and, about an hour and a half before lunch I found out they had only thawed 100 pork chops and we needed twice that many.
The folks working with me were awesome. We all put our heads down and lunch was ready when it needed to be. They told me the first wave would go out and tell the others what was for lunch and how well they liked the meal would determine how big a crowd we would have overall.
We served 230.
They called the next afternoon and offered me the job. When they began talking details, there was a limited amount of vacation time. I countered telling them now much I liked the job and how I knew I needed more time off, but they were confined by the policy of their board and I turned them down.

I’ve never done that before.

Growing up in a minister’s house, and spending some years in ministry myself (the UCC considers me “retired”), I was in my thirties before I learned to differentiate between what I do and who I am. I didn’t learn it in church. I was working at Blockbuster video in Charlestown, Massachusetts to try and help pay the bills while Ginger and I tried to plant a church there. I walked up to a woman who had been looking at the rows of video boxes for some time and asked if I could help her find something.

“Oh,” she said rather startled, “I don’t usually talk to the help in places like this.”

Her insensitivity turned into a chance for me to see myself in a new light. I worked at Blockbuster. I wasn’t the guy who rented videos. That was what I did. Still, in all three of my more lengthy vocational experiences – as minister, chef, and teacher – there’s no way around inhabiting the job in some sense. I’ve never felt like I left those things at the office, if you will, the way I could walk away from the video store at night. Yet, even though I am a minister and a chef and a teacher, I am more than those things. And I need more out of my life than work.

When Lent arrives, I will mark two years that I have been off of my antidepressants. Things are better for reasons I both can and cannot explain. I have learned some things about how to ride the monster a bit differently so that it doesn’t get the best of me. I also know some of the things that trigger the gathering storm. Staying at work all the time is one of them. But that lingering fear is not the main reason for walking away from the job.

I asked for what I needed to stay healthy and live a somewhat balanced life – and to have some quality time with Ginger – and they couldn’t offer that. So, staring down all the faces that came through the food line, I took care of myself. I felt good about it, I felt sad about it, and I felt a little guilty as well.

I’m comfortable with the first two emotions, but I’ve stared the last one down. I was a good fit for that job, but I am not the only person in the world, or even in Durham, that can do that job well. One of the passages by Frederick Buechner I have carried with me for years comes from Wishful Thinking:
Vocation” comes from the Latin vocare (to call) and means the work a [person] is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self interest.
The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your customers much either.
… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
I read those words both differently and more knowingly after last week. I am a minister, a chef, and a teacher, but this was not the place for me to be those things. It was not an easy decision, and I did what I could to find the intersection and didn’t find it there. So I said, “No.”

All I can do now is trust God and my decision.