Wednesday, November 30, 2011

advent journal: public instruction

public instruction

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


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

advent journal: can't you read the signs

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

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

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

“Airplane,” said one of the boys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As all of us have done.

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


Monday, November 28, 2011

advent journal: words from a young poet

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


In the middle of December
to start over

to assume again
an order

at the end
of wonder

to conjure
and then to keep

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


Sunday, November 27, 2011

advent journal: one more hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, there is one more hill.

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

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


Thursday, November 17, 2011

go home to your friends

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

This album is an attempt to do just that.

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


Monday, November 07, 2011

there are few things . . .

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

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

there are few things . . .

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

listen . . .

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

     (he is not here)

            ((( not not not

                        here here here )))

and wait . . .

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

          (you are not alone)

there are few things . . .

. . . as incandescent as love


Tuesday, November 01, 2011

all saints sonnet

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

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

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

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