Friday, April 29, 2011

royal wedding

I did my best not
to watch but couldn’t
help but listen when
they talked about it on
the radio as
I drove to work to
play with kids and words
the announcer spoke
of the prince and his
longtime girlfriend . . .
they were just pronounced
man and wife she said
and I wondered how it
feels for her to be
sentenced as both
anachronism and
appendage so


Sunday, April 24, 2011

lenten journal: sunday sonnet #27

Mary came to the grave yard alone
expecting to pour out her grief;
and she met someone she should have known
even though their encounter was brief.

She stayed after the others had gone
back to town to tell Christ was alive;
in the light that came after the dawn
he called her – and her heart was revived.

And she walked with him and talked with him,
and he told her that she was his own;
her heart must have been filled to the brim –
more was rolled away than just a stone.

Share the words by which we are freed:
Christ is risen, risen indeed.


Saturday, April 23, 2011

lenten journal: in tune with the land

When we moved into our house last summer, we moved into a home where the house had been fixed up (it was built in 1926), but the yard was – well – a trash heap, in the back at least. The front yard was mostly weeds, some prettier than others. Because we wanted Ginger’s dad to be able to enjoy the backyard, since we could secure it, we put our energy there, building a fence and a deck (thanks to our friend, Cameron) and, with the help and expertise of the folks at Bountiful Backyards, we turned the trash heap into an edible, beautiful landscape. This week, which has been my spring break from school, it was time to do something about the front. Ginger and I bought some plants, were given many more by Mary Anne, our generous neighbor, and I went to work.

I started this morning by digging a hole for a camellia and I kept hitting bricks. After about the sixth one (yes, I catch on quick) I realized I was hitting more than some random refuse. Rather than digging down, I started scraping the top layer off of what turned out to be a brick walkway that ran across half the yard. The bricks were in good condition and lined up beautifully. In the nearly ninety year history of our house, it has spent little time unoccupied. Granted, our neighborhood has been what is called euphemistically “transitional,” but people have been in the house. I had to wonder how people could forget a brick walkway. At the same time, I knew how people forget sidewalks and even cities. I remembered a passage from Annie Dillard’s wonderful book, For the Time Being.

New York City’s street level rises every century. The rate at which the dirt buries us varies. The Mexico City in which Cortes walked is now thirty feet underground. It would be farther underground except Mexico City itself has started sinking. Digging a subway line, workers found a temple. Debris lifts land an average of 4.7 feet per century. King Herod the Great rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago; the famous Western Wall is a top layer of old retaining wall neat the peak of Mount Moriah. From the present bottom of the Western Wall to bedrock is sixty feet.
Quick: Why aren’t you dusting? On every continent, we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place but to forestall burial. (123)
I planted azalea bushes that are about eighteen inches tall, a Japanese maple seedling that after three years has almost grown two feet, a hydrangea that isn’t much taller. Our neighbor to the right has one azalea that almost covers the whole front of her porch. She has no idea how old it is because it preceded her. Whoever planted them is long gone. Spending my day digging and planting was an exercise in mortality, in all that is temporal. I was not doing eternal work. I was planting living things whose days, like mine, are numbered. And, somehow, I was enlivened by the process. After seven hours of hard work, I came in energized as much by the process as whatever I might have accomplished.

About the time I bought Annie Dillard’s book, I also heard Dave Mallet sing. I used to volunteer to run sound at Club Passim in Cambridge MA and he was one of the performers I worked with. He had a number of very cool songs, but the one he is perhaps most remembered for is called “The Garden Song,” or as it is often referred, “Inch by Inch, Row by Row.” One of the verses says:
Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature's chain
Tune my body and my brain
To the music from the land
The last two lines describe how I felt digging around today: in tune with the land, with the eternity that lives in passing moments and daily gestures of mortality, with the hope I find in planting something I will not see full grown, with the connections in the conversations with passing neighbors, with the holy that lives in hard work. I have spent the day in the dirt, the very stuff we are made of, planting things that will bloom and die.

I am ready for resurrection.


Friday, April 22, 2011

lenten journal: a good friday

Today was a cold and rainy day here in Durham.

The sky never brightened beyond the dull gray of the clouds that rattled and wept most of the day. Here, where spring has arrived in full force, the temperature struggled to reach sixty degrees. In a week full of bright sunshine, the weather somehow knew how to set the scene for Good Friday. My plans to spend the day digging and planting fell by the wayside, because of the rain and a fairly sleepless night thanks to my allergies.

I had two things on my calendar for the day. One was to meet Ryan, a new friend as well as a Methodist minister and community activist, and the organizer of the Jack Crum Conference on Prophetic Ministry I wrote about not long ago. The plan was to meet him at the Pie Pushers food truck for a slice of pizza and conversation. The truck was parked in the lot at Sam’s Quik Shop, which shares the lot with a self-service car wash. We got our pizza and made a table out of a shelf in one of the car wash bays so we could eat and talk. We stood in the stall for almost an hour and a half. I had imagined the time between noon and three today being quite time alone in the garden, planting and praying and thinking about Jesus’ execution. Instead I came away both challenged and encouraged by time together with Ryan and Ginger as we talked about how our faith is best lived out in our broken world.

Late this afternoon, Ginger and I went out our back gate and across the alley to Mary Anne’s house. She is our back fence neighbor and a wonderful gardener. She sent a note out on our neighborhood listserv inviting everyone to a plant swap, which was followed by a sentence that said you didn’t have to have anything to swap to come and take part. Five or six other neighbors showed up, most with plants from their yards. Everyone was generous and helpful. We came home with six or eight buckets full of plants from irises to day lilies to Lamb’s ear to a Japanese maple seedling. Everything we brought home was small. My planting tomorrow will be an exercise in hope because most everything will need a year or two to take root and grow into itself.

I love working in the garden and I don’t always know the names of the things I’m planting. As we walked around Mary Anne’s yard, she knew them all by name and could not only tell you how to treat them in replanting, but also had stories to tell about how the various plants came to take up residence in her garden. Her stories seeded tales from the rest of us about plants and gardens and homes and families. We all left with plants for our gardens and seedlings of relationships in our hearts.

By the time we got back home, it was time to fix dinner. Ginger, her parents, and I shared the meal around our dining table. The Alzheimer’s continues to disappear my father-in-law, but tonight he had a few lucid moments. One of the things Ginger does best is invite him to step back into old memories that are still alive in his mind. He can’t recall the names of our Schnauzers for more than a minute or two, but can revel in every detail of his life growing up and while he tells those stories a little lightning sparkles in his now mostly vacant eyes.

Those who had followed Jesus stood together while Jesus was dying on the cross; many of them stayed together in the days between death and resurrection. Even in the deepest darkness, faith is a team sport. It is not good to be alone, even in the dark. Thinking about those with whom I gathered today sent my mind back to a Wendell Berry poem that moves me each time I read it. I offer it tonight as we sit in the dark together.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
Love the Lord. Love the world. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. Amen.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

lenten journal: asked and answered

Brothers and sisters, from where have you come?
Such was the question that greeted us as we prepared to share Communion in our Maundy Thursday. Those of us scattered across the sanctuary had come from different places. The answer we were called to give in unison was compelling:
We have come from the dust, and from the earth, and from the breath of God.
I had spent the afternoon digging in the dirt, planting azaleas and hydrangeas and camellias and gardenias and all the other things that ought to grace the front yard of a Southern home. I looked down at my hands to see the dirt still under my fingernails. One of the reasons I love gardening is because of how it has helped me deal with my depression. Something about digging in the dirt centers me, encourages me – and it appears to be at an existential and theological level: I am handling the very building blocks of my existence. The difference between me and the topsoil is breath. God’s breath. Ginger begins most every service as she did tonight, inviting us to sit still and then “Breathe in the breath of God; breathe out the love of God.” It is a distilled metaphor of the flow of life: from breath to love, all belonging to God. As we sat in the pew, I could feel the air in my own lungs and hear my breathing, thanks to my allergies. The questions continued:
And why have you come?
Again, none of us was there for the same reason, or so I assumed. I was one of the readers in the Tennebrae service; I was also there because I love this service as much as any during the year. And, again, we were called to answer in unison:
We have come to receive the bread and the cup: the bread and the cup of promise, the bread and the cup of remembrance, the bread and the cup of hope.
Tonight after church, Ginger and I went to Six Plates, a wonderful wine bar here in town, to celebrate our twenty-first anniversary. We ordered the cheese plate, as we always do when we go there. Tonight, Manchego cheese was one of the offerings. It reminded me of the Manchego crème brulee I had at the Magnolia Grill on my first birthday in Durham. It was amazing. When I mentioned it, we began recalling great meals and dishes we had had together. Life happens around the table, in the making of meals and memories, in the sharing of food and friendship. And, on this night, it all came down to a meal for Jesus and those who loved him.
What is the bread and the cup of promise?
The bread and the cup of promise is Christ Jesus our Lord. We come to receive the promise of his life in ours.
Twenty-one years ago, Ginger and I looked into each other’s eyes and made promises. Outrageous promises. We used time tested words about better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health without knowing what lie ahead. We were mostly committing ourselves to grow into the promises. I read the passage tonight that described Peter denying he even knew Jesus – not once, but three times, each one more vociferous. Then he heard the rooster and remembered he had promised he would be true to the end. In the next week or two, we will read the story of the next meal Jesus and Peter shared together – a meal in which the promise was restored because of who Jesus was in his life.
What is the bread and cup of remembrance?
The bread and cup of remembrance is Christ Jesus our Lord. We have come to remember Jesus and his life in ours.
Most any time I come to Communion and we talk of remembering, I think of a youth camp many years ago when Kenny, who was the camp pastor, asked us to identify the opposite of remember, to which most answered, “Forget.”

“No,” he said. “The opposite of remember is dismember: to take apart. When we re-member Jesus in this meal, we put the Body of Christ back together again. Last weekend, Ginger and I sat around a table with Jay, Cherry, Julie, and Diane, who are our accumulated and intentional family. Over the years, we have chosen to put ourselves together and the bonds run deep. The call to re-member we are one in the Spirit is a call to remember love is an act of will, not an emotion.
What is the bread and the cup of hope?
The bread and the cup of hope is Christ Jesus our Lord. We have come to renew our hope in him and his life in ours.
Jesus shared the bread and cup with his disciples and was dead by the middle of the next afternoon. They knew nothing of Easter. They only knew the one they had trusted had been executed among common criminals. They ran. They hid. They went fishing. They went to the tomb. When it comes to acting out the Easter story, we know the Cross is not the Last Word. As Tony Campolo has preached more times than he can remember, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming . . . . In our daily lives, we, like the disciples, have no idea what tomorrow holds. We know only the pain and promise we find in today, and the hope we have mustered and saved from days gone by, based on the love we have found to be true. Or, perhaps untrue. Hope is keeping on. We hope when we set the alarm clock for tomorrow morning, when we plan whatever’s next, when we look beyond all that so easily besets us, when we sit down together for dinner.

After we answered the questions, we prayed and then we sang:
Lord I want to be like Jesus in my heart
Lord I want to be like Jesus in my heart
In my heart in my heart
Lord I want to be like Jesus in my heart
And then we shared our meal of promise, remembrance, and hope together and went out into the night, knowing tomorrow is the day that marks God’s magnificent defeat,
and knowing we will gather again on Sunday morning for Resurrection and pancakes.


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

lenten journal: wildflowers

the wildflower patch is coming
back for an encore performance
after last year’s inaugural run

right now everything is a verdant
vibrant and bloomless array of
weeds and flowers, best I can tell

so I hesitate to pull anything
up by the roots because I just
might be pulling up wildflowers

from the highways of my youth
I remember fields of bluebonnets
surely weeds were among them

is it reason enough to pull up
what I don’t recognize because
it’s not something I planted


Tuesday, April 19, 2011

lenten journal: considerable love

Because Easter is a moveable feast, our twenty-first wedding anniversary falls on Maundy Thursday. So we celebrated tonight. The Playmakers Repertory Company at UNC is doing a production of Big River, a musical telling of the adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The musical was on Broadway in the mid-eighties. The songs were written by the King of the Road himself, Roger Miller. Playmakers put on a great show, as usual, and we had a wonderful time.

At one point early on in the play, Jim tells Huck that life has “considerable tragedy and considerable joy.” One comes with the other. I would go as far to say one is essential to the other. When we have the capacity to experience considerable tragedy, it opens up to considerable joy, and vice versa. To be able to feel deeply means all of the feelings. To keep pain at arm’s length is to do the same to joy. It is also to keep others at bay as well. The shared experience of considerable emotion, regardless of the emotion, is a tie that binds.

One of the songs that most moved me this evening was called, “You Oughta Be Here With Me.” A daughter was singing in grief at the death of her father and in uncertainty of what the future might hold.

if you think it's lonesome where you are tonight
then you oughta be here with me
if you think there's heartache where you are tonight
then you oughta be here with me
because with you I'm whole, without you I'm cold
so if you think about me where you are tonight
then you oughta be here with me
if teardrops are falling where you are tonight
then you oughta be here with me
loneliness calling where you are tonight
then you oughta be here with me
because with you I'm whole, without you I'm cold
so if you think about me where you are tonight
then you oughta be here with me
“There’s bound to come some trouble in your life,” Rich Mullins used to sing, “but that ain’t nothing to be afraid of.” Poets and songwriters all the way back to Ecclesiastes have known what Jim was telling Huck. The contour of our existence goes as low as it does high. The human race is not run on a flat track.

I listened to the woman sing, “You oughta be here with me” seated next to the person who has been here with me more than anyone in my life. Twenty-one years ago, we were juggling last minute wedding details and imagining a life together. The years that followed have brought highs and lows that neither of us could have anticipated. We grew into the promises we made on our wedding day as we walked into days that offered both better and worse, sickness and health. We’re still waiting on the wealth to show up. Now as Ginger’s dad continues to disappear incrementally as his Alzheimer’s takes a stronger hold, we are learning new levels of feeling and sorrow.

The joy takes the face of gratitude for me these days. In the midst of hard times, I lie in our bed at night and listen to the symphony of breathing sounds offered in concert by Ginger and the Schnauzers and I am grateful to be in the room listening to what joy sounds like. The best news I have is, after twenty-one years, the best place I know to be is with my wife.

A number of years ago, I wrote a song with my friend Billy where I tried to imagine what love looked like farther on in a marriage than I was at a time. The title I came up with was “Well Worn Love,” which conjured up an image of lives that had been gently and daily softened and polished by the love they shared in much the same way that the stairs on the old buildings in Boston were changed by the daily foot falls, or the tails of library lions worn smooth by thousands of small touches. The chorus says,
this is the story of two common hearts
that started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime
the waltz of a well-worn love
We’re not yet as old as the couple in my song, and I look forward to many more years together. I’m also happy to say, twenty-one years on, I wrote a pretty good song back then. It was not just my imagination running away with me. I am grateful for the considerable love that Ginger and I share in both our tragedy and joy.

And that we still stay our late on a school night.


Monday, April 18, 2011

lenten journal: in remembrance of me

We drove to Hampton, Virginia Sunday after church to surprise our friend Charles who turns fifty tomorrow. We walked into their house around suppertime, ate, and then sat around the table talking as old friends do. Our conversation turned to music and then to the music we grew up on, which is gospel. Thanks to Youtube, we were able to share a few of our favorites, starting with Vestal Goodman and Johnny Cook singing, “Looking for a City.” I know. I’ve written and linked before to several gospel video clips because I do find something there that moves me even though the theology of the songs doesn’t always match up with mine.

One of the singing experiences that had a profound impact on my life was being a part of a production of Celebrate Life, which was a youth musical by Buryl Red and Regan Courtney based on the gospels that was a centerpiece of Baptist youth choirs for many, many years. The songs are receptacles of memories and emotions from long ago; some of them remain essential tracks in the soundtrack of my faith. As Holy Week begins, one in particular appears -- a Communion song called “In Remembrance.”

in remembrance of me eat this bread
in remembrance of me drink this wine
in remembrance of me pray for the time
when God's own will is done
in remembrance of me heal the sick
in remembrance of me feed the poor
in remembrance of me open the door
and let your brother i, let him in
take eat and be comforted
srink and remember too
that this is my body and precious blood
shed for you, shed for you
in remembrance of me search for truth
in remembrance of me always love
in remembrance of me don't look above
but in your heart, in your heart
look in your heart for God
do this in remembrance ofme
do this in remembrance of me
in remembrance of me
After the weekend with Julie and Jay here, a great night with Charles and Jennifer and Samuel in Virginia, and the chance tonight to help out some of my Durham friends on their food truck, I feel full and fortunate. I am grateful that I can look around me and quite easily see the love of God in the faces looking back. As we move through this significant and holy week, I’m carrying this song, and the line in particular that sings:
in remembrance of me always love.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

lenten journal: sunday sonnet #26

This Sunday is one with two faces,
from shouts of hosanna to curses,
and which emphasis that one places
or whether one reads all the verses

that take Jesus from palms to Passion
and us from fanfare to forgiveness.
We move in liturgical fashion
to do all we can to bear witness

to a love that will not let us go,
even when we’re the cause of the pain.
The two things held together help show
our untamed God cannot be detained.

Did ever such love and sorrow meet?
This is our magnificent defeat.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

lenten journal: being elmo

I’ve spent the last three days volunteering with the Full Frame Documentary Festival, one of the highlights of the Durham calendar and the largest documentary film festival in the world. I was assigned to the Artist Hospitality Team whose job it was to take the film makers and subjects of the documentaries to and from the airport. What I loved most about the gig was I had twenty-five or thirty minutes with these folks in the car to find out about their movies and to brag a bit on my fair city. I met some wonderful people who had worked hard to get their stories to the screen.

The thing they all had most in common was that their stories took years to tell. Often they had followed their subjects for four or five years, not to mention the time and effort it took to actually get the film funded and produced. The highlight of my weekend was my last run of the morning when I picked up Elmo from the airport.

Kevin Clash is the puppeteer who is the subject of the documentary Being Elmo that showed here this week. I took one of the film’s producers out to the airport to pick up Kevin so he could be here for the screening this afternoon. When I picked up his luggage, he pointed to one small bag and said, “Don’t let that one get crushed; it’s Elmo.” Having been a serious Muppet fan for many years, I was very careful with the luggage and quite excited to be the one driving them all back to town.

This afternoon, I got to see the movie.

When Kevin was nine years old, he saw Sesame Street and the Muppets and was so captured by them that he started making puppets of his own. He then began doing puppet shows in his yard, which led to someone in Baltimore discovering him and bring him to a local TV kids show, which led him to be discovered by Captain Kangaroo and then Jim Henson. When he joined Sesame Street, Kevin didn’t have a set character that he played with any regularity. Elmo had only a small part on the show and the puppeteer who was doing him was frustrated with what he was doing. One day, he tossed the puppet to Kevin and said, “Do whatever you want with this one.”

And Elmo, as we know him, was born.

When Kevin talked about how he developed the character of the little red puppet, he said he began to study the other successful characters on Sesame Street and realized that each one had a defining characteristic. The more he thought about Elmo, he realized what defined Elmo was he loved everyone. From that realization, Kevin brought the Elmo we know into being, who is one who loves better than he does anything else. “Elmo loves you,” the little red guy said over and over, and that unabashed, unfiltered love was the driving force of the movie.

I could feel the tears running down my cheeks as I watched people of all ages fall into the arms of the little red ragamuffin or break into smiles when he laughed. What Elmo understands is when we share love from the core of who we are we create space for all of us to teach and learn and pray. I watched Elmo and I wondered about my own defining characteristic, about what animates my life and my faith.

After the movie, I met Ginger to go to a wedding reception for a couple whom Ginger married while I was watching Elmo. The groom was English and the bride from Durham. They are living in England and got married here in her home church and town. As their friends and family talked about them, what became clear was they, too, were defined by the way they loved both one another and those around them. The evening was one of pure celebration.

From the reception, we headed to Watts Grocery where we met Jay and Julie, two of our intentional family, and we ate and drank and laughed and talked as we have done more evenings than I can count. As we laughed, I thought of Elmo’s giggle as he hugged the kids of all ages that gathered around him after the screening was over, of Kevin Clash as he called an eight-year old girl to the front who makes her own puppets and whom he is mentoring as others did for him. I looked at Ginger, to whom I will have been married twenty-one years this coming Thursday and I thought, much like Elmo we all come to life when our love is what defines us.


Friday, April 15, 2011

lenten journal: confession

perhaps this could be seen
as meeting the minimum
requirement of my promise . . .

I far exceeded, however,
my quota for laughter,
baseball, and my spirit

soared like a fly ball
in the thin night air . . .
forgive me if I am

a man of few words


Thursday, April 14, 2011

lenten journal: what language shall I borrow?

Marco Werman, the anchor for The World, said, “texted” in a sentence as the past tense of the verb “to text.” Though I’ve come to terms with the transition “text” has made form noun to verb (notice I didn’t say, “transitioned”), I’ve struggled with how to speak of texting in the past tense. It rolls off the tongue like a grammatical mistake, an expression of miseducation, a triumph of convenience over thoughtful expression. I have worked hard not capitulate, choosing instead to say, “I sent you a text message,” hoping I could keep English from yet another assault of verbiating.
And there it was. On NPR, no less.

We Americans, the champions of expediency, have less and less need for verbs it seems. We find it easier to simply put nouns in their place. We friend each other on Facebook (“friended”?), where once we became friends with one another. Perhaps the one that gets me most is hearing people speaking of “gifting” something to another. What’s wrong with giving?

Catching up on other NPR stories I missed, I found this one on new books for language lovers a bit later and a review of The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter.

John McWhorter, who specializes in linguistic change, takes us across dozens of tongues and thousands of years, even speculating about the first human speech. We learn the process that turned the Romans' femina (woman) into the modern French femme, shedding two syllables and even changing vowel sounds. But it's not all erosion and wearing down. McWhorter also shows how words can become more complicated over time, explaining, for example, where Italian verb endings came from. Seeing numerous languages laid out over history gives a valuable pause for those who mutter about decline. Languages don't decline; they change. Getting too attached to one moment in time is like getting too invested in the position of the goo in a lava lamp, McWhorter says. You can be bitter watching them shift, or you can be absorbed by the beauty in the process.
I’m sure he texted people who had friended all day, once he heard his book would be impacted by a review.

Reading the last couple of sentences caused me to smile at myself: “Getting too attached to one moment in time is like getting too invested in the position of the goo in a lava lamp.” The English I’m fighting for is a bastardized version to those a generation or two before me. As the speed of life accelerates, circumstances change faster than vocabulary. I’m blogging, after all – and even as I write, my spell checker doesn’t know what to do with that verb.

In semi-related semantic news, David Brooks had a great editorial in the New York Times this week on the quotidian role poetry plays in our lives.
To be aware of the central role metaphors play is to be aware of how imprecise our most important thinking is. It’s to be aware of the constant need to question metaphors with data — to separate the living from the dead ones, and the authentic metaphors that seek to illuminate the world from the tinny advertising and political metaphors that seek to manipulate it. 
Most important, being aware of metaphors reminds you of the central role that poetic skills play in our thought. If much of our thinking is shaped and driven by metaphor, then the skilled thinker will be able to recognize patterns, blend patterns, apprehend the relationships and pursue unexpected likenesses. 
Even the hardest of the sciences depend on a foundation of metaphors. To be aware of metaphors is to be humbled by the complexity of the world, to realize that deep in the undercurrents of thought there are thousands of lenses popping up between us and the world, and that we’re surrounded at all times by what Steven Pinker of Harvard once called “pedestrian poetry.”

Sometimes our language changes out of laziness, sometimes out of creativity, sometimes out of necessity. I saw a video clip of Ken Burns talking about the impact the Civil War had on one particular phrase. Before the war, he said, Americans said, “The United States are,” seeing themselves as loosely connected units. After the war, Americans began to say, “The United States is . . . .” The conflict that almost destroyed us made us realize we were inextricably connected.

“Languages don't decline; they change . . . . You can be bitter watching them shift, or you can be absorbed by the beauty in the process,” says John McWhorter. The way I best understand what he’s saying is to read his words about language as metaphor for faith. Our idea of who God is and what God can do in and through us changes as we learn more about the world around us. The world is not the same as it was during Lent last year, much less two thousand years ago when Jesus was walking around. Most of us wrestle with some of his metaphors and miracles because we don’t keep sheep or know much about leprosy first hand. Some of the issues we face in our world today were not even on the table when Jesus broke bread with his disciples. The world has changed. Our faith has changed. God has changed. Our choices are to fight the change as though it were a threat or to allow ourselves to be absorbed in the process of God’s continuing revelation and redemption.

Change is in the DNA of the universe, in the very core of our Creator.

And I still don’t want to say, “texted.”


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

lenten journal: keepsake

there are some nights
when the sky turns
the color of friendship
and fades into the crisp
darkness of gratitude

we ate with friends
drank and talked as well
and then walked away
dropping bit of hope
like breadcrumbs

along the sidewalks
and silent porches
finding our way home
to our porch light
our beacon of belonging

summer will come
and winter will follow
and footprints will fade
but not this indelible
wisp of memory


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

lenten journal: if darwin prayed

If you haven’t heard, Rob Bell has written a book.

I haven’t read it, but he apparently has a lot of nerve claiming God loves everyone. What I have read are any number of blog posts, articles, and straight out rants claiming that Bell’s argument that Hell might not exist is not just wrong but evil or dangerous – or both. A Facebook acquaintance posted a link – without irony – to an article by John McArthur entitled, “Rob Bell: A Brother to Embrace or a Wolf to Avoid?”


I used McArthur’s own search function on his blog to see if he ever called Fred Phelps into question and found nothing.

Michael Morrell is a Facebook friend I have never met, but I count him as a friend because he sends me books, thanks to The latest one will probably make John McArthur invite Rob Bell over for dinner just because of the title: If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics by Bruce Sanguin. The author is a pastor in the United Church of Canada and writes wonderfully about what it means to come to terms both with our ev ever-changing God and our ever-changing universe. Here is an excerpt from the Prologue:

Within the miracle of a living and evolving universe, our understanding evolves regarding God, the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, what it means to be a faith community, and what it means to be human. There is no final, un- changing form of Christianity. God’s last word was not uttered two thousand years ago in Nazareth. We can detect in the pattern of Jesus’ life, death, and in the stories of His resurrection, the evolutionary bias of an eternal, loving Presence. The failure to update our theological and liturgical models has resulted in modes of worship, spiritual practice, and images of God, that are out of sync with reality (and Reality) as we know it to be.
I’ve been meaning to write a review for awhile, but reading McArthur’s post – and my acquaintance’s willingness to pass it along – gave me the impetus to pass along some words intended to foster faith and community. Sanguin wonders aloud in his opening poem how Darwin might have responded had faith been framed differently for him. Though the poem is long, I’m posting the whole thing here because I couldn’t figure out what to cut.
If Darwin Prayed
I wonder, if Mr. Darwin
had imagined a God
bigger than the theist’s puppeteer—
and less aloof
from nature’s ways—
how he might have prayed.
I wonder,
if he had viewed the great march of time
with a mystic’s eye—
as Spirit’s unhurried play with form and function,
not creation leaving God in the dust
and pulling itself up by its own bootstraps—
if his heart might not have burned with faith.
I wonder,
when the push of Eros
and the pull of the possible
caused him to close the City of God
and leave the dreary seminary
to set sail on board his Beagle destiny,
if he ever imagined that he embodied Spirit’s
irrepressible urge to evolve.
I wonder,
when he reflected on the mystery of a finch’s beak
and the glories of the Galapagos,
if Mr. Darwin considered his own adaptive brilliance
that brought forth The Origin of Species
(his great gift to theology)
an occasion of an even deeper Mystery—
evolution awakening in him.
I wonder,
if, hunched long years
over beetles and mollusks,
he ever considered
St. Paul’s self-emptying God,
touching all with a rising,
noncoercive Presence,
and then going on ahead of us—
as did the Galilean—
calling from an undissected future,
beckoning this sighing creation
toward freedom and fullness of being.
I wonder, Mr. Darwin,
if your beloved Emma might have worried less
over your apostasy
if you could have played the prophet
and announced, with the Baptist,
evolution was filling every valley
making low the mountains,
preparing a highway
through Descartes’ desert,
for the advent,
and not the end,
of God.
(If I were God,
I too would keep my presence hidden,
an allurement of love that predestines no fixed future,
conferring maximum dignity upon life,
as together all that is
joins in the great procession
of the formless,
assuming forms most glorious,
crowning the human ones
with a distinctive diadem—
the capacity to select our own future,
I wonder
if Darwin prayed.
The rest of the book offers prayers that follow the ecclesiastical seasons, each tied to a scripture passage, with most of them having been used in worship at Sanguin’s church. The overarching sense of the prayers is one of wonder and openness. These are not the prayers of people convinced they have the answer, or that they need to protect God, but people thriving on questions and committed to being lost in wonder, love, and praise.

I want to be dangerous like them.


Monday, April 11, 2011

lenten journal: lyrics and layers

One of the signatures of my life are pockets of unfinished things.

I have shelves of unfinished books, stacks of papers to be gone through, any number of unfinished household projects, and – thanks to an attempt, at least, to finish unpacking one corner of the guest room in our house – a folder of unfinished songs. At the end of the last century, I was a songwriter, collaborating with a good friend. I wrote lyrics and contributed on the harmonies. When that chapter of my life came to a close, I came away with the idea that I was not a melody maker, so the not-yet-songs found their way into folders and unfinished stacks and have stayed hidden for so long that I find it hard remembering them. Some in the stack have stayed with me in one form or another, but others were a complete surprise. This is one that caught my attention:

a world away
on a road outside nairobi
someone’s walking home
someone’s burning dinner
someone’s about to go
half a world away from me
I don’t know any names
on a road outside nairobi
it happens just the same
on a subway in st. petersburg
someone has to stand
a woman’s having trouble
another lends a hand
as the five o’clock train fills up
like a mobile sardine can
on a subway in st. petersburg
they’re heading home again
name a town pick a place
take a lap in the human race
find yourself a world away
in the people you won’t see today
in a house in yokahama
the little one’s asleep
while parents balance bank accounts
and say the rent’s too steep
grandma’s on the telephone
asking how’s my little girl
in a house in yokahama
it’s not such a different world
name a town pick a place
take a lap in the human race
find yourself a world away
in the people you won’t see today
Part of the reason this particular text struck me is the theme, which is one I’ve carried with me for many years. I can remember saying to friends in college, “Sometimes it bothers me that there are places I’ve never been – whole cities, countries – where no one has ever waked up and said, ‘I wonder what Milton is doing.’ They have never missed me and they’re doing just fine.” As long as I’m printing older works, I even wrote this poem a few years back:
a family is gathering for a meal
outside Spokane
the daughter is still
wearing her soccer uniform
the mother is chatting
as she passes the potatoes
the father is nonverbal, tired
trying to engage the dog is
waiting for someone to share
they will finish their dinners
their conversations
their homework
they will turn on the television
the phone will ring several times
It will not be me
no one in that house knows
I live across the continent or
I have tales to tell of my youth
of my life, of what I did yesterday
they don’t know I can cook or play
guitar, or that I’m writing a poem
they don’t know I’ve never
been to Spokane and
they’re not concerned
they are finding their dreams
building their lives
breaking their hearts
living out their days
without knowing me
and they are not the only ones
in all my years
the phone has never rung
and a voice declared
“come quickly to spokane
we just realized we can’t
go on without you”
the same could be said
for the table across the room
from me here in the coffee shop
the gossamer tether of humanity
doesn’t appear to reach as far
as the next booth unless the light
is just right and I can see the lines
I’m not sure which view
is easier to live with
The other reason I was caught by the folder I found was there were several poems/lyrics that were fairly complete and yet had sat in the blue cardboard folder with the picture of Pooh reading to Piglet while each one of them sits on a stack of books and the inscription, “Words and Such.” On the bookshelf next to the desk where I’m writing tonight are three more binders of unborn and unfinished songs, a whole stack of journals with snippets of insight, a couple of folders with articles and quotes, five icons that need to be completed, and a draft of a novel that I finished, but never could figure out what to do next. Within arm’s reach is an archaeological exhibition of the layers of my writing life with almost as much left undone as done, I suppose.

The last phrase takes me once more to the prayer that has traveled with me through much of this Lenten season: “forgive us for the things we have done and the things we’ve left undone.” I’m not sure I need to ask forgiveness in this case – except for a couple of the lyrics – as much as I need to attend to my past, to regard it. Some things pass by for reasons we understand and others for reasons we cannot explain. Sometimes we walk away on purpose and other times we just let things fall away. I look over at the bookshelf and I think of Ezekiel standing over the valley of dry bones and watching God reanimate those who had been lost and left for dead. What he thought was over wasn’t over.

Though much of what I found in my excavation might be considered, in the parlance of The Princess Bride, to be “mostly dead,” I’m doing good work to go back through the layers of my life and remember, as best I can, not only what and why I wrote, but for whom and with whom. Whether any of the songs are ever finished, or any other of them are seen by anyone else but me, living in the layers, as Stanley Kunitz pointed out, is how I continue to move towards wholeness. Here are the closing lines to his poem:
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.
In this trinity of existence – archaeologist, settler, explorer – I re-member my life in what has been, what is, and what is to come. I cannot see beyond the borders of my limitations and can reach farther than I can imagine.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

lenten journal: sunday sonnet #25

First the news of Lazarus dying
before Jesus had time to get there --
Then the image of Jesus crying
must have giv’n the disciples a scare . . .

He got to the tomb and called out his friend,
with the others saying, “He stinketh” –
they had no idea death was no end,
Jesus said, “Death is not what you thinketh.”

God showed Ezekiel a valley of death
then gift wrapped bones in new life and skin –
God’s subversive pow’r in every breath:
in our endings is where God begins

touching that miraculous circumstance
where the blind ones see and the dry bones dance*


*with grateful appreciation to Mark Heard

Saturday, April 09, 2011

lenten journal: telling stories

I spent the morning and early afternoon at the Third Annual Jack Crum Conference on Prophetic Ministry at Avent Ferry United Methodist Church in Raleigh. My primary connection to the event was through my friendship with Ryan Rowe, who is a member of the church and the organizer of this year’s conference. He asked me to help with the food.

The conference is named for a former pastor of the church who was responsible for helping the church to galvanize its identity in the midst of the civil rights struggle. In 1958, they were meeting in a dairy barn that belonged to a rich benefactor. The church was an all white congregation. Crum invited James Lawson, an African-American and fellow Methodist, to come a preach. The man who owned the barn, and who was also going to donate land to let them build a church, said if Lawson came he would evict them and take back his land.

Ryan read part of the sermon Crum preached the following Sunday, prior to Lawson taking the pulpit. “Money cannot buy our witness,” he said. And then he repeated himself. Then Crum went on to say the second galvanizing principle was to stand against those who were wrong but “to love them in the midst of their wrongness.” “Speaking the truth without love,” said Crum, “is not Christian.”

And then, fifty-three years later, James Lawson himself stepped once again into the pulpit of Avent Ferry UMC. This man who went on from that Sunday in 1958 to pastor in India, to study with followers of Gandhi, to help found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to train civil rights activists in nonviolent actions, to ride in the last stages of the Freedom Rides when the early riders had been beaten down, to pastor in Memphis and work with Martin Luther King to organize the sanitation workers stood up today to stand with those working to keep a well integrated and successful school system in Raleigh from being taken apart by forces reminiscent of those who opposed him fifty years ago. He spoke with a gentle and calm authority, not as one who had something to prove nor as a hero in the fading light, but as one who knew how to speak the truth in love and still had some truth to speak.

He talked about how hard it is to read the gospel stories of Jesus because we find it hard to let him be human, to really see him in the stories. “If you want to understand the stories of Jesus,” he said, “read a biography of Gandhi or Martin Luther King.” The fact that we were sitting in a room with no stained glass windows seemed perfect to me in that moment: he was calling us to see in new and clear images.

His words reminded me of something I read in Nathan Brown’s book, Letters to a One-Armed Poet, which chronicles his grief in the loss of one of his best friends. In a piece called “Nip and Tuck,” he writes,

I’ve buffed out so many scratches and dings in the paint of our stories, I now worry about their cosmetic integrity.
At the same time, “the truth” has always felt like salty taffy in my mouth – the way it yanks on loose teeth and takes forever to digest. And “the facts” of any matter seldom make people lean forward in their customary seats . . . seats on the front rows of lives that are filled enough already with the hassle and boredom of “what actually happened.”
Right now I’m reading The Great Gatsby with my American Literature class at school – me for about the tenth time, they for the first. Though I’ve read it with students several times, I’ve also reread it four or five times on my own because I am captured by the writing and the way the story unfolds. No matter now many times I read it, there is always something new to find there.
I love to tell the story
for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting
to hear it like the rest
So sings one of my favorite hymns. Thinking about what Lawson had to say this morning, what Gatsby thinks about looking across the water at Daisy’s green light, what Nathan meant by “buffing and shining,” I wonder what are the stories of Jesus – the ones with the scratches and dents of humanity and hope?

We’ve often done a pretty good buffing job on the gospels over the years to make them fit nicely into our anthology of culture and faith. We can talk, for instance, about the gruesomeness of the Crucifixion and focus on Jesus’ suffering because he died for us and also, perhaps, because we don’t have to feel it firsthand. When the call of the story is for compassion and voluntarily taking on the pain of the poor and marginalized, we’ve move more quickly to metaphor. When it’s something we can’t fit comfortably into our categories, we explain it away as being added by church tradition or later inserts. When it comes to our weekly lectionary readings, we just skip over the hard parts. The prospect of a “taffy” truth that leaves us toothless and disquieted is more than we want to face on most days.

I was reading Marcus Borg’s blog tonight, looking for information on his new book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power - And How They Can Be Restored, and found these words:
But he was not a secular social revolutionary. He was God’s revolutionary. And God’s passion – what God is passionate about, according to Jesus – is for an earth in which swords are beaten into plowshares, in which nations do not make war against nations anymore, in which every family shall live under their own vine and fig tree (not just subsistence, but more than subsistence), and no one shall make the afraid (Micah 4.1-4, with close parallel in Isaiah 2.1-4). This was the passion of Jesus, and for Christians, Jesus is the revelation of God’s passion.
Violent revolution? No. Non-violent revolution? Yes.
Of course, Jesus and the Bible are also personal as well as political. Of course. But we have not often seen the political meaning of Jesus and the Bible. It is there – and once one sees it, it is so obvious. Not to see it is the product of habituated patterns of thought, or of willful blindness.
Jesus was (and is) not about endorsing the rule of domination systems that privilege the wealthy and powerful. Jesus was (and is) about God’s passion for a very different kind of world.
Yes, and we have church buildings and jobs and families and debts and obligations and other stuff we want to do. In the jukebox that is my mind, I cue the Beatles:
you say you want a revolution
well you know we don’t want to change the world
My friend Burt called tonight while I was cooking dinner. We’ve been close friends since college – a long time ago, now. It had been awhile since we talked, so we both had stories to tell along with new scratches and dents to share. When we were younger, we thought we would change the world.

I think there’s still time.


Friday, April 08, 2011

lenten journal: stormy weather

it is a dark and stormy
night the sky is angry
flashing and bellowing
yet refusing to dissolve

into tears and weep its way
into ushering in the dawn
our middle schnauzer
runs under the bed at the

first sound of thunder
I’m typing in the dark
to better see the light show
trying to beat the deadline

imposed by my itchy eyes
and generic antihistamines
that aren’t keeping promises
any better than the lightning


Thursday, April 07, 2011

lenten journal: I'm walking, yes indeed

In the opening lines of Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas sings

every time I look at you I don’t understand
why you let the things you did get so out of hand
you’d have managed better if you’d had a plan
why’d you choose such backward time and such a strange land
if you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation
people in 4 B.C. had no mass communication . . .
I’m sure Jesus would have broken the record for followers had he been able to Tweet, though shrinking the parables to one hundred and forty characters would have been a challenge, even for the Messiah. Even if he could have reached the world, the quality of the encounters would have been fundamentally different. Judas criticized him for lack of a plan yet, it seems to me, that is what is perhaps most essential about the gospel stories. The disciples didn’t greet him every morning with a papyrus Day-Timer and say, “We’ll start with healing a blind man after breakfast, on the way to town a woman will touch your cloak, at lunch you’ll feed the five thousand, and then raise Jarius’ daughter from the dead in the early afternoon before you catch the boat for a little ‘me’ time.”

Jesus walked. And Jesus was interrupted.

In fact, the context for most of his ministry was interruptions. He walked – occasionally with somewhere specific to go – and people stopped him. Love is more easily transferred by analog. Tonight, Ginger and I planned to go to the opening of The Cookery, which bills itself as “Durham’s Cooking Incubator.” Read their words:

Starting a food business can be daunting. We are here to foster creative culinary minds as they set out to become the next big thing on the local food scene. With our certified facility and regulatory expertise, you can jump-start your culinary venture today.

Though Durham is known as the “Bull City,” I think we could more aptly be called “City of Encouragement” because of the way people pull for one another around here. Durhamsters are good at cheering each other along and helping to make each other’s dreams come true.

Since we knew parking would be tough and the evening was amazingly beautiful, Ginger and I decided to walk from our house down West Trinity Avenue to Buchanan, along side of Duke’s East Campus, through Brightleaf Square, and down to Old Chapel Hill Road where The Cookery was ringed by food trucks, not the least of which was Pie Pushers, Durham’s latest addition and the dream of our friends Becky and Mike.

We were not far from the house when we met a woman walking an old black dog whom we could tell had been at the vet because on leg was shaved where he had had an IV. (Lola is sporting the same style right now.) The rest of the way down West Trinity took us past a plethora of pink dogwoods in full bloom, parents out walking with children, some people waiting at bus stops, and folks coming home from work. The turn on to Buchanan took us alongside the brick wall that rings the campus and past all kinds of walkers and runners making the loop. We crossed the tracks in Brightleaf and passed the houses along the lower part of Buchanan, some that have been restored and others still boarded up. One old house that we had looked at when we first moved to town was on the market again, still looking for the tenacious love that will help it heal.

When we got to The Cookery, we were preceded by a couple of hundred of our fellow citizens and four or five food trucks. I got my slice from Mike and Becky and Ginger and I both got a couple of “garlic knots” – Mike’s creation of a roasted garlic clove (with some cheese, or pesto, or sausage) wrapped in a lovely little blanket of pizza dough (his recipe) and baked. As we stood in line, we saw Sean from Fullsteam (one of our best community encouragers and damn good beer maker), Brian from Housing for New Hope, a couple Ginger knew from her exercise class, Derek (a photographer for the Indy), and then we met the folks from Berenbaums. They are a bakers who are just starting out and selling their wares at the Durham Farmer’s Market. Their cookies and cheddar biscuits (oh, my) are offered on a sliding scale: you pay what you can. The folks at Ninth Street Bakery, who are very established, are helping them get their start.

On the way home, we turned left on to Main Street when we got back to campus and looped around to Ninth Street so we could make a stop at Chubby’s Tacos for some chips and queso and a couple of frozen margaritas. On the way in we met a young woman wearing a Baylor t-shirt and she and I had a brief “Sic ‘em, Bears” moment. We walked home down Markham to Watts Street and back to Trinity. At about the same place where we had met the woman with her dog, we saw a man about a hundred yards in front of us who was having a fight with a plant, evidently, because he tore up the leaves and stomped on them and then punched at the air above them as they lay broken on the sidewalk. When he walked past us, he reeked of anger and he kept on going. We finished climbing the hill, and walked down out street and home to our waiting puppies.

“This feels like our town,” Ginger said somewhere on the way home.

I know. What’s this have to do with Jesus? Well, I drive up and down many of the same roads we walked this evening and I don’t get to see the detail. Someone honked and waved as we walked, but I couldn’t tell who it was. They drove on, and we stepped into the middle of our city. If Jesus had better technology, the gospels would have been much shorter and much less interesting.


Wednesday, April 06, 2011

lenten journal: trash day

as I write, Ella,
our Schnauzer
is stretched out
on the bed barking
at the sound of
our neighbor rolling
his big trash cans
out to the curb
she cannot see him,
only hear the rumble
of the plastic wheels
and she is convinced
her sound makes a
difference even though
he doesn’t stop
rolling along and
no one inside
of our house has
made any move
other than to say,
“It’s the guy next door”
and I think about
my barking at the
two boys after lunch
who wouldn’t clear
the tables because
the trash wasn’t theirs
and I wonder if
Ella and I share
something in common
in our futile attempts
to get someone to
keep the world from
filling up with garbage


Tuesday, April 05, 2011

lenten journal: in the middle

The Fifth of April is an unusual first day of school, but today was just that for my students and me as we began our new chapter and sat down together for our first class in our new building. In each of my three English classes, we were also beginning novels. Here are their opening lines:

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.
Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
(I’ll post the book titles a bit later; see if you know them.)

Reading the first lines of novels always reminds me of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which asks for “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” The contest is named for Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who wrote this jewel before there even was a contest:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Paul Clifford, 1830)
In 2010, this sentence won the prize:
For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss--a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil.
Speaking of bad beginnings, as I write my beloved Red Sox, picked by many to win the AL East if not the World Series, lost another game, which means they are now 0-4 to begin the season. All of us good Sox fans are quick to lean into what the old song says, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

In the middle of this first day – during my free period – I read Letters to One-Armed Poet, which is the wonderful work of my friend Nathan Brown chronicling his grief before and after the death of his dear friend and fellow poet, Jim Chastain. In a piece called “Walking Shadows,” Nathan writes,
And I’d’ve liked an ending more like Butch and Sundance –
revolvers firing and flashing as we strut and fret our way out into a certain, yet glorious death.
But the disease forced you to follow the script, even though none of the actors in the screenplay liked it.
So, we played our parts. . . planted our poems like literary landmines in the red dirt and brimstone of the Southwest . . . until . . . your hour upon the stage was up.
Sometimes the endings aren’t what we hoped either – and often for reasons beyond our reach.

Here’s a shout out to the middles.

Nathan quotes from Jim’s poem “Folding the Laundry” in another piece:
Today is the future
if tomorrow never comes.
Why not insist on
a few interesting moments


We have moved far enough into Lent for Ash Wednesday to be a memory, yet Resurrection Morning is still several sunrises away. This is gut check time for me in my journaling: am I going to keep my promise to write every night? In this particular venture, I don’t get a shot at a make up. Either I wrote every night or I didn’t. Granted, there’s not a whole lot riding on my writing, other than my promise to God and to myself. Still, the exercise and discipline has far reaching implications, should I be willing to lean in and learn, or re-learn, I should say. Every beginning has a back story, every ending a trail of preparation. In the middle is what makes all the difference.

My friend Joy Jordan-Lake has a blog where she explores the writing process. Recently she wrote about Kate DiCamillo, who wrote Tale of Despereaux.
If you’re a writer yourself, or someone still trying to carve out the time to begin, you’ll find encouraging the interview below in which Kate discusses her schedule: stumbling out of bed at 5 o’clock for coffee, then writing just one hour a day, stopping after two pages, no matter what kind of roll she’s on.
One hour.
Even that’s a challenge for most of us, sure, to capture an hour all to ourselves. But it does shoot down the excuse for many of us that we’d produce heart-warming stories, too–if only we could quit that job, hire that staff of household servants and pay someone to dress like us and show up at our meetings.
One hour. Two pages. Coffee.
After my new first day of school, I went to get my prescriptions refilled, got some milk at King’s Red and White, happened upon my friends Mike and Becky and their new “Pie Pushers” pizza truck and got to see what it looks like in person, and then picked up my father-in-law from the Senior Center where he goes during the day as his Alzheimer’s continues to disappear him a little at a time, and then came home to cook dinner. The day held beginnings and endings, pasts and pendings, hopes and hurts and home, like most any other day in the middle of my life as far as I know.

It was a good day.

P. S. The novels are Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and The Great Gatsby.

Monday, April 04, 2011

lenten journal: question

allergies are never mentioned
in any of the gospel stories
no one called out to Jesus
to ask for sinus relief
even in the desert’s dust

with my head as stuffed
as a dorm dirty clothes bag
and aware of the gathering
pollen storm I understand
the question – who sinned that
this man should be this way?


Sunday, April 03, 2011

lenten journal: sunday sonnet #24

John 9 tells the story of a man born blind whom Jesus healed by spreading mud on his face and telling him to and wash. Though Jesus is clear that the man was not the cause of his blindness, I was struck by the unwillingness of others to see him as anything other than blind, even after he said he could see.

sunday sonnet #24

Jesus saw a man blind from his birth –
the disciples wondered who had sinned;
Jesus spit to make mud of the earth
and said, “Go and wash to see again.

The man went to show he had been healed,
the priests and people cut him down to size --
new eyes weren’t something that could be real;
one who saw they did not recognize.

As metaphor the tale hit home most true:
how am I one who lives without sight?
Am I blind to what God has that’s new?
Will I go and wash without a fight?

Better remembered for my kindness
than be recognized for my blindness.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

lenten journal: martin's last words

Tomorrow, April 3, marks the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech to the Memphis sanitation workers in 1968 -- his last speech before he was assassinated. After spending the morning talking with some church friends about what it means to be a peacemaker, I offer his words tonight, which read as strikingly current in light of the unrest around the world as people rise up to claim their freedom.

A complete video of the speech does not exist. I've included what I could find.



Thank you very kindly, my friends. As I listened to Ralph Abernathy and his eloquent and generous introduction and then thought about myself, I wondered who he was talking about. It's always good to have your closest friend and associate to say something good about you. And Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world. I'm delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow.

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but "fear itself." But I wouldn't stop there.

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."

Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free."

And another reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.

And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and done in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period to see what is unfolding. And I'm happy that He's allowed me to be in Memphis.

I can remember -- I can remember when Negroes were just going around as Ralph has said, so often, scratching where they didn't itch, and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God's world.

And that's all this whole thing is about. We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying -- We are saying that we are God's children. And that we are God's children, we don't have to live like we are forced to live.

Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we've got to stay together. We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity.

Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we've got to keep attention on that. That's always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers are on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn't get around to that.

Now we're going to march again, and we've got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be -- and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God's children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out. That's the issue. And we've got to say to the nation: We know how it's coming out. For when people get caught up with that which is right and they are willing to sacrifice for it, there is no stopping point short of victory.

We aren't going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces; they don't know what to do. I've seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around."

Bull Connor next would say, "Turn the fire hoses on." And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn't know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn't relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn't stop us.

And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we'd go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we'd just go on singing "Over my head I see freedom in the air." And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, "Take 'em off," and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, "We Shall Overcome." And every now and then we'd get in jail, and we'd see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers, and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn't adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham. Now we've got to go on in Memphis just like that. I call upon you to be with us when we go out Monday.

Now about injunctions: We have an injunction and we're going into court tomorrow morning to fight this illegal, unconstitutional injunction. All we say to America is, "Be true to what you said on paper." If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn't committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so just as I say, we aren't going to let dogs or water hoses turn us around, we aren't going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.

We need all of you. And you know what's beautiful to me is to see all of these ministers of the Gospel. It's a marvelous picture. Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around he tell it. Somehow the preacher must be an Amos, and saith, "When God speaks who can but prophesy?" Again with Amos, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me," and he's anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor."

And I want to commend the preachers, under the leadership of these noble men: James Lawson, one who has been in this struggle for many years; he's been to jail for struggling; he's been kicked out of Vanderbilt University for this struggle, but he's still going on, fighting for the rights of his people. Reverend Ralph Jackson, Billy Kiles; I could just go right on down the list, but time will not permit. But I want to thank all of them. And I want you to thank them, because so often, preachers aren't concerned about anything but themselves. And I'm always happy to see a relevant ministry.

It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

Now the other thing we'll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal. Now, we are poor people. Individually, we are poor when you compare us with white society in America. We are poor. Never stop and forget that collectively -- that means all of us together -- collectively we are richer than all the nations in the world, with the exception of nine. Did you ever think about that? After you leave the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and I could name the others, the American Negro collectively is richer than most nations of the world. We have an annual income of more than thirty billion dollars a year, which is more than all of the exports of the United States, and more than the national budget of Canada. Did you know that? That's power right there, if we know how to pool it.

We don't have to argue with anybody. We don't have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don't need any bricks and bottles. We don't need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, "God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you."

And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy -- what is the other bread? -- Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse? Tell them not to buy Hart's bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven't been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike. And then they can move on town -- downtown and tell Mayor Loeb to do what is right.

But not only that, we've got to strengthen black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a "bank-in" movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I'm not asking you something that we don't do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an "insurance-in."

Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.

Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We've got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school -- be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.

Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base....

Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.

Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that "One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony." And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem -- or down to Jericho, rather to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association." That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.

But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles -- or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked -- the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"

That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?" The question is not, "If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?" The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.

You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, "Are you Martin Luther King?" And I was looking down writing, and I said, "Yes." And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that's punctured, your drowned in your own blood -- that's the end of you.

It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I've forgotten what those telegrams said. I'd received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I've forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I'll never forget it. It said simply,

Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School."

And she said,

While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I'm a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I'm simply writing you to say that I'm so happy that you didn't sneeze.

And I want to say tonight -- I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn't sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed -- If I had sneezed I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.

And they were telling me --. Now, it doesn't matter, now. It really doesn't matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, "We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we've had the plane protected and guarded all night."

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.