Thursday, November 01, 2012

please follow me to my new home

This blog is no longer active. "don't eat alone" has moved to its new home: Please find me there. You can still subscribe by RSS feed or by email by following the links in the left hand sidebar.


Monday, October 29, 2012

teach us to measure our days . . .

REMINDER: The days will soon be accomplished that this blog will move to Please change your bookmarks, or follow the link and subscribe on the other site.

This past Sunday, our church finished a month long celebration of our 125th anniversary. One Sunday we returned to the little wooden church out in the woods where our congregation began; two Sundays ago, we spent the afternoon listening to Jeremy, our amazing accompanist, transport us with his words and music. And it was on that same Sunday as we sat in worship and Ginger “went off book” following the Spirit with prophetic words of challenge for us that I began thinking about how we could best measure our time, both past and future, as a congregation.

You’re probably way ahead of me. Before I had even begun to write down what was passing through my head, it already had a soundtrack: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes . . .” and I wrote, “How do you measure the life of a church?” Then I listed:

  • in bricks
  • in coffee hours
  • in committee meetings
  • in spagetti dinners
  • in mission trips
  • in sermons
  • in hymns
  • in Christmas pageants
  • in workdays
  • in pastors
  • in conflicts
  • in capital campaigns
  • in budgets
  • in baptisms
  • in Communions
We say a great deal about who we are by how we mark our time. And by how we spend it. Life in the Brasher-Cunningham house is hectic right now and I never quite get to the bottom of the list. (So different from other times in my life!) The other night, Ginger asked if I had done something that had she had asked about before and I answered, “I haven’t had time.” She responded with a correction we offer each other as a gentle reminder of reality: “You haven’t made time.” And I corrected myself.

We both work to be diligent about remembering that “I don’t have time” is, for the most part, a euphemism for “that is not important to me” -- or at least not as important. How I mark my time and spend my time shows me what matters. Coming to terms with what really matters based on the way I spend my time is not always a pleasant realization. The same is true for congregations. When we look at how we actually mark our days and spend our time, what matters most?

How do we measure a year in our lives together?

You know, when it gets right down to it, the folks from RENT answer well: how about love -- seasons of love. So may it be.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ch-ch-ch-changes . . .

So here's the deal: I am days away from giving this blog a new home. (You can actually see the home-building in progress at Blogger has been very good to me, but Wordpress gives me a few more options.

I will mirror posts on both blogs for the next week or two, and then this site will remain but will become an archive.

If you subscribe by email, you will find a link on the new page to continue getting the posts.

If you like to get the posts by RSS feed, there's a link for you as well.

Either way, I hope you will follow me across platforms and into the next chapters of this adventure.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

good work

this morning while the sun was waking
and the air was waiting to be warmed
we walked as though we had no other
purpose but to walk together

as though nothing else was as important
as passing under the changing leaves
and letting the schnauzers sniff
most everything along our way

then we circled back to meet the demands
of our day the stuff of schedules and
promises important and immediate
and both came home tired

however loud the daily drums beat
however long the list of all that must be done
let me not forget -- or perhaps always remember
walking with you is the best of my time


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

stories and supper

A friend of mine had this little poster on her Facebook page this morning. It showed up on the heels of a conversation at work last night about the nature of atoms and how much space there is in them. (I didn’t understand everything, but I did listen.) One of my colleagues said, “Atoms are made of mostly nothing.”

Not so with stories.

Over the past two Saturdays, I’ve had the privilege to gather with groups of people in two different area churches to talk about my book. The first was a potluck where we invited people to bring a dish that had a story with it. As we ate, we told the stories: pizza that carried memories of being an AFS exchange student; applesauce flavored with other fruit, as grandma used to do; green tomato relish, from another grandmother; Waldorf salad from childhood; Christmas tamales; Key Lime Pie and memories of the Woolworth lunch counter; mom’s sausage rolls; mom’s biscuits; mom’s bean salad; Nebraskan corn casserole; German muesli; and Italian mushrooms and tomatoes.

We shared the stories with tears and laughter, digesting the love and tenacity with which each of us held those memories. And the humor. One told of sitting in a doctor’s office one day and seeing a magazine with the word “posthumous” on it -- a new word to her: after death. She first confused the word with hummus, so she brought hummus to our meal, saying it reminded her of the way we bring food to one another after a funeral. Post hummus.

The second gathering was over tea, with some snacks, and in the course of our conversation I asked those gathered to talk about what meal time was like growing up, which also led us to talk about what meal times are like now -- what we have held on to and what we have worked to change. Before long, we were talking about much more than food: family dynamics, dreams found and lost, the unexpected turns of life. Once again, we digested the gifts offered to one another and left stronger and feeling more loved, even in the midst of much that remained unsettled and unsure.

Each time I have a chance to hear people tell their stories, I am more convinced that when Jesus said, “As often as you do this . . .” he wasn’t talking about the ritual of Communion as much as he was every time we break bread, together or alone. When we stop to nourish our bodies we must also remember we are nourishing our souls, lest we fail to do so. Every meal from a ham sandwich to a high holy day is a chance to remember, to digest -- again -- the truth that we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.

Let’s eat.


Monday, October 08, 2012

sometimes late at night

I find myself wishing
there were no passive voice
(an odd wish, I know)

but I don’t care much
for a world where
things were said

mistakes were made
damage was done
lives were lost

as though the mistakes
made themselves
or the violence

happens without
death without killers

too many years
teaching English
to sleep well


Sunday, October 07, 2012

this is the sound of one voice

There was much about today's worship that moved me. We observed World Communion Sunday and our meal was accompanied by some amazing music, which is what I want to share tonight. Three women at church covered a song by the Wailin' Jennys called "One Voice." I had not heard it before. It is as fine a Communion hymn as any I know. So tonight, I share their words and music -- with gratitude.

One Voice

This is the sound of one voice
One spirit, one voice
The sound of one who makes a choice
This is the sound of one voice

This is the sound of voices two
The sound of me singing with you
Helping each other to make it through
This is the sound of voices two

This is the sound of voices three
Singing together in harmony
Surrendering to the mystery
This is the sound of voices three

This is the sound of all of us
Singing with love and the will to trust
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust
This is the sound of all of us

This is the sound of one voice
One people, one voice
A song for every one of us
This is the sound of one voice
This is the sound of one voice

I will write more tomorrow.


Wednesday, October 03, 2012

changing the channel

Tonight the Red Sox will play the last game of a disappointing season that ended long ago, as far as any aspirations for the post season were concerned. The only thing that matters about tonight is that it would be nice to beat the Yankees on the way out. As far as the Yanks go, the game matters only as far as bragging rights go; win or lose, they are going to the playoffs. That said, I’m going to watch the game tonight instead of the presidential debate because the game has more significance. The debate is the political equivalent of professional wrestling: all posture and no substance.

Ever since Richard Nixon’s loss to John Kennedy was attributed to his poor showing in their televised debate, candidates on both sides have worked to master the medium, to make sure they come off in the best light, and to learn how to spar and wait for the right moment to deliver a “zinger.” So they talk about how well the other one debates in order to lower expectations, the pour over old tapes to look for strengths and weaknesses, and they sequester themselves to practice, practice, practice so we can all gather around our televisions like a mob at a cock fight to cheer for our favorite and shout down the other. When the debate is over, all that will be added to the equation is  fodder for the 24 news cycle, who are the ones who fomented the fervor in the first place.

So watch baseball or Law and Order reruns or something that matters. Skip the debates. Better yet, get together with a group of people you trust and who don’t all agree with you and have a discussion about what needs to happen in our country that avoids the catch phrases and cliches that fill our airwaves. Talk about health care without using the word “Obamacare.” Talk about class issues in our country without referring to the “Forty-seven percent.” Don’t run to opposite poles and scream at each other. Don’t settle for political theater and honest discourse. Get together, eat together, and then listen more than you talk.

And while you’re at it, pull for the Sox.


Monday, October 01, 2012

the week of luxurious leftovers

In the days when I was actively engaged as a songwriter, my friend Billy and I maintained the practice of sending each other three titles and four lines of verse every night. Each of the titles had to be able to be explained (“This song would be about . . .) and the lines needed to be attached to one of them. We were writing long distance in the days before email and texting, so we faxed our work back and forth, often in the early hours of the morning. I still have the notebooks filled with great titles whose ideas were never fully birthed.

My practice for a number of years has been to carry a Moleskin notebook in my back pocket, which is the receptacle for ideas, possibilities, sermon notes, grocery lists, reminders, addresses, and just about anything else that needs to be written down -- including the occasional title, even though I haven’t written a song in a long, long time. Looking back through my notes on Italy, I found a title suggested by my friend Lori, who was one of the participants in our Days in the Villa. One morning after breakfast, she said, “You need to write one post called ‘The Week of Luxurious Leftovers.’”

Here it is.

A professional kitchen lives and dies on its food costs. One of the ways that you control how much you spend is by how well you use what you buy. When I managed the kitchen at Duke, we never had a big budget, so one of the things I learned how to do well was use ingredients in more than one way. In my kitchen at home, I have always enjoyed figuring out what to do with what’s left over, which is one of the reasons I love making soups. The best ones have no recipe, you just use what you have. One night at the villa, I made polenta that I baked and cut into squares and served with Chicken Limone and grilled vegetables (expertly grilled by Lori’s husband, Terry). At the end of the meal, we had polenta and veggies left over. For breakfast the next morning, I pan-fried the polenta, made a hash out of the vegetables by adding a little prosciutto, and poached some eggs to top it all off: uova della villa. Another night we took the left over risotto, formed it into cakes, dipped it in egg wash and bread crumbs, and pan-fried them to go with a roasted pork tenderloin. One of the most enjoyable parts of the week was figuring out what to do with what was left from before.

When I open the fridge to see what I have to work with, whatever I’m in, I work to think of what might be rather than what was. Sure, there are times when we reheat a dish as it was and eat it a second time, but I’m talking about finding the containers with leftovers that are not enough on their own or who have lost their companions. I try to think about combinations that were not there before, about ways the colors and textures and tastes of the foods can compliment each other and become something new, even though nothing is. So leftover polenta becomes a variation on eggs Benedict, several meals of leftover vegetables become an improvised minestrone, or pita bread becomes crust for a pizza topped with cheese and apples.

Life is about leftovers more often than it is about new things. Few of us ever step where no one has gone before, think things no one has thought, do what no one has ever done and (not but) we take the pieces of what has been handed down and used before and make something new with our lives. Both things are true. No one has been more before, just as no one has ever been you. The recipes of our lives, if you will, are new offerings when we choose to look for what might be rather than continuing to use the menus handed down. Our plates fill up with grief and grace, with hope and heartache, with joy and pain, disappointment, surprise, anger, compassion, longing and love. What we make of the leftovers is up to us.

The stuff I find in the fridge is easier to manipulate that the stuff that fills up life, certainly, yet making the most of the leftovers in either arena requires of me to take my time, to move deliberately, and -- most of all -- to make sure I have help. That’s right: don’t cook alone. Our week of leftovers became luxurious because we had time to make it so. The best dishes take time: healing, befriending, dreaming, loving.

Now, why don’t we can see what we can make of what we have left?


Thursday, September 27, 2012

better reception

Last night, the Red Sox lost their last home game of the season. We have six away games left -- three with the Orioles and then three with the Yankees -- and then our season will be over. We will finish with a losing record for the first time in fifteen years. If Toronto continues to oblige, we may be able to avoid finishing last.

The lectionary passage from last Sunday seems well chosen for the end of the baseball season:

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
In seasons such as this, I wish it worked that way in baseball. Between the Red Sox descent, the rise of ridiculous rhetoric in the election cycle, and my continued thoughts about our time in Tuscany, the passage has hung with me. What I quoted here was only a segment of the passage (Mark (:30-37) that began with Jesus making a prediction about his death. Mark’s economic prose doesn’t make it clear if the discussion of the pecking order grew out of that prediction, or if the struggle over superiority had kept them from hearing anything he had said to that point. Either way, they missed said point because they were so taken with themselves. Jesus moves them to the back of the metaphorical bus and then picks up a kid (I suppose one was nearby) and said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me,” as though that cleared everything up.

You have to wonder what the kid thought about it all.

Though his admonition to servanthood is what is most often pulled from this passage, I’m intrigued by the verb in the last sentence: receive. Whoever receives a child in my name, receives me. It’s not about importance; it’s about hospitality. Who wants to come to dinner where the hosts begins by saying, “I brought you all here tonight to remind you I matter most.” But to be received -- welcomed, included, brought in. Now we’re on to something.

And notice the verb that doesn’t show up in the sentence: deserve.

Some years ago, my friend Billy and I wrote a song called “The Last in Line.” The first verse said,
the last in line doesn’t ever make the team
doesn’t get a second chance
doesn’t find a field of dreams
the last in line doesn’t get a special prize
doesn’t ever hear his name
you don’t look him in the eyes
nobody wants to be the last in line
In our election climate, every candidate at every level, it seems, is required to pay homage to the fact that we are the greatest country in the history of the world. We’re Number One. U-S-A. U-S-A. I wonder who we are trying to convince, or why we feel compelled to make the point every chance we get? We are much like the disciples on the road with Jesus: too caught up in ourselves to hear the rest of the conversation.

The central part of the town of Lucca, where we were in Tuscany, is a medieval city still surrounded by the old city walls. As we drove one day, I saw ruins of an old aqueduct. The people of Italy live out their lives on top of and among the ruins of greatness and seem quite content to be an also-ran, if you will. Yes, they have their problems. But they didn’t seem to be keeping score. I was there for ten days, so I won’t claim to have a handle on the Italian cultural psyche. Maybe I’d do better to say I understood life differently among the ruins. No one stays Number One forever. Five falls ago, the Red Sox were World Series champions. And so it goes . . . .

Ther sports metaphor falls short, however, when Jesus starts talking about receiving the child (though I suppose I could switch to football . . .) because hospitality is not about what anyone deserves or has accomplished. Jesus brought the little one into the circle and said, “Receive her and you’ll see God with new eyes.” And we will see ourselves differently, too.We spend most of our American conversation around who deserves what or who is getting what they don’t deserve, or why I deserve to keep what’s mine and perhaps take some of what’s yours since you don’t deserve it as much. We get upset when other countries seem weary of our self-promotion. Perhaps we would do well to notice we are almost the only ones who feel compelled to keep proving we’re Number One. Or maybe simply come to terms with the truth that it just doesn’t matter.

What matters is how we welcomed one another, fed one another, included one another. Loved. One. Another. In her sermon Sunday, Ginger reminded us that such an approach to life and faith gets “messy and smelly.” Yes. When we move beyond the dichotomy of winner and losers and begin to receive one another, life gets smelly and messy and requires us to think about most every encounter, rather than lean on categories and cliches.

As Mark recounted beyond the lectionary passage, the disciples responded with a “yes, but,” asking about the other guy in town who was casting out demons. Jesus told them to receive him as well. Start with what brings us together. Start there. Now stay and receive whomever we can find. Doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily as “We’re Number One,” which is fine.

We’re not.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

wrapping it up . . .

The Kickstarter campaign to raise money for my book tour ends tonight at 9:20 Eastern time. Please pass the link along in these final hours. Thanks for all the support and encouragement.

My book, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal, will be released on October 1.


pass this along . . .


    Goodreads Book Giveaway


        Keeping the Feast by Milton Brasher-Cunningham



          Keeping the Feast


          by Milton Brasher-Cunningham


            Giveaway ends October 01, 2012.

            See the giveaway details
            at Goodreads.




      Enter to win

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

sky blue

There is not a cloud in the sky on this fall morning in Durham. Here's where the sky took me.

sky blue
oh, they tell me of a home far beyond the skies . . .
oh, they tell me of an unclouded day

on this unclouded day the sky
is the color of heartache
same as the azure canopy
that sheltered us
that september morning
yes -- that one

though today may prove to be
one of unremarkable
catastrophe the sky
is unrelenting
in its invitation to see
that home is

not something beyond the blue
but here in this unclouded
day in this mix of joy and pain
 in shades of blue
that color our hearts
tell me of that home

Saturday, September 22, 2012

il cuoco della villa

Several years ago, NPR ran a story in which they asked several award winning photographers to describe the best photograph they never took: a moment when they saw the picture and didn’t raise the camera. Then they asked them to tell why they chose to simply hold the image in their respective memories. Most all of them, in one form or another, spoke of coming face to face with the sacredness of the moment called them to be participant rather than observer, which meant they had to put their cameras down and just be.

The Wednesday after Labor Day, Ginger and I joined friends for ten days in Italy. Just to type the sentence feels opulent. Still. We spent two days in Florence as preamble to our true purpose: a week together in a villa in Tuscany. No, we weren’t in a movie. For a week, this was our lives. Our group numbered sixteen in all. The villa was on the outskirts of the town of Lucca, which dates back a millennium. Both town and villa ere surrounded by farms and vineyards and olive groves. Walking the grounds around our temporary home I picked pears and figs. At night we gathered around a large table just outside the kitchen covered by an arbor. And it was good.

I went not only as one of the group but also to be il cuoco della villa -- the chef of the house. My invitation was to create our evening meals out under the stars and arbor, and  to help create a memory. I did my research into Tuscan cooking, brought a few ideas of my own, and learned some new things once we got to town. The menus included risotto with roasted chicken and grilled vegetables, chicken limone, spaghetti bolognese, and chingiale (wild boar) stew with polenta; for dessert we had apple pie with limoncello glaze, tiramisu, and risotto al cioccolato (that’s right -- chocolate risotto). Each afternoon, my designated sous chef, Terry, and anyone else who cared to join us gathered in the kitchen and we cooked and talked and laughed and shared a littler pre-prandial vino rosso. As the sun began to fall behind the trees, the others began to fill the circle of chairs next to the dining table for appetizers, and then somewhere around eight we moved to the table where we stayed long after the food was finished.

When we left to go to Italy, I had plans to blog everyday. Somewhere in the middle of the second afternoon of preparation I thought about those photographers and realized I would write about it someday, but not in real time. My job, if you will, for the week, was to share food with friends in Tuscany and remember everything I could. I was not there to write a book; I was there to cook and incarnate the very things I have written about. “As often as you do this,” Jesus said, “remember,” as he sat around a table with his friends. We have been back a week and those memories seem to just now be ripening into words I can share.

Part of the reticence in writing, I think, comes from the sheer extravagance of the trip. As soon as I write, “I spent a week in a villa in Tuscany,” I feel as though I’ve separated myself somehow. I’m old enough to feel as though Robin Leach should be bellowing it out. That feeling is mostly drowned out by gratitude. Alongside the thankfulness I’ve also returned with some disquietude. The pace of life in Tuscany -- even in the cities -- was kinder and more spacious. The people of Tuscany understand what the word enough means better than I do.

The housekeeper at the villa was a woman named Issa. She was in her sixties, I guess mostly because she said she had a forty-year old daughter. Her eyes sparkled with the same worn vibrancy of the Tuscan sunset and her hospitality was unflappable. She came by the house for a couple of hours each day and we had a chance to ask her some of our questions about life in Lucca and beyond. One day I asked her how to say, “Don’t eat alone.”

Non mangiare da solo,” she answered.

I wasn’t sure how to explain the blog or why the phrase mattered and I wondered, after seeing the lives lived around us, whether it was an admonition that carried any necessity at all in Tuscan life, which seemed aimed at tables filled with people who were committed to taking time to be together. Almost seven years into this blog and on the eve of a book about what it means to be at the table together, I understand it in ways I have not before.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

shameless commerce division

On October 1, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal will be in bookstores.

I can’t believe it. Life, for me right now, is a flurry of activity. Perhaps the biggest learning curve is understanding the fine art of self-promotion. I am proud of the book and I want to get it to as many people as possible and writing to anyone to say, “Won’t you please spend your time and energy talking about me?” is not an erasy thing to.

That said, I need your help and energy in these next few days.

I have one week left in my Kickstarter campaign to raise money to fund a book tour. We have reached our basic goal, which means the project will be funded, and I am hopeful we can raise another three or four thousand dollars to help the tour continue through the spring. Please share the link and the story with as many people as you can.

The first leg of the tour will fall somewhere between November 6-19 between Durham and Boston. Right now, we have possible events in the DC area, Philadelphia, New York City, and in and around Boston. After the first of the year, I will aim west moving through the South and on to Texas. I would  love to hear any suggestions you might have about bookstores, churches, or events. I will have a press kit available early next week that will be downloadable.

Between now and the first of October, please go into your local bookstore -- particularly the independent ones -- and ask if they will be stocking the book. Whether on not you order the book from Amazon, you can go to the book page and write a review. My publisher tells me this is a significant action. If you know someone in your town who reviews books for newspapers, magazines, or websites please let me know and I will send a copy to them.

Thanks for your patience and support. When I get to your town, let’s have dinner.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

don't write alone

In four months, this blog will be seven years old.

One of the reasons I started keeping the blog was I wanted to be a writer. I had been writing for a long time -- I even had a draft of a novel that was already several years old, but none of it had anywhere to go. I had read Anne LaMott’s statement that a writer is one who writes not one who is published and, yet, I wanted to get my words out there to someone.

For me, writing alone makes about as much sense as eating alone.

As one who has never felt very adept when it comes to the skills of an entrepreneur, the blog platform was perfect. It wasn’t going to make me any money, but it wasn’t going to cost any either and I could write, put it out there, and see who found it. The words I have posted down all these days have given me a sense of purpose and accomplishment, have built relationships I never imagined possible, and have helped me claim my place as a writer. They also opened the doors for me to get a book published. Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal will be in finer bookstores everywhere and online in about a month.

In working on the book, one of the things I have had to learn is how to improve my entrepreneurial skills. I’m still learning. And I’m getting better. I’m proud of what I have written and I want to see it find a larger audience, yet I’m also learning that the task of being more self-promotional kind of calls me to live up to my own words, or at least the  quote by the Buddha that gave a title to this blog:

There is no joy in eating alone.

I’m the guy who makes a point of saying and re-saying that both life and faith are team sports. I don’t want to eat alone. I am also learning that I write best when I don’t write alone: when I remember I am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who encourage me, teach me, read me, and love me. I trust that the reasons stories matter are they are what remind us of how much we are alike and how inextricably linked we are to one another. We are at our best when we share with and pull for each other.

Saying all those words is easier than incarnating them.

But I’ll try. I need more than what I can do to give this book a good life and to have the chance to make the connections and tell the stories and share the meals I think were meant to come out of this project. My publisher is working hard, but book tours aren’t in their budget. Nor are they mine. I need help to see my dream become a reality.

It seems you can’t really dream alone either.

This week I launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a book tour, which will give me some funds to buy gas and meals and hotel rooms and books so I can take to the highways and see who wants to eat and talk together. I am hoping to go to bookstores, churches, and dining rooms wherever I can we can share stories and meals. This link gives all the details.

The campaign is off to an amazing start. My request is that you share the link. Tell people about the book and the campaign and ask them to tell others.

And then invite me over for dinner.


Monday, August 20, 2012

summer rain

the rain stopped
just before I woke up
and opened the back door
to find
fresh-washed sunshine
dustless leaves
and a brand new day
splashing barefoot
in the puddles

now I am out in the dark
so the dogs can make
one last circle
of a yard they know
by heart
so we can go to sleep
while a brand new night
soaks itself
into the soil


Sunday, August 19, 2012

the grammar of togetherness

Here is the manuscript of the sermon I preached this morning at Pilgrim UCC here in Durham.

For many of us, text messaging is a part of life. There’s much of what comes with sending texts that works for me. I like being able to send and receive messages that don’t require I answer the phone. I like that I can make contact in situations where the phone would be disruptive. I like that people can text from the second floor of our house down to the kitchen to let me know what they need. Still, as one who loves language and spent many years as an English teacher, there’s a great deal about texting that drives me nuts beginning with the use of “texted” as the alleged past tense of an alleged verb to the rampant disregard for the need for correct spelling and punctuation.

(I can’t see Ginger right now, but I assume her expression is a combination of a smirk and an eye-roll.)

Punctuation makes a difference. If I say, “The panda eats shoots and leaves,” I am describing a vegetarian bear until I add commas -- then he becomes a brazen killer. The presence of the comma in the sentence, “Let’s eat, grandma” is the difference between an invitation and cannibalism. And though not quite as humorous, our understanding of today’s passage swings on the punctuation, along with a few participles.

Now I realize I am getting my geek on, but to aid our language study, I am going to ask you to do something out of the ordinary: please open your pew Bibles.

I need you to see this. Turn to Ephesians 5 and find your way down to our passage today, verses 15-21. If you will notice, the Bible in your hand has a paragraph break between verses 20 and 21. Here’s the thing: in the Greek, it’s one big, long-running sentence that ends with verse 21. For Paul, how we sing and worship together was inextricably tied to how we relate to one another.

Let us bring fresh ears and listen again to the passage:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
As we look more closely at the passage, let us recall what Ginger said last week: the church at Ephesus was a strong church. Paul was writing to people who were committed to incarnating their faith in their daily lives to challenge them to an even more profound encounter with God. So he called them to be thoughtful, wise, and filled with the Spirit. I would like to spend our time together this morning focusing on that last admonition: be filled with the Spirit.

And I would like to keep my geek on for a few minutes and talk about the theological implications of the participle. The final sentence of our reading has four participles that describe what the call to be filled with the Spirit means:
  • addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs;
  • singing and making melody to God;
  • giving thanks in all things;
  • submitting to one another in Christ.
“Addressing” seems an odd verb choice when it comes to singing. I get this image of the lounge singer saying, “This one’s going out to a very special lady right here in the front row” before he sings some worn out standard. But the word means our manner of speaking to one another; our personal bearing in conversation. Singing together as a congregation is one of the ways we tighten the bonds, we unite ourselves -- even before it becomes a way to offer ourselves to God. Randy Cooper writes,
Singing is more than making a joyful noise. God has given us singing and worshiping to break down categories of gender and age and race and class. In singing and worshiping, we enter the life of God through the Holy Spirit. If God’s Triune life is indeed one of mutual submission and love among the [Creator, Christ,] and Holy Spirit, then as we become one body in Christ we share in God’s eternal “singing” . . . Music and singing can be a means of grace that makes the Body one.
Our singing together -- our addressing one another in song -- then, becomes our worship: we sing together, making melodies for God. The hymns we sing together in this room are not just traveling music or melodic segues; they are at the heart of what we are doing together, actually and in metaphor because the first act of singing is not making sound but listening. For the melody. For the harmonies. Listening so we can sing our parts and help build the song.

As I lean into the metaphor, I understand not all of us sing well. Perhaps that is why the psalmist enjoined us to make a joyful noise. Our making melody together is not about everyone hitting the note as it is about as raising our voices together as we worship the God who created us for one another. The way we address one another, how we show our regard and deference for one another, begins in how well we are listening.

And if you think singing is the hard part, look at the next phrase: giving thanks always and for everything to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Two things come to mind for me here. One is the cliche that we are to live in “an attitude of gratitude.” Yeah, I know it’s cheesy, but it’s pretty close to the mark. The other thing that came to mind is one of my favorite poems by W. S. Merwin entitled “Listen.”
With the night falling we are saying thank you

We are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings

We are running out of the glass rooms

With our mouths full of food to look at the sky

And say thank you

We are standing by the water looking out

In different directions

Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

After funerals we are saying thank you

After the news of the dead

Whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

In a culture up to its chin in shame

Living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

Over telephones we are saying thank you

In doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

Remembering wars and the police at the back door

And the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

In the banks that use us we are saying thank you

With the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable

Unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

With the animals dying around us

Our lost feelings we are saying thank you

With the forests falling faster than the minutes

Of our lives we are saying thank you

With the words going out like cells of a brain

With the cities growing over us like the earth

We are saying thank you faster and faster

With nobody listening we are saying thank you

We are saying thank you and waving

Dark though it is
"We are saying thank you dark though it is." And we are not alone. We are singing together and giving thanks together in order that we might be filled to intoxication with the Spirit of God. And in that flow comes the final phrase: submitting ourselves to one another in Christ.

Submit is a difficult verb to me because it carries such a notion of over and under. To submit feels like giving up or giving in. Capitulating. J. B. Phillips offers a different view by translating the phrase as “‘fitting in with’ each other, because of your common reverence for Christ.” Once again, the phrase has to do with how we learn to live together: how we fit together. We worship together, we draw out the gratitude in one another, and we work to learn how we fit together as the Body of Christ. We are, as the old song says, one in the Spirit. In my Baptist days we sang a chorus that said,
We are one in the bond of Love
We are one in the bond of Love
We have joined our spirits to the Spirit of God
We are one in the bond of Love
That’s pretty good four line theology. If we are going to be filled with the Spirit of God, we have to give the Spirit something to fill. As we learn how we fit together, we create a vessel which God can fill to change our world -- and to continue to transform us into thoughtful, thankful people making melody together in Jesus’ name. Amen.


Monday, August 13, 2012


On an afternoon he will not remember
I watched a little boy follow his feet along
the brick walkway, caught in the cracks --
in the mystery of the moss and the
pull of the pattern on his eyes not yet

three feet off the ground. The sun
looked over his shoulder like a friend
as he stooped to touch -- to read
between the lines, to see a story
he would find only once and then forget.

I came home to hear the tales of those
who had swum and run and jumped most
all of their lives to get to their golden
moment -- one they would never lose:
they stood as if nothing mattered more.

Somewhere between podium and pavement
is where I walk, where I write my story,
sometimes seduced by winner-takes-all
and grateful for those sidewalk afternoons
I can remember for as long as they last.


Friday, August 10, 2012

it's a miracle

We talked about miracles at our church Sunday, as did most folks who follow the common lectionary since the Gospel passage was about Jesus feeding the five thousand. Ginger asked a group of us to help pantomime the scripture as she read it; our drama included passing bowls of Pepperidge Farm rainbow goldfish throughout the congregation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: before we acted out the miracle, we saw one.

We had a baptism Sunday. Court is about four months old and is an absolutely beautiful little boy. He has a full head of hair, blue eyes the color of the sky on your favorite late summer afternoon, defined facial features that make him look more like a little boy than a baby, and a smile that demands nothing less than a smile in return. He also pays attention, as though he’s storing it all up for future reference. As he stood with his parents at the front of the church, Court’s mother held him with his back to her chest so he could see everyone. One of her arms was wrapped around his waist and the other supported his bottom. As Ginger read through the vows, Court followed every word. When Ginger asked of his parents, “Will you remind him that he is wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved?” Court waved his arms and legs up and down and giggled as if the Spirit was bursting out of every part of him. In that moment, the Word once more became flesh right in the middle of us all.

A few minutes later, we were up acting out the Bible story. After we collected the bowls with the leftover goldfish and finished the scripture reading, Ginger said what she says most Sundays at that moment: “May God grant us wisdom and understanding of this passage.” Maybe it stood out more this week because we were talking about  a miracle and miracles are, in a way, like jokes: they lose something when you start trying to explain them. The gospel account doesn’t give much information on how the single lunch turned into a catered affair, only that there was more than enough food when all was said and eaten. Somewhere in her sermon, Ginger quoted from a hymn we sing regularly:

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
The song is a perfect soundtrack for this discussion because any miracle from the Feeding of the Five Thousand to fireflies starts as something God sees first -- and then shares. As I held that thought, Ginger made an interesting statement: “Miracles are about timing and awareness.”

I thought of Court waving his wings at the exact moment Ginger said he was worthy to be loved.

I thought of Pentecost where some heard the mighty rush of the Spirit and some only felt the wind blow.
And then I thought of a story Madeleine L’Engle told in one of her books about the couple who brought their second child home from the hospital still a little unsure of how he would be received by the older sister. As the evening progressed, the little girl demanded time alone with her new baby brother. The parents stood at the door as the girl approached the crib and said to her brother, “Tell me about God; I think I’m forgetting.”

Then Ginger said, “Rather than try to explain miracles, let us learn to live with them and assist them.” She went on to reference Annie Sullivan and her work with Helen Keller, which was chronicled in the play The Miracle Worker, one of Ginger’s favorites. Annie worked hard for the miracle of Helen’s comprehension to happen, just as the disciples worked the crowds somehow in a way that everyone was more than satisfied.

We finished our service with Communion. We vary the way in which we serve the meal. This time we lined up and came to the front to receive the bread and the cup through Intinction. Ginger and Carla and the deacons who were serving stood in front of the line of bowls filled with goldfish and offered us the Bread and the Cup; when the service was over, the left over bread and the goldfish both made reappearances in coffee hour, along  with Court and his family.

Ii took another piece of bread and gave thanks for both the timing and awareness that let me in on the miracles around me. Here’s hoping I can be as awake and aware more often.


Saturday, July 21, 2012

a spirit not of fear . . .

I found out this morning that the brother of a college friend was killed in the theater in Aurora, Colorado. He was there with his two daughters; they survived, but he did not. The connection doesn’t change how I feel about the killings, or how I ache for those who lost their lives or lost loved ones in the tragedy. For whatever reason, however, it makes me want to speak up even though much has already been said.

Alongside of the shock and compassion that follows an event like the shootings, we as Americans spend a great deal of time and energy looking for causes and explanations; we also look for ways to feel safer. A friend of ours organized a group to go last night to see the Batman movie in Raleigh. The event had been planned for a couple of weeks. After some discussion, they decided to go on with their plans -- and they were the only ones in the theater on a Saturday night. I realize there is more than one way to interpret the empty seats, and I think one of the reasons many didn’t darken the doors for The Dark Knight Rises is they were afraid it would happen again.

And it might. But, as people of faith, we can’t stay home.

I don’t mean you have to go see Batman; I do mean we cannot choose to participate in America’s newest national past time since September 11: running scared. Thanks to the fear-mongering by our press and politicians, we have been encouraged -- even trained -- to be frightened and led to believe that we are all walking targets who are going to be picked off in time if we don’t stay scared.

Paul wrote to Timothy, his young protege, and said,

I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.  For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands,  for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (II Timothy 1:5-7)
Granted, he was speaking to Timothy’s trepidations about starting out in ministry, still I think the admonitions carry over: we were neither created nor called to live our lives out of fear. Yes, this world is filled with scary stuff. Yes, we have no guarantees of protection. And -- not but -- AND we have been given a spirit of power and love and self-control. We are called to make meaning of our lives, to carry the light into the darkness and remember the darkness cannot put it out.

So let us speak out.

Speak out in favor of limiting access to weapons that do nothing but kill people. We need more courageous people who will stand against the money that has been able to buy our politicians thus far. Assault rifles are not for hunting. Freedom is not the issue. We have been given sound minds. Let us move beyond our cultural inclination to run to opposite poles and scream at each other, which only adds to the violence. Let us use our God-given self control and do what is best for all of us, rather than choosing only to protect what we see as ours.

Speak out against the media who sensationalizes events such as these and makes the perpetrators famous. The shootings were news. The endless chatter that follows is not. In 2002, Gus Van Sant directed a movie called Elephant that chronicled a high school shooting. The film came out after the tragedy at Columbine. In his review of the movie, Roger Ebert wrote:
Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. "Wouldn't you say," she asked, "that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?" No, I said, I wouldn't say that. "But what about 'Basketball Diaries'?" she asked. "Doesn't that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?" The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it's unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. "Events like this," I said, "if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn't have messed with me. I'll go out in a blaze of glory."

In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of "explaining" them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used.
We have been given sound minds, as some translate Paul’s words. Why, then, are we so easily swayed by those who fill the airways with mindless drivel and incendiary rhetoric. When the media move to place blame and find fault, as they will once the stories of heroism and compassion wear thin by their measure, let us think otherwise. Let us choose to power off our televisions and empower one another to even greater acts of compassion and solidarity.

Above everything else in our lives, we are called to love. Paul had words about love, as well:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
I’m not saying anything new, I know. But I wanted to say something.


Tuesday, July 03, 2012

he who has ears to hear . . .

It was a little after eight when the audiologist came out into the waiting room to get me. I followed her back to the room where we had sat the day before and I listened to her tell me about what could be done to compensate for my hearing loss. We looked at different kinds of hearing aids, ranging from moderately expensive to sell-your-kidney expensive, and talked about what some of the changes in technology could offer me. We settled on a mid-range pair, as far as pricing was concerned, and she said she only needed the evening to program them. I came home, slept restlessly, and returned.

She was deliberate as she put the pieces of the hearing aids together and explained how the microphone would cradle itself in the bend of my ear and then a small clear tube with a small cone-shaped cover would run down the front of my ear and into the hearing canal. She helped me put them on and then she said she had to run a quick test before she turned them on. What followed was a series of sounds that felt like a mash-up of an old dial-up modem and the sequence the aliens played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Then, without much fanfare, the room exploded with sound. Layers of noise, or rustles and twinkles, of breaths and buzzes, snaps and clicks. I felt like I could hear my eyelids blinking.

“They’re on now,” she said.

“((((((((I know)))))))),” I replied. Even my voice was clearer. Unleashed. “It’s so loud,” I said. I had forgotten.

“It’s going to feel really loud because your brain has forgotten how to process all of these sounds. It’s going to have to relearn how to hear. And it will. You’re going to do great with these.” She was grinning. I think I could hear her smile. I could hear mine, too. We continued to talk and she explained how to raise and lower the volume to suit my needs. She also told me the aids were set to give me about eighty percent of my hearing back because one hundred percent might be too much to take. She turned it up to ninety just to show me. I’m going to have to work up to it. There’s too much to hear right now.

After a few minutes, I excused myself to go to the restroom -- my first venture out into the world, if you will. I actually heard the conversation of the people walking in front of me, along with the clicking of their shoes. The flush of the toilet was Niagara Falls. And do you have any idea how much noise a zipper makes? As I returned, all I could think about was Buffy the Vampire Slayer in one of my favorite episodes, “The Aspect of the Demon,” where she can hear everyone’s thoughts and feelings to the point of being overwhelmed by them. It seemed that everywhere I turned I was hearing the sounds of silence: noise where I had only heard nothing.

I got in the car to come home and turned down the radio for the first time I can remember. I could hear the turn of the key, the slide of my sandal against the floor mat, the rush of the air conditioner, the passing of the ticket to the parking attendant. From the clicking of the blinker to the crunch of the gravel in the driveway to the sound of my feet on the front porch -- I heard them all, I heard them all, I heard them all. I felt like the people in Pleasantville when they started to see in color. I have 3-D glasses for my ears.

I baked this afternoon (there’s a new recipe) to take cookies with me to the Apple Store and relished in the sound of the scoop in the flour canister, the crack of the egg shells, the whir of the mixer. I think I could even hear the cookies baking. The most shocking moment was walking into the store, which is an assault on the senses anyway. As they snacked, someone asked me how I was doing and I told them I had just gotten hearing aids. It was the first time since I put them in this morning that I had had the chance to tell someone who wasn’t family. Those who asked also took time to listen well.

At the end of the night, I was going into the break room to clock out when I passed one of the guys who seemed in a hurry to get out the door. I wished him well as he flew past me, and he returned the greeting. I sat down at the computer and I heard him call my name. “Milton -- congratulations on your hearing aids. I had no idea you needed them. But that must be an amazing feeling. Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” I said. And he went on his way.

I came home tonight to find the yard filled with screaming crickets and other creatures, a symphony of creation I have not heard since I can remember. I look forward to my brain digging back through the stacks of old forgotten vinyl in my mind, pulling out sounds I haven’t thought of in years and letting them find me again, thanks to the little computers that have hitched a ride on the backs of my ears. I am grateful to be disquieted by the cacophony of creation, thankful to find my voice does not have to be so loud.

Yes, the sounds of the city seem to me so good.


Friday, June 29, 2012

milty, can you hear me?

A couple of years ago, I started noticing changes in my hearing. When it came time for my yearly physical exam, I asked my doctor about sending me to an ENT and also to an allergist, since I have yet to find a season to which I am not allergic in North Carolina. His nurse practitioner said she would make the appointments. That never happened. Midway through the next year, my allergies got so bad that I had trouble swallowing at times -- lots of times -- so when I went back to the doctor I made the same request a bit more emphatically and ended up with two appointments, or should I say dis-appointments. First, neither of them knew I was coming. Second, the ENT was efficient to the point of not dealing with my problem. At the very end of the time I asked about the hearing test and she said, “Sure,” and shuffled me off to a room with headphones and when the fifteen minute test was over they started talking to me about spending $4000 on hearing aids.

I said I would get back to them.

The point of going to see the allergist, at least as I understood it, was to get tested so I could understand more of what was going on and to find out why I was having such trouble swallowing. He, too, had no idea I was coming. He didn’t do the testing, other than to scratch a couple of times and tell me I was allergic to dust mites. Then he started talking about coming for allergy shots, which provided him a steady income but didn’t offer me much of a solution. I asked about my throat and he said he didn’t have the equipment to look at it and that it didn’t have anything to do with allergies. When I asked why red lines showed up on my skin when he scratched me he said, “You’re very allergic.” He didn’t seem concerned about what I was allergic to, but he did write me a prescription and offered to see me again.

I turned down the latter offer, started taking the pills and my throat loosened up.

Last week I went back to my doctor for my physical and he asked how the referrals had gone. No one had told him. I recounted my stories and said, “I guess I was mistaken to think that when you  used the verb ‘refer’ that meant you would actually talk to each other.”

He smiled sheepishly and said, “That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

I then went on to say two years had passed and I still didn’t understand what was happening to my hearing. Since then, things have gotten worse. Higher frequencies are harder and harder for me to hear. When it gets quiet, I hear white noise that sounds like little bagpipes playing inside my head, and playing the way my father-in-law Reuben used to whistle: without any coherent melody. I needed someone that would pay attention. Someone that would act like I mattered more than my copayment. He then spoke of a doctor at Duke who is tops in her field and could help me find some answers. His nurse came in, picked up the phone, and made me an appointment. I wanted to ask why they had waited two years to play out the scene. I chose, instead, to say nothing and hope for a different experience.

This morning, I went to the Audiology Clinic at Duke. When the woman came in to do my hearing test, she asked me what was going on. I told my story and then said, “It may be that what I need are hearing aids. First, I need someone to listen to me.”

And she did.

What took fifteen minutes at the other clinic took an hour today. She did four or five different tests and then explained what she had found. I have greater than average hearing loss for my age. Hearing aids are probably what I need, but she wanted me to see the doctor first. She was also attentive and clear. I go back for follow ups next week.  The best part of today was I left feeling heard.

As the audiologist was explaining about hearing aids, she said, “You are actually at an easier age to learn how to use hearing aids because your brain can still recall what it feels like to hear.” Part of the reason for the bagpipes, it seems, is the brain makes noise to fill in the lost frequencies. When the sounds show up again, the brain has to remember what to do with them and it can be disconcerting, if not down right uncomfortable. “You will need to wear them all day everyday until your brain makes room for the sounds again. You’re going to hear better, but it’s going to be hard work.”

And it’s work I’m willing to do. If I don’t want to spend the rest of my life saying, “What?” or letting stuff go by, I will need to do the work to open my brain to sounds it has forgotten and to get over my vanity of having little battery packs behind my ears without any hair to hide them. I’m not going to be healed; I am going to be helped. That will have to be enough. I am motivated, in part, by the ears of the audiologist and the doctor who worked hard to listen today. How I wish they were not the exceptions in my experience in American health care.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

wild goose ride

A number of years ago a woman named Martha, who went to school with me at Nairobi International School (NIS) when we were both in ninth grade, contacted as many of us as she could and compelled us to get together again. The invitation was too good to turn down: I had not seen most of the people in thirty years. NIS was a small school made up of students whose parents moved around the world for any number of reasons. Many of us were only there for a year or two. All of us spent most of our childhood and adolescence outside of America and moving around. We met at Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. Ginger and flew from Boston to El Paso and then drove the four hours to the hotel hidden in a valley in the middle of nowhere. As we passed a sign on the interstate that said, “Next exit 65 miles,” Ginger and I spoke simultaneously.

“This is beautiful,” I said.
“There is nothing out here,” she said.

Both statements were true. By the time we got to the hotel, most of the others had arrived. We walked into a room of twenty-five or thirty folks who were talking and hugging and laughing. When we got to our room that night, Ginger reflected on what she saw. “The healing was visible,” she said. “You could see it on all the faces -- as though it was the first time in a long, long time that you were in a room where you were understood, where everyone understood what you had gone through, where you felt normal.”

She was right. I had not known that feeling since my family had come back to the States for good the middle of my junior year in high school. I’m not sure I’ve felt it again in quite the same way, but I thought about that night as I took part in the Wild Goose Festival which happened last weekend about an hour outside of Durham. The festival is self-described as one of spirituality, justice, music, and art. People came and camped in the woods and sang and talked and ate and looked for ways to connect. To me it felt like a cross between Woodstock and church youth camp. When I looked out over the field of participants, I heard Ginger’s words about my NIS reunion because most any direction I looked I saw people who didn’t look like “church folks” who were lost in wonder, love, and grace. For these four days, they got to feel understood. “Normal.” None of us was asked to do more than be ourselves and welcome one another.

And it was good.

I don’t want to overly romanticize it. The days were hot, the woods were filled with chiggers, and some of the speakers and performers remained quite impressed with themselves. The swath of inclusion still needs to be wider. We Christians who were raised to proclaim still have work to do in learning how to listen. And I loved who I saw gathered together at Wild Goose. The name reflects a metaphor for the Holy Spirit taken from Celtic Christianity. From the first time I heard it, I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” Even though I have never heard anyone refer to it at the festival, the words are resonant.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Announcing your place in the family. And what a family gathering it was: the pious and the pierced, the tattooed and the trendy, the charismatic and the questioning, the earnest and the edgy, the philosophical and the pragmatic, the sarcastic and the sensitive, the devoted, the depressed, and the determined. Yes, I’m glad I’m a part of the family of God.

Both this year and last I was one of those who drove people -- mostly speakers and musicians -- back and forth from the airport. On most every run someone would ask if there were more people here than last year. The answer was yes and the festival goes mostly unnoticed by Americans, much less most American Christians. Somehow, in both arenas, working to be inclusive will get you marginalized. One afternoon, sitting at a picnic table in the afternoon sun at the festival, I read these words from yet another book by John Berger that is blowing my mind:
The larger is not more real -- if we tend to believe it is, the tendency is perhaps a vestige of the fear reflex to be found in all animals, ion face of another creature larger than themselves. If is more prudent to believe that the large is more real than the small. Yet it is false. (53)
The challenge is not to become larger but to become truer. To be more committed to listening than speaking, to noticing rather than wanting to be noticed, to making room rather than making points. It is a harsh and exciting call. In the “Invitation” on the festival web site it says:
We are called to embody a different kind of religious expression than has often dominated our institutions and culture.  We believe that the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better; so we refuse to merely denounce the shadow of the tradition and abandon it.  Instead, we humbly seek to both tear down and build up, walking a path that embodies love of God, neighbor, and self.
We dream of a movement where everyone is welcome to participate.  We are intentionally building a space in which we invite everyone to value, respect and fully affirm people of any ethnicity, age, gender, gender expression, sexual identity, education, bodily condition, religious affiliation, or economic background, particularly the marginalized.  We are committed to fair trade, gift exchange, ecological sanity and economic inclusion. We strive for high standards of mutual respect, non-hierarchical leadership, and participative planning.
That’s not the kind of talk that builds mega-churches. It is the kind of talk -- and action -- that might help us all find our place in the family.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012


“Until I met you, I would have been unable to name the transformation that was taking place. Today, at my late age, I name it -- the fusion of love.”
                -- John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

I have spent the afternoon in Old Havana
(the sandwich shop, that is)
with my Cafe Americano and mantecaditos
and the empty chair that is yours

the Caribbean rhythms danced around
the young couple sitting on the couch
as I wrote and wished for you
(not necessarily in that order)

and thought about the shine of silver
in your hair that matched the spark
in your eyes as you kissed me
this morning when you left

Yes -- silver (better than grey):
sought after, valued, refined,
transformed, even earned;
the jewelry of well worn love.
There is a new recipe.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

tonight would be a good night

for fireflies, while we sit in the dark
after another evening of almosts has
fallen all around us, all around us

for a walk, since the storm that was almost
a hurricane has done little more than
threaten to bring rain, to bring rain

to write a poem, you said as we walked
knowing it would do me good to search
for words in the dark, in the dark


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

Sunday, May 13, 2012


I had thirty minutes to kill so I wandered
through the mystery novels and how to books
until I found myself among the remainders

books on their last legs making one final
appeal to be something other than compost
words someone meant once upon a time

in between two volumes I cannot recall
I found last year’s Chinese horoscope and
bought it, hoping to find out what happened


Monday, May 07, 2012

amend this!

Tomorrow, the State of North Carolina where I live is voting on a proposed constitutional amendment that reads:

"Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State."

There are many of us who have been working hard to do what we can to defeat this insidious and cynical and poorly written piece of legislation, but tonight before I know whether or not our efforts have successful, I want to say that regardless of what tomorrow brings, I want to say to our short-sighted legislators, we already have a law against equal marriage. If the point is to make sure gay and lesbian people can’t get married, that point has been made. But that’s not your point. You are playing to the fears and prejudices of those you think will keep you in office. Fear always needs an enemy. But fear is not an ultimate force. Love is.

You l should know we will not allow you to devalue marriage by acting as though it has a mere legal definition, or determines who gets tax breaks. We will use it as a relational word and a theological word and we will gather to watch our friends get married and dance at their weddings until the walls of your fortresses crumble down around you.

We will have the audacity to include everyone and love one another and bust through whatever ridiculous divisions you try to foster. We will march in the streets and sing on your steps, but more than that we will wear you down with the courage of our convictions and tenacity of our determination to include every last one -- including you.

I pray we defeat the amendment because I don’t want any more damage done to my friends and to others in this state who already feel marginalized. I hope it goes down because it is immoral and wrong. But if it passes, don’t smile for long. Be afraid. Be very afraid. Love lives in North Carolina. Big-hearted, big-tent, all-ye-all-ye-oxen-free-you-can’t-keep-us-from-being-together, world-changing love.

And it’s coming for you.


Sunday, April 08, 2012

lenten journal: alive together

Last night I worked down at Fullsteam Brewery for their “Take a Pint Out of Crime” fundraiser to help replace the smoker someone stole a week or so ago. I was happy to help out because they are my neighbors and it is The Friendliest Room in Durham. I want to help make sure they are around for a long time. During the course of the evening, I got a text message from Leon, of Cocoa Cinnamon fame (they are $800 dollars away from $30K on their Kickstarter campaign that winds down at 2:45 EDT on Monday, in case you were wondering), asking if we were still in Waco. I wrote back and told him I was at Fullsteam until eleven; he showed up about 10:30 so we could have a beer together before I went home.

We are in the beginning stages of what I trust will become a friendship because of the resonance I feel with him even though I don’t know many of the stories that brought him to the stool next to me last night, nor does he know many of mine. But we did our best to tell at least a couple of them last night. As we talked about life and faith and coffee and beer and food and community, I said, “We do our best work when we start with what we share in common, with what bonds us to each other. Once there is trust and a relationship, we can talk about differences. We put up with a lot of crap from our friends we would never tolerate from strangers because they are our friends. We have already made the decision to stay.”

“You have that written down somewhere, don’t you?” he asked.

Well, I do now, Leon, I do now.

God didn’t roll away the stone on Easter morning so we could pick it up and throw it at each other. The gravity of faith pulls against the centrifugal force of most of the rest of life: we are called to be together, to include everyone, to love, love, love one another. The world doesn’t need any more self-appointed judges or experts, any more distributors of shame or guilt, any more zealots with clear consciences. We don’t need anymore fundamentalists, whether they are liberal or conservative. What the world needs are people committed to loving one another. The core message of the Resurrection is that Love conquers death. Not morality. Not orthodoxy. Not anything else. Love. Love. Love.

God is Love.

The point of our lives is not to be right or first or richest or more powerful. The point of our lives is to be together. To tell stories. To make memories. To drink beer and coffee and eat together. To feed and clothe one another. To make sure everyone is taken care of.

There you go, Leon – I wrote it down, my friend.


P. S. – Over the next month my blog posting will be intermittent at best because I have to meet a manuscript deadline for a book on Communion that will be published in the fall. I will give more details as the time draws closer and, of course, will be happy to take preorders. Peace . . .

Saturday, April 07, 2012

lenten journal: much like any other day

Today is a day much like any other day.

In the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, this is the day in the middle. Most stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Our Easter story goes the opposite direction, in a way, starting with the ending and then moving to beginning again. Either way, Saturday is the day in the middle. Much like any other day.

This morning, I sat around a table at church with ten Pilgrims (as we call ourselves) who had come to walk the Stations of the Cross set up in our sanctuary by our wonderful pastoral intern, Kyle. The stations were both thoughtful and tactile, involving a number of our senses to get the full picture. Before we gathered to eat, we gathered in the sanctuary for prayer and Ginger asked me to sing “Were You There?” Our connection to the song goes back to our days in Winchester, Massachusetts when Jim, a wonderful man with an amazing voice used to close the Maundy Thursday service with the first two verses of the song (as I sang them this morning):

were you there when they crucified my lord?
were you there when they crucified my lord?
oh – sometimes it causes me to tremble tremble tremble
were you there when they crucified my lord?
were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
oh – sometimes it causes me to tremble tremble tremble . . .
He always stopped short of finishing the last verse and we left the service in darkness to go and wait for the ending to come. The question in the song is interesting because it begs to be answered. I don’t hear it as rhetorical. And the answer is, “No. I wasn’t there.” I try to get close, to learn, and to remember what has been passed down, but I was not there.

I am here in the in-between of Saturday afternoon, a day much like any other day.

And much like any other day, I have been mining for poems, which I believe to be why God created the Internet. I was looking for poems that spoke to the middle, to the unfinished, to living in the everyday. (I am also quoting excerpts; please follow the links to read them in their entirety.) I went first to an old friend, Stanley Kunitz. I actually met him at the one Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival I have been able to attend. It was a year or so before he died. “The Layers” is one of my favorite poems. The last part of it reads:
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face,
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
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 the wreckage of the Crucifixion, I love the call to live in the layers of grief and hope and not on the litter of what might have been. We are not yet done. As I continued mining, I found another Kunitz poem that was new to me called “Passing Through.” The closing lines read:
Maybe it’s time for me to practice
growing old. The way I look
at it, I’m passing through a phase:
gradually I’m changing to a word.
Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours;
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.
At the Waco Mammoth Site the other day we learned there were layers of mammoth bones, each one from a different cataclysmic flood event that drowned and buried the animals. The dust we borrow for our days has been handed down. Though we weren’t there when they crucified Jesus, those who walked with him have been turned into words that have resonated down the days through the passing of the Bread and the Cup, through the telling of the story, through the living of these days that are one much like the other. And so at breakfast this morning one of the women at the table began talking about the “Mary Magdalene Moments” she had had during the day, things that had made her stop and wonder, “I wonder if this is how Mary felt?”

We may not have been there, but we can find the feelings, the resonance, the continuity in the layers of life than make up our faith. One more poetic gem. James Galvin end his poem, “The Story of the End of the Story,” with these two lines:
Real events don't have endings,
Only the stories about them do.
We are five days away from marking six months since Reuben, my father-in-law, died yet his story is not over any more than our grief is complete. Though many years separate me from my days in Lusaka or Nairobi or Fort Worth or Boston or Winchester or Marshfield those stories don’t feel finished either. There have been endings, yes – and changes. And losses. Plenty of losses. But looking back on those days is more than an archaeological dig through bones of days gone by. Something still lives in those layers, something that gives greater significance to these days much like any other day, these days in the middle between endings and beginnings and beginnings again. I was not there when they crucified Jesus, or laid him in the tomb, or even when he rose up from the grave.

But I am here on this day, much like any other day.


Friday, April 06, 2012

lenten journal: acquainted with grief

The early spring has been at cross purposes with my schedule. When the beds were ready to be cleared and prepared for spring vegetables, I was not prepared to plant. When the regular rhythm of rain and spring sunshine made everything in the garden explode, I was not prepared to prune branches and pull weeds to channel the new growth into its most productive channels. The garden went on without me, bursting with growth and green, with flowers and fragrance, and has been doing so for some time to the point that what are normally walking paths were covered up with all manner of green.

Today I tried to catch up.

I spent about two hours in the garden pulling weeds, pruning trees and bushes, and preparing for planting that will come as soon as I get a chance. My primary focus was to clear the walking paths so the pups had a way to navigate from the back door down to the back of the yard where they move among the wood chips and ivy to make sure the squirrels are under control. As I pulled and pruned, I was mindful of it being Good Friday afternoon and I thought of John the Baptist’s words, “Prepare the way of the Lord; clear a straight path for him.” Perhaps it is not the freshest of metaphors, but I found a connection as my hands pulled the plants, hoping the ground would yield its grip and let me clear the way. Some gave up more easily than others. Though the paths are cleared, the roots of several of the weeds are still intact, meaning I will be out again on at least one more afternoon making sure we have room to walk.

Tonight I am at the church with Ginger staffing our church’s prayer vigil. Our ministerial intern, Kyle, set up the stations of the cross around the sanctuary and created a thoughtful and meaningful path of devotion and focus, free of weeds. Jesus’ death is a struggle for me because of the explanations for it, more than anything. The traditional notions of the atonement, as I was taught them as a young Baptist boy, create an equation that has never added up for me. I don’t see why a God who is love had to kill the Son in order to make the accounting work. (I’m not looking for an explanation of it either, by the way – but, thanks.) Because of who I know God to be, I trust I could be forgiven without Jesus dying. What his death that matters most to me is to create the possibility for Resurrection. Jesus went to what we knew to be the limits of human existence and blew the doors off reminding us there is more to life than what we know. These days are not the last word. Death is a penultimate statement, the next to the last verse.

The longer I live on this planet, the more I appreciate Jesus’ visceral understanding of grief and loss. One of my favorite old hymns begins

man of sorrows – what a name
for the Son of God who came
The old King James translation spoke I poetic understatement of his being “acquainted with grief.” Then again, that particular acquaintance is one of the primary relationships in the life of most any person. Being human means to know loss and sorrow. What Jesus showed was being fully human was knowing how to fully embrace that relationship. Grief and sorrow aren’t something other than life – they are a part of the very essence of our existence.

We have one account in the gospels of Jesus being in the living side of grief and that is in the death of his friend Lazarus. His response is recorded in what is famously known as the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” In the face of Jesus’ own demise, some of the disciples denied him, some doubted, some despaired. They didn’t have the luxury of the liturgical calendar to let them know Easter Sunday was just around the corner. He was dead and buried. They were brutally acquainted with grief. They went back to their old ways and climbed in the boat to go fishing, doing anything to fill the void, or anything to go on living. This was the night of their deepest question: what do we do now? Even without the Resurrection, death is not the last word for those left behind to keep living. The weeds will grow back and I will have to go and pull them up again. Our losses will pile up like my compost heap the longer we walk on this earth. Grief will become more than an acquaintance. Before we get to Sunday, we must answer the call, as Jackson Browne said, “Get up and do it again. Amen.

Amen, indeed.