Saturday, March 31, 2012

lenten journal: nod over coffee

Mark Heard’s song “Nod Over Coffee” has been playing in my head since I read about the consequences of the invention of the minute hand in Adam Frank’s book, About Time. I clocked in for my nine hours at the computer store today and clocked out tired and worn and happy to come home. I will let the song be my melody for sleep this evening with this clip from Pierce Pettis, Grace Pettis, and Jonathan Kingham. First, Mark Heard’s lyric:

nod over coffee

all the unsaid words that I might be thinking
and all the little signs that I might give you
they would not be enough
no they would not be enough

so we nod over coffee and say goodbye
smile over coffee and turn to go
we know the drill and we do it well
we love it, we hate it
ain't that life

ain't that the curse of the second hand
ain't that the way of the hour and the day

if I weren't so alone and afraid
they might pay me what I am worth
but it would not be enough
you deserve better

so we nod over coffee and say goodbye
do whatever has to be done again today
get in the traffic and time will fly
look at the sun and pray for rain

ain't that the curse of the second hand
ain't that the way of the hour and the day

the dam of time cannot hold back
the dust that will surely come of these bones
and I'm sure I will not have loved enough
will not have loved enough

if we could see with wiser eyes
what is good and what is sad and what is true
still it would not be enough
could never be enough

so we nod over coffee and say goodbye
bolt the door it's time to go
into the car with the radio on
roll down the window and blow the horn

ain't that the curse of the second hand
ain't that the way of the hour and the day


Friday, March 30, 2012

lenten journal: finding finitude

On my first day of Spring Break, I worked in the garden pruning trees and pulling up weeds and then went with Ginger to a relatively new coffee shop, Straw Valley CafĂ©, to sip and read for awhile. We walked into a little coffee shop and found it opened up on a meandering puzzle of small gardens and patios that wrapped around a renovated farm house filled with cozy little rooms – all of it available for whomever needed a place to sit and read and think. It is a beautiful place. As is our custom, Ginger and I settled down in different parts of the place with our respective reads. I continued in Adam Frank’s About Time, which is a sweeping history of how our understanding of time got to where it is today. I read today about Copernicus and Galileo, among others. Of the Copernican concept of an heliocentric cosmos, as opposed to the Ptolemy’s geocentric one, Blank writes:

The difference in size [of the universe] between the Ptolemaic and Copernican models was startling. The heliocentric cosmos was at least four hundred thousand times bigger (in terms of volume0 than Ptolemy’s. This vast enlargement of the universe would be the first of many times that scientific astronomy would inflate the cosmos. With each step outward, humanity appeared to shrink in significance. (77)
One of the things Frank does well is navigate the creative tension between cosmology and daily life, for time matters to both. He continues a couple of paragraphs later:
But in a changing world new cosmologies were dangerous. There was a background of political, theological, and economic tumult that made debates over the Copernican universe flicker between metaphor and cosmic reality. Europe had been pushed off the center of the map with the discovery of the New World. The Vatican was being pushed aside as the sole arbiter of both earthly and divine power. And the Earth had been pushed aside to make room for a new cosmic architecture. (78)
“This is the motion of history,” I wrote in the space between the end of the sentence and the edge of the page. I suppose there are actually two motions that follow Frank’s ideas of cosmological time and daily time, one arc being that of human growth and evolution as we become more educated and technologically evolved, and the other – growing out of the first – being that of coming to terms with our diminishing importance in our ever-expanding universe. The more we learn, the more we are asked to come to terms with how small we actually are.

I thought of a poem I wrote almost a decade ago (now, old enough to be new again?) that I wrote in response to a billboard announcing the new planetarium at the Science Museum in Boston.
daily work
In the crush of afternoon traffic I sit
In an unending queue of cars, staring at the stoplight.
From my driver’s seat I can see the billboard:
“Come visit the new planetarium,
you tiny insignificant speck in the universe.”
When the signal changes, I cross the bridge
over river and railroad yard, turn left past
the donut shop, and park in front of my house.
Only my schnauzers notice because
they are home alone.
I have been hard at work in my daily orbit,
but I stopped no wars, saved no lives,
and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning.
Today would be a good day to be Jimmy Stewart,
to have some angel show me I matter.
As I walk the puppies down to the river,
I wonder how many times have I come to the water
hoping to hear, “You are my beloved child.”
Instead, I stand in life’s rising current only to admit,
“I am not the one you were looking for.”
I stand in the stream of my existence,
between the banks of blessing and despair,
convinced that only messiahs matter,
that I have been called to change the world
and I have not done my job.
Yet, if I stack up the details of my life like
stones for an altar, I see I am one In the flow
of humanity, in the river of Love. I am a speck,
in God’s eyes, of some significance.
So say the schnauzers every time I come home.
Once upon a time, maybe even in the days of Copernicus and Galileo, the point of education was to learn everything, which is not an option in the world we live in. The best we can do is to learn how to learn, how to be open, how not to cling too tightly to what we know to be safe as we flicker between metaphor and cosmic reality. To learn, to truly grow in understanding is to lose power because it means coming to terms with our finitude, which has been the reality all along. Being willing to learn means being willing to let go of what we have held to be true so we can see the world with new eyes. As the world changes the truth will still find us, as it did Galileo and Luther and Gandhi and King, to name a few, and it will continue to remind us of the limitations of our perspective, our language, and even our theology.

As our view of time and most everything else changes as we find new material engagements, so was God changed by the material engagement of the Incarnation, which I don’t see as a unique crisis for God because I think change is fundamental to God’s nature. Or let me put it this way: in the same way that we feel the universe changes as we find the ways to see parts of it we have not seen before, so God “changes.” As we see galaxies far, far away, as we are drawn closer together in a world where white people aren’t the ones who matter most or straight people aren’t the only ones who are normal, we are called to come to terms with a God who is bigger than the Bible, bigger than our descriptions, bigger than most anything we can imagine, which is to say, a God who is the essence of creativity and change, the only kind of God who could blow the doors of the tomb and make the dry bones dance.

And that was just for starters.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

lenten journal: a word for today

Spring Break began today for my school, along with many schools in our area. Usually it begins on Easter weekend, but this year they scheduled it earlier, which has thrown off my calendar a bit. The best news is I will get to play catch up a little in the garden tomorrow, or at least until the pollen pushes me back indoors. As Lent prepares to stretch out in the Last Long Week, I must admit to being caught a little off guard by the approach of Palm Sunday, even with writing everyday.

You would think I’d be ready.

The pace of life and my unpreparedness for What Is To Come makes me mindful of the gift we are given in being able to get ready: to prepare, to practice, to ponder. Easter has been on the calendar for a long time. We have scheduled the sacred into our lives, and scheduled around it. To be caught by surprise, even by what I know is coming, is a gift – a chance to catch a small glimpse of what it might have felt like the first time around.

A couple of nights ago, I sent a message to an acquaintance here in town whom I need to see for some advice on a project. I suggested we get together next Friday (as in next week) and he wrote back agreeing to meet, thinking I meant tomorrow. When I clarified, he wrote back to say his mother-in-law was dying and he needed to go with his wife to be with their family as they said goodbye, commenting that she was an only child so she was carrying the bulk of the burden. After walking through the past year with my father-in-law Reuben’s descent into Alzheimer’s and death, I understood in a very visceral way. I wrote back to tell him to take the time he needed and then “I will see you after the Resurrection.”

“Ahhh, yes,” he answered, “after the Resurrection . . .”

An old friend whose heart has been broken sent a message tonight asking for prayer to be able to face the silence of the night the lies ahead. Those are the two stories of pain that come to mind most quickly tonight; I know more. So do you. We are tired, we are weak, we are worn.

And we know whatever pain we know is not the last word.

Growing up Baptist, I didn’t know about Lent, or, I should say, I thought Lent was something Catholics did that meant that had to give up stuff. Thanks to a long list of teachers and fellow pilgrims, I learned to tell time liturgically, which has made my Resurrection mornings even more powerful because, I think, I learned to take the darkness more seriously. I’ve learned that the direction our faith takes us through pain and grief, not around them. And I’m reminded almost daily that we go through them together.

Tonight, that's enough.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

lenten journal: hey, white people

yeah, I’m talking to me
you, too – and anyone
who never had to worry
about being followed
stopped or accused
because of our skin
who never thought
twice about a hoodie
making us a threat
listen right now
we need to listen
don’t speak of
what the boy might
have done wrong
don’t explain
make excuses or
offer solutions
just listen
for a long time
we have much
yet to understand


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

lenten journal: a time for singing

Writing about time -- and finishing up with Tom Waits -- has sent me in search of time songs. Today I offer a soundtrack to pass the time.

Bruce Cockburn opens the set with "Lovers in a Dangerous Time."

John Mellencamp continues: "Save Some Time to Dream."

An old favorite -- Shawn Colvin singing "Ricochet in Time."

As long as we're in old favorite mode -- Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time."

One more old favorite: "Where Does the Time Go?" by the Innocence Mission.

On to Ryan Adams -- "In My Time of Need."

Here is Dawes with Mumford and Sons: "When My Time Comes."

And our closing hymn: Paul Simon singing, "Love and Hard Times."

Sing along every chance you get.


Monday, March 26, 2012

lenten journal: about time

Lent is almost over and I am just now digging into the stack of books I got for Christmas. The one on the top of the heap was About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang by Adam Frank. Ginger gave it to me because she knows how fascinated I am with time and how deeply tied it is to theology for me. Her gift was a true act of love because I don’t have to talk about time for very long before her eyes start to roll back in her head; my interest is not shared. Appreciated, but not shared.

The book fits in well to my life these days because I have to be keenly conscious of time and how I spend it. I am working two jobs, trying to keep up with lesson plans (I’ve never kept up with grading), finish a book manuscript due in a few weeks, stay true to my Lenten practice of writing this blog daily, do more than merely smile at Ginger as I pass by, do my due diligence with the Schnauzers, keep up with the cooking, try to stay familiar to at least some of my friends, and hope to get at least six hours of sleep a night. As I said, I am keenly conscious of time. Tick, tick, tick.

In the two years I have been teaching at my little school, I have never had a wall clock that worked. There has been a blank space where a clock was supposed to be or a clock that neither keeps nor tells time has been hanging next to the door, as is currently the case. Every so often, one of my students awakens to the reality that the reported hour has nothing to do with our time zone; today was such a day.

“Mr. B-C,” she said, “why don’t you just take it down?”

“Because,” I answered, “I’ve decided to view it more existentially – as a work of art. I mean, do any of us actually have any sense of what time it is? We make our own time.” She rolled her eyes in a move vaguely reminiscent to Ginger. I chuckled to myself and by myself as they humored me. Yet, if the clock were “correct” it would only be so because I set it to what time we have collectively decided it should be so we can be on time, know when to expect one another to show, or rush outside to meet the carpool at the end of the school day.

It has not always been so. The word timekeeper first appeared in 1686.

Frank builds his argument on the premise that cosmological time (how we think about the universe) and human time (how we think about our lives) have “always been intertwined, and there was never an age when they could be closely separated.” However, in these days we are living “the time we imagine for the cosmos and the time we imagined into human experience turn out to be woven so tightly together that we have lost the ability to see each of them for what it is.” (xv)

As I read those words, I thought of Psalm 8:

when I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
When I read those verses, two things happen. First, I hear the Chapel Choir from University Baptist Church singing “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name,” an anthem based on the psalm and one of my favorite choral pieces. Second, I lament I was born in a time of human history when gazing into the night sky doesn’t offer the chance to be put in my place that it once did. And so I live caught between the stars and the Bull City, if you will, trying to find the rhythm of my life. As I try to come to terms with the differences in the meaning of time for the Psalmist and me, I learn from my Christmas gift:
Changes in material engagement redefine culture by altering what are called its institutional facts. Institutional facts define the human world into which we are each born. . . . With the advance of material engagement came new ways of experiencing time. . . . Just as each invention made new forms of culture possible, cultural imagination also developed alongside the technology. Because time always exists at the interface between the physical and the imagination, it would be closely tied to material engagement and the changes it drove in culture. (20)
I can feel the eyes beginning to roll back – and not just Ginger’s. But don’t bail on me just yet. Give me just a little more, well, time. Another of my students is obsessed with time. He has Aspergers and a strong need for order; knowing the exact time matters because, it appears, he worries about being able to get finished with his work on time. Part of my job is to offer grace the clock cannot. When he asks for the time, I look at my smart phone. I used to carry a pocket watch, but that has given way to the phone which is sent the time from a satellite somewhere, as are all the phones and computers in the school; we all agree down to the minute. Our schedules thrive on the specificity. Second period ends at 10:25. The day is over at 3:15. I have to be at the computer store at 5 o’clock. Tick, tick, tick.

Changes in our material engagement make it difficult for us to see beyond the immediate. The exactness of our timekeeping puts the dead in deadline. We are scheduled down to the minute because we can be. And we are still figuring out what it means to our humanity. Or perhaps I’m just figuring out what it means for me. I started by saying time has theological implications. That’s the place where I find Frank’s words compelling because if every material engagement changes what it means to be human then it also changes how we see God. The Psalmist could gaze into a night sky devoid of ambient light and see layers of light; I can see street lights, hear sirens, a catch a couple of stars. Seasons like Lent and Advent have become more crucial for me because they set my heart to a different beat and lift my eyes to see beyond the curse of the second hand to remember to sing along.

Who am I that you are mindful of me? Alleluia.


P. S. -- Here's one of my favorite time songs for good measure.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

lenten journal: question(s)

love is the opening door
love is what we came here for
no one can offer you more
do you know what I mean
have your eyes really seen

-- Lesley Duncan, “Love Song”

Lesley Duncan’s lyrics came back to find me today (I know the song because of Elton John’s cover on his Tumbleweed Connection record) partly because I went back to that disc since it is Elton’s birthday and mostly because of the way it felt to be a part of the bluegrass service we had today. (I wrote a little about it here.) Several of the songs were ones I sang at my father-in-law Reuben’s funeral because they were songs he loved; singing them today made the grief palpable in a way it had not been for awhile. We closed our service with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which, after today’s service, I took to be a rhetorical question.

why do I feel more at home here
when I sing this world is not my home?
why does singing about heaven
make me want to plant trees?
why don’t the gospels talk
about what Jesus liked to sing?
our lives go on as endless song . . .
how can I keep from singing?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

lenten journal: chance of rain

when it rains like this
I wish for my old vinyl
records and the songs
that seep back into
my heart like water
into our basement

its something other
than mere melancholy
or even memory
the melodies have worn
rivers in my heart
whose beds grow dry

from time to time . . .
and then it rains words
and music – blossom
smile some sunshine
and I close my eyes
and sing along


Friday, March 23, 2012

lenten journal: spice route

Last night as we were getting ready for the Cocoa Cinnamon tasting, Leon had a plastic bottle filled with sand from the Sahara he had brought home from time spent in Tunisia and Morocco. He poured some into a brass Turkish coffee pot and let us touch it. The sand was somehow fine and coarse at the same time and had a pinker hue than what I know as sand, bordering on rose. (Cue the Police: “Tea in the Sahara.”) At the same time, Areli was building little mounds of spices – cinnamon, cayenne, sea salt, hibiscus, curry, cacao nibs, raw cacao beans – for us to add to our Venezuelan drinking chocolate when they served it later in the evening. I sat the camera on the table at one end of board and took this picture. Here is where the picture took me.

spice route
something in the sand
shrinks me down to size
clothed in appropriate
insignificance I step into
the stories mounded up
in the spices on the board
in the middle of our table
standing in my dining room
I walk the stone streets
of Tunis and Marrakesh
surrounded by the laughter
and questions from the
caravan of friends and
adventurers sailing
around the room
tasting and talking
digesting dreams
inhaling hope
infusing our lives with
the trace minerals
of togetherness

Thursday, March 22, 2012

lenten journal: here's another picture

Many years ago, I wrote a song that began, "Here's another picture of love . . . " Tonight, we added several more photographs to that album as Areli and Leon from Cocoa Cinnamon did a coffee, tea, and chocolate tasting at our house as a way of preparing us for the awesome coffee shop they are going to open in our neighborhood. They have a Kickstarter campaign going right now. Help them out and then come visit us in Durham and we'll take you for coffee -- or drinking chocolate. Believe me, it's worth the trip. We ended up with thirty-five people hanging out in our house for a couple of hours tasting, listening, talking, and generally having an awesome time and reminding one another of what it means to be together. So here's another picture -- or seven.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

lenten journal: plotting the resurrection

First Fig 
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

I have kept my practice of a Lenten journal now for many years. This, however, is the first year I have tried to write and work two jobs. As I was driving home tonight, I thought of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “First Fig,” which is a favorite and it led me to the following words.
plotting the resurrection
I’m not one to wax
eloquent about the
virtue of burning
out though I feel a
flicker of resonance
with her candle in
the way neither my
daylight nor dark
hold much room for
rest it appears
I have given up
sleep for lent sleep
for lent perhaps
on easter morning
I can nap in the
empty tomb no
one will be there

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

lenten journal: bear with me

In my post yesterday I quoted from Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address at South-by- Southwest, which I would like to repeat:

The purity of human expression and experience is not confined – there’s no pure way of doing it; there’s just doing it . . . . At the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that is what’s valuable.
After seeing him in concert last night in Greensboro, I must report the man walks the walk (rocks the rock) as well as he talks the talk. At 62, the Boss shows no signs of slowing down or gives any indication that the point of his evening is to leave it all on the stage. If rock and roll were a religion, Bruce would be a Pentecostal evangelist. With his clarion call still ringing in my ears, I heard the music start all over again when I read this sentence in Art & Fear:
To make art is to sing with your human voice. (117)
May I offer a mash up, if you will? There’s no pure way of doing it, there’s just doing it; at the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your faith that is what’s valuable. To make faith is to sing with your human voice.

Here is one of the reasons Jesus matters: he was fully human, which is to say being human is not a bad thing, not an evil thing, not a destructive thing. Being human is who we were made to be. Bruce sang, and a coliseum of voices along with him, of what it means to be resiliently human:
we are alive
and though our bones are alone here in the dark
our souls and spirits rise
to carry the fire and light the spark
to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart
The reason we all sang along, or at least one of them, is because he sings about the truth of life that lives amidst the contradictions and grief, of the light that shines indefatigably in the darkness. We are the dry bones singing and dancing. Every damn day. It is the melody of art and faith, our best song in our human voices, embracing the life we have been given to live. Back to Art and Fear -- Bayles and Orland close their book by saying:
In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot – and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice. (118)
I’m a quote ahead of myself. I need to back up a page or two to the set up for the paragraph you just read:
Answers are reassuring, but when you’re onto something really useful, it will probably take the form of a question. . . . Over the long run, the people with interesting answers are those who ask interesting questions. (112-113)
Not long after I re-read those words, I came across my friend Jimmy’s thoughts on his Facebook page this morning:
It didn't seem questions had much place in my faith tradition. I remember asking questions, but, there were always answers. Life is not a math challenge where all the numbers add up to a simple resolution. Neither are questions.
Jesus is the answer, says the old gospel song, backed up by all sorts of good intentions. No. Jesus asks the questions. Where are your accusers? Do you want to get well? Do you love me? Jesus calls us to embrace the uncertainty. Consider the lilies. Walk the second mile. Take care of the people who can’t take care of you in return. Love your enemies.

Oh – there’s one more thread in my tapestry: this line from Mary Oliver’s “Spring,” which graced the Writer’s Almanac today:
There is only one question
How to love the world.
Wait. That’s not fair. A good line from a great poem deserves to be seen in its natural habitat. Here’s the whole thing.
      a black bear
           has just risen from sleep
                and is staring
down the mountain.
     All night
          in the brisk and shallow restlessness
               of early spring
I think of her,
    her four black fists
        flicking the gravel,
               her tongue
like a red fire
    touching the grass,
        the cold water.
              There is only one question:
how to love this world.
    I think of her
               like a black and leafy ledge
to sharpen her claws against
    the silence
        of the trees.
              Whatever else
my life is
    with its poems
        and its music
             and its glass cities,
it is also this dazzling darkness
       down the mountain,
            breathing and tasting;
all day I think of her—
    her white teeth,
       her wordlessness,
            her perfect love.
The fact that I went to Baylor notwithstanding, I love a good bear metaphor. And I’m back to Lyle, or at least his cover of Steve Fromholtz’s song:
some folks drive the bears out of the wilderness
some to see a bear would pay a fee
me I just bear up to my bewildered best
and some folks even seen the bear in me
Oliver’s bear comes lumbering out of hibernation into a world exploding with possibilities and dangers, callings and contradictions, reminding us we follow a similar trajectory: sometimes bewildered, sometimes uncertain, sometimes hungry, sometimes hopeful, and always called to love with all the force and fervor of a bear looking to break a winter’s fast or Bruce belting out the final chorus of “Born to Run.”

We are alive. And human. And are called to love the world: to relish the uncertainty, to dance in the dark, to make faith by singing in our human voice:
everybody has a hu-hu-hungry heart.

P. S. -- Sic 'em, Bears.

Monday, March 19, 2012

lenten journal: hold on, hold on . . .

Next Sunday I am going to be a part of a bluegrass group that will be the service musicians for our morning worship. Most of the group is one family – parents and three boys, all of whom play instruments. The youngest one, who is six or seven, plays the mandolin likes it’s part of him, smiling through his spectacles as he strums away. As we have been practicing, I’ve been mindful of the ongoing celebration of what would have been Woody Guthrie’s one hundredth birthday (July 14, to be exact) and, somehow, I go from my diminutive mandolin player to Woody to John Berger, who described the Okie folksinger. “Now I can make is simpler,” Berger begins and then goes on.

Guthrie was a charismatic performer and guitar player and a natural improviser. He sang old songs, and he sang many new songs written by himself to old tunes. One of these is entitled, “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.” He puts these words into the mouths of the thousands who had to take to the road from the city of Pampa on the west Texan plain during the Depression.
On the radio I heard recently a recording of him singing this song, whose refrain he had changed to: “Hold on, hold on, it’s been good to know you.” Or so I thought. Perhaps I misheard. No matter. Like this, it’s a refrain which addresses the subject of any drawing which has insisted upon being put on paper.
“Hold on, hold on, it’s been good to know you.”
Tonight I have the privilege of going to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert. I am driving with friends to Greensboro, North Carolina, for what will most certainly be a memorable evening. Bruce is a descendant of Guthrie’s in many ways, even covering some of his songs. I watched the video of Springsteen’s keynote address at SXSW this past week and he said,
The purity of human expression and experience is not confined – there’s no pure way of doing it; there’s just doing it . . . . At the end of the day, it’s the power and purpose of your music that is what’s valuable.
I must add one other musical piece that has set my week swirling in thought and melody. Last Thursday Ginger and I sat on the front row of the Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt concert at the DPAC (or the Tupac, as we like to call it). On our very first date I took Ginger to see Lyle – twenty-three years ago – at a little club in downtown Fort Worth aptly named the Caravan of Dreams; thus began our journey. We’ve seen him every time he’s come to our town – whatever the town – since then. The two men sat side by side and swapped songs, some of which pulled up moments from our past that still hold on and others that were harbingers of future memories yet to take hold.

I realize this post so far follows a rather impressionistic melody line, rather than offering clear verses, yet I keep coming back to Berger’s chorus, if you will:
hold on, hold on, it’s been good to know you.
One of the moments I am looking forward to on Sunday is the music we will offer in response to the Prayers of the People, which is the part of our service where people offer their joys and concerns, as we say. I am singing with the little mandolin man. The lyric is the last half of one of the verses from “Sweet Hour of Prayer” –
and since he bids me seek his face
believe his word and trust his grace
I’ll cast on him my every care
and wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer
I love the hymn, and I love singing it, but what I’m looking forward to is the dynamic between me and my companion. He is about half my height and stands and gazes up at me while I sing; he never looks at his hands. Something in the exchange at practice yesterday made me want to sing to him,
hold on, hold on . . .
I’ve had Bruce’s new record, “Wrecking Ball,” playing in the car all week in lieu of NPR getting ready for tonight. The chorus of one of the songs that’s kept me singing is
big wheels roll through the fields
where sunlight streams
oh meet me in
a land of broken dreams
Or so I thought. This morning was the first time I had a chance to sit down with the lyrics to find nothing was broken; the last line reads
a land of hope and dreams.
No matter. Any of the songwriters mentioned in this post offer an invitation to engage, to do more than listen, and to make something out of both the beautiful and the broken pieces of this thing called life. All of them have also wound their songs in and out of my days for the better part of my life. Thursday night, I called out for John Hiatt to sing one of my favorite songs, which was deep enough of an album cut that he could not remember the lyrics – “Before I Go.” The last verse says,
ghosts on the trees, there's ghosts on the wires
asking questions and showing signs
shivering with truth, they're lighting fires
lighting fires all down the line
and I will try, and I will stumble
but I will fly, he told me so
proud and high or low and humble
many miles before I go
many miles before I go
I feel like this post rambles along like a Dylan lyric (fifty year anniversary of his first record, by the way). I mean that in a good way. These songwriters, among others, are those who have held on to me and made me glad to have known them. Tonight, I will dip myself in the stream of the music that has washed my soul once again, sing along at the top of my lungs, and do my own share of shivering with the truth, doing my best to be thankful down to the bone.

Hold on, hold on, it’s been good to know you.


Sunday, March 18, 2012

lenten journal: perspective

when I walked outside this morning
there was enough moisture in the air
from last night’s thunderstorm
to make me feel close to the ocean
and aware of my place in the world

the lettuces that lived through
what passes for winter around here
have gone to flowering, a display
of well-deserved botanical arrogance
and I am aware of my place . . .

this evening I watched butterflies
dance among the spring weeds
that have started without me
and I picked two hands full of
kale to cook up for dinner

now the schnauzers are sleeping
in tandem, tired from our walk
and I am soon to follow suit
hoping for a dream of walking
down a long stretch of sand


Saturday, March 17, 2012

lenten journal: reflection

there are days I lay awake
at night and wonder even
worry about what’s to come
because the future feels

like a past due account and
I have already spent my time
thinking about tomorrow
putting the tense in present

there are nights like this
when I fall asleep holding
on to the day like the last
bite of the meal we shared

where we passed our plates
like forgiveness and let
ourselves love and laugh
like the present were a gift

and we press our fingers
to get every last crumb
and thank God we were
made to be hungry


Friday, March 16, 2012

lenten journal: seasonings

If I still lived in Boston
I would see spring blooms
inside -- at the Flower Show –
here in Carolina the daffodils
are well into their parade
the peach tree has budded . . .
I like the feel of the sun
on my neck and, yes, I miss
the prospect of snow on
Easter Sunday Morning
followed by the flowers
Creation’s resonance to
God’s emphatic YES.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

lenten journal: admission

On February 5, 1989, I took Ginger to see Lyle Lovett at the Caravan of Dreams in downtown Fort Worth. The club was small and we sat on the front row. Tonight, I took Ginger to see Lyle Lovett for the twenty-third time in our twenty-three years together – and we sat on the front row. Lyle shared the stage for an acoustic evening of song swapping with John Hiatt. I have much to say about it, but not all tonight. This evening, I offer this poem.


one of the things that has always made her smile
is my collection of ticket stubs stashed away
in random places around the house, remnants
of evenings spent listening and singing along.
they are torn paper portals of time travel
back to the night I was in the room when . . .
tokens of thanksgiving for the chance
to have been there when it happened –
the importance of a piece of paper
to remind me I am capable of tearing
open my heart and clearing my ears
to remember life is a live performance


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

lenten journal: onward, christian artists . . .

“Study the faces of the new tyrants,” Berger says has he begins the last section of his book, Bento's Sketchbook: How Does the Impulse to Draw Something Begin? What follows is a series of incisive descriptions:

They are impeccably dressed and their tailoring is reassuring, like the silhouette of high-security delivery vans.
They have foreheads with many horizontal creases. Not furrows ploughed by thought but rather lines of incessant passing information.
Small, swift eyes which examine everything and contemplate nothing. Ears extensive as a database, but incapable of listening.
They are familiar only with their own impressions of their own rackets. Hence their paranoia and, generated by the paranoia, their repeated energy. Their repeated article of faith is: There is no alternative. (147)
Not just tyrants, I thought as I read, he’s describing most of our politicians. And then I wrote in the margin, “This is antithetical to hope.” Faith as well. We were breathed into being by a God of endless possibilities, a God who has yet to quit slinging stars into the night sky, a God who inhabits the joy of laughing children and the smell of new puppies as fully as layered lavishness of a Texas sunset and the comforting power of the waves crashing on a New England shoreline. To say there is no alternative is not an article of faith but a declaration of vapid cynicism.

I listen to Santorum and his ilk define all there is to be afraid of, listing everything from presidents to birth control pills, as though the best working metaphor for the faithful is that of the warrior, the protector, the good soldier who holds the line against the raging enemy. Even though I know it’s not original on his part and I grew up singing “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,” I don’t want anything to do with it. To see oneself as a soldier means to live looking for the enemy, which means the energy gets spent on building walls and weapons. Those are not articles of faith.

“Love your enemies.” Quick – who said that?

We are not soldiers. We are artists, creatives made in the image of our Creator.
Drawing is anyway an exercise in orientation and as such may be accompanied with other processes of orientation which take place in nature.
When I’m drawing I feel a little closer to the way birds navigate when flying, or to hares finding shelter when pursued, or to fish knowing where to spawn, or trees finding a way to the light, or bees constructing their cells.
I’m aware of a distant, silent company. Almost as distant as the stars. Company nevertheless. Not because we are in the same universe, but because we are involved – each according to his own mode – in a comparable manner of searching. (150)
An exercise in orientation. What comes to mind first is an encounter I had in the parking lot of the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. Ginger and I were checking out of the hotel and I was carrying bags out to the car about nine in the morning. The two men in front of me were still living the night before. Both were in cut off jeans and Hawaiian shirts.

“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” said the first with great emphasis and volume, “there’s two things you’ve got to know in life: where you’re at and where you’re going.”

“Well, hell,” said the other, “I always know where I’m at, but I ain’t never knowed where I was going.”

I want to sing a new song: “Onward, Christian artists . . .” Forget about marching, about defending, about protecting. Create. Search. Remember. Remember we are not searching to discover God’s plan, we are searching for God. We are searching for every way we can find to connect with one another, to include one another, to love one another. The trees find their way to the light and we find our way together. We find our way to the God of Many Alternatives.
onward, christian artists
drawing close to God
searching for connection
the faithful and the flawed

fear’s fomenters crumble
while all creation sings
of our divine alternatives
as our hope takes wing

onward christian artists
drawing us to God
stars and saints are cheering
and the trees applaud

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

lenten journal: a friend I have yet to meet

One of the writers who has befriended me through her words is Naomi Shihab Nye. We have never met, though I imagine being in San Antonio sometime and knocking on her door as though we are both used to my doing that and having her answer and inviting me in for tamales and poetry. One of the things I love about her work is the way in which she infuses meaning into words we think we already know. She polishes them softly and then offers back what seemed mundane and pedantic and sparkling and vital. On this night, as my allergies are taking me down, I offer the words of this friend I have never met with hopes that will not always be the case.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Valentine for Ernest Mann
You can't order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, "I'll take two"
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, "Here's my address,
write me a poem," deserves something in reply.
So I'll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn't understand why she was crying.
"I thought they had such beautiful eyes."
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.
Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.
Thanks, Naomi.


Monday, March 12, 2012

lenten journal: choosing our words

Not long after we moved into our school building last year, Borders went broke and sold everything in their stores including the fixtures. The tables in my room are the very ones that held stacks of books for customers’ perusal and my walls are lined with the book shelves that made corridors of what are now giant empty brick and mortar boxes. One of the parents showed up one day with boxes of books that belonged to her father, who is quite a reader it seems, to fill up the shelves so the room looked learned in. Last week, one book caught my eye tucked away on the bottom shelf in the corner: a first edition hardback copy of A Circle of Quiet, one of my favorites of Madeleine L’Engle’s nonfiction work.

Needless to say, the book doesn’t live on that shelf anymore.

Our regular staff meeting was cancelled this afternoon, which meant I left school for the computer store and my evening shift earlier than usual, which meant I had time to read a bit when I got there. Berger, of course, who has laid patiently for several days. He told a wonderful story of a woman who had escaped from Kampuchea (now Cambodia) as the Khmer Rouge took hold. Berger described the Kampuchean people of that time as people who were

on the point of being tyrannized and massacred by their own political visionaries, who transformed them into fanatics so that they could inflict vengeance on reality itself, so they could reduce reality to a single dimension. Such reduction brings with it as many pains as there are cells in a heart. (127)
In the margin I wrote, “our politicians.”

I know it’s an overstatement in the sense that none of our national figures come close to resembling Pol Pot or have any intention of unleashing the kind of wholesale violence inflicted by the Khmer Rouge, yet what resonated in the quote was the note about reducing reality to a single dimension and leaving us with nothing but polarities from which to choose. As I read, I remembered words Madeleine had written about the dangers of reducing our vocabulary, so I went looking for them when I got home.
The more limited our language is, the more limited we are; the more limited the literature we give our children, the more limited their capacity to respond, and therefore, in their turn, to create. The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves. We do think in words, and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think. Try to comprehend an abstract idea without words: we may be able to imagine a turkey dinner. But try something more complicated; try to ask questions, to look for meaning: without words we don’t get very far. If we limit and distort language, we limit and distort personality. (149)
When we reduce our political discussion to who’s red and who’s blue, when our primary word for describing any foreigner we don’t understand is terrorist, when we live in such a sound bite culture that most every news story headline is almost a brand name by the time it is repeated verbatim by most every news outlet, we are left without the depth or nuance it takes to be human to and with one another. The tenor of the recent debates has been Orwellian: “Two legs bad, four legs good.” And, as the pigs in Animal Farm knew, if you get the sheep to shout the slogans loud enough you can control the discourse and rob everyone of their freedom.

Our state, North Carolina, is a good example.

In May, we are voting on a constitutional amendment that, when allowed to be stated in the limited vocabulary of our limited legislature, is designed to “defend marriage” by banning equal marriage. Those who are promoting the amendment have reduced the discussion to the single dimension Berger described, fomenting fear of gays and lesbians as if they were dead set on destroying society. What they don’t talk about the parts of the amendment beyond its obvious discrimination of gays and lesbians that take away rights from any domestic partnership – those who share in adoption, or share their lives at all. They won’t even have legal standing to visit each other in the hospital. Our draconian politicians promoting the amendment don’t do much more than shout “Straight legs good, gay legs bad,” and hope that limiting the discussion will do the trick. They are lying through their teeth.

I have several words for them, trust me, but before I let my anger get the best of me I want to find the words to try and get them or anyone else to see that their reduction the discussion “brings with it as many pains as there are cells in a heart.” They are not doing their jobs, they are not doing God’s job; they are doing damage – deep, hurtful, who-know-how-long-it-will-take-to-undo damage. Their amendment is not about protecting marriage or promoting morality; it is about preserving power. They want to keep things the way they are because that means the straight white men get to keep running things. Gentlemen – and it is a room packed with men, from one straight white guy to another, those days are over. Thank God.

What I love about Jesus’ vocabulary was his words were expansive. He didn’t reduce large ideas into controllable slogans, instead he took simple ideas and blew the roof off. When he told us to “consider the lilies,” he called us to contentment with who we are and put us in touch with our mortality in the same sentence. The lilies bloom and don’t worry about what’s next and they bloom for about three weeks and they die. He ate with sinners and the One Percent, the prostitutes and the Pharisees. He talked about the poor more than he did the powerful. And he welcomed people every chance he got.

Time is too short and this matters too much to let the discussion around the amendment be reduced to one that comes disguised as sanctified and entrenched morality. Amendment One is draconian and destructive. It robs people of rights they already have and promises to inflict deep pain on any number of North Carolina families. We cannot allow ourselves to constitutionalize discrimination. Let’s defeat the amendment and choose better words that invite and include.


Sunday, March 11, 2012

lenten journal: encouragaing words

Durham is the most encouraging place I have ever lived.

This is a city full of people who pull for each other, which is good because it’s also a city full of people with dreams and things they want to see happen. In our town of about a quarter of a million people we had a Food Truck Rodeo this afternoon and there were twenty-nine trucks from around the area, each one a dream on wheels. One of vehicles in the bunch is not motorized: Bike Coffee.

That’s right. Coffee – hand ground, fresh poured, awesome coffee – served from a bike. The purveyors, Areli and Leon, are peddling their way to a dream of opening a brick and mortar shop right here in our neighborhood that will be called Cocoa Cinnamon because along with their coffees they have chocolate, spices, and teas.

More later about tour opportunities for you to come and visit Durham, but first I want to use my space tonight to offer encouragement of my own because I believe in what my neighbors are doing. They have begun a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money they need to open their shop. It will be in this building. It will be the neighborhood coffee shop we have been hoping for. It will be where you will be able to find Ginger writing sermons most any afternoon once it opens and where I stop on my way to work in the mornings. It will be awesome.

Here is how Areli and Leon describe what they do:
So What is Cocoa Cinnamon all about? Here's how we think of it: Craft. Create. Engage. Impact.
CRAFT - excellence in preparation of coffee, espresso, chocolate and tea.
CREATE - a creative nexus of people, places, and ideas; this includes making all sorts of people smile!

ENGAGE - a place for all people to be with family, friends, together or alone in diversity, health and relaxation.
IMPACT - a dynamic community space that strives towards and embodies sustainability, peace, democracy and human flourishing.
They have a great video on their Kickstarter page explaining more about what they want to do. What I hope you will do, if you can, is help them out.

And then come to Durham and I’ll take you to coffee.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

lenten journal: nighthawks

sometime in the night I will be
robbed of an hour of sleep in
order that we might save daylight

the thieves will leave nothing but
the promise the hour will be saved
kept safely and returned in the fall

still -- what if this was the night
I was to sleep deep enough to wake
truly rested and somehow relieved

or I was to dream of a sheltering sky
over that single day at the seaside
with just you and me walking along . . .

or perhaps of a night when I walked
into the Hopper painting before daylight
and took my place behind the counter


Friday, March 09, 2012

lenten journal: what's the story?

A couple of nights ago, I posted what has come to be known as the Kony 2012 Video as my blog post. I learned of it through my eleventh graders. One of them was in a documentary studies class I taught last year in which we watched “Ghosts of Rwanda,” a Frontline piece looking at the Rwandan genocide ten years later and “The Devil Came on Horseback,” which is about the human tragedy in Darfur. They know I grew up in Africa and that I am moved by stories of a continent with which I identify; they were moved by what we saw last year. And so, instead of the work I had planned, we watched Kony. They had lots of questions, not the least of which was, “Why don’t we do something to be a part of this? It seems important.”

I came home and made it my blog post on the basis of the residual sadness and anger I carry because Africa does not really matter to Americans as a general rule (as demonstrated in Rwanda and Darfur and mostly because our media have chosen to make connecting us to Africa less important than most anything) and because of the emotion I shared with my students in class. I had heard of Invisible Children but had not done any research on the organization. I knew of Joseph Kony, but not in any current sense. I was moved. I responded – just as the folks who made the video wanted me to do.

This morning, one of the folks I work with at the computer store posted this graphic 

with the caption,
For all of you who posted the Kony video, rather those about to post the video...
Then, from a number of sources, I began to read insight from folks who had also been moved by the video but who didn’t allow their emotion to control their first move. They asked good questions and looked beyond the well crafted call to immediate and specific action. Some of the questions were about the organization, some were about the veracity of the information, some were about the perspective from which the story was being told, some were about the choice of solution being offered. I offer three perspectives that are speaking to me today, all of whom are seeking to do more than criticize or cast suspicion and all of whom have personal ties to Africa.

I was pulled, in particular, by this video of a Ugandan woman who challenged those who would tell a story that is not their own:

Ethan Zuckerman writes at “My Heart’s in Accra":
I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?
As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response.
That’s a story worth watching.
Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay writes,
Most people don’t want to feel like they are being rescued. That can be humiliating. So… what do we do with a movement that does not work toward dignity?
Do we simply applaud it for the marketing genius that it is? Do we buy into it and support the cause even if it turns out to be misguided or misinformed because we don’t want to be the poop in the punch bowl?
In closing, I do applaud the western world for looking at this situation in the world. It is far beyond our backyards and it does not encroach on our drive into work, or our gaming, or general lives… We have shown in our immediacy that we do have pulses and hearts. We have shown that our reflex toward justice is still strong. What we should do is match our passion for justice with wisdom and humility. It was Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, who told me, “ Justice without mercy is tyranny.”
Thank Invisible Children for bringing this issue into the public conscience. Please take a breath and walk humbly into the realm of action.
How do we keep the work from hurting more than helping? These are the questions that we must ask. These are the questions that I wish Invisible Children was asking before they launched this campaign to coincide with our election year. It is a good marketing idea. It just isn’t a great and dignifying form of action.
Loving kindness, doing justice, and walking humbly with our God calls for us to live in the creative tension between immediate response and thoughtful action; it also calls us to learn how to let listening be our primary posture. (You realize, I hope, I’m talking mostly to myself here.) I’ve written recently about wondering what Jesus would ask; I wonder, in this case, if the questions might include
Who is telling the story? and
To whom does the story belong?
Then I can ask -- ask them and ask God, “What is my role in their story?” and become a part of the cast.


Thursday, March 08, 2012

lenten journal: conversation

“The difference between
joy and despair,” she said,
“has little to do with
circumstances and
everything to do with
what you choose to see.”

“You’re making that up,”
he replied.

She took his face
between her hands
and stared into his eyes
as if they held galaxies.
“I love you,” she said,
“with all of my heart.”

And he believed her.


Wednesday, March 07, 2012

lenten journal: kony 2012

I don't want you to read today. Watch instead. Then do something: Kony 2012.


Tuesday, March 06, 2012

lenten journal: what's new?

Twice, today, I got to feel like a teacher.

My school is understaffed, which means I teach a couple of courses out of my area. OK, out of the six classes I teach (out of six periods of the day), four of them are not English. My schedule, this term, looks like this:

Period One: English I and II
Period Two: European History
Period Three: Music Appreciation and Expression
Period Four: Government and Economics
Period Five: Financial Literacy
Period Six: English III
I will pause until the laughter over my teaching economics and financial literacy has had time to subside. I will also say it’s exhausting and I have to be intentional about letting my life and my job be about something other than feeling tired.

The music class is a euphemism. I have taught an eighth grade elective all year that began as media literacy and then changed to film studies last term. When we started talking about a music class, I offered to teach the history of rock and roll and the academic dean came up with the name. The class is my largest – ten kids – and my most energetic. We’ve had a good year so far and I’ve had a blast introducing them to songs, singers, and songwriters they didn’t know about. Last week we finished up their presentations on the British Invasion and then watched “A Hard Day’s Night” as we talked about the Beatles (we’re not done with them just yet); this week we moved on to Bob Dylan.

I wanted them to encounter the songs this time, where their work thus far has focused on personalities, so I went through Dylan’s catalog and tried to pick out songs that would match the kids. The ten I chose were:
Blowin' in the Wind
Chimes of Freedom
Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)
Gotta Serve Somebody
Knocking on Heaven's Door
Make You Feel My Love
Like a Rolling Stone
Mr. Tambourine Man
The Times They Are A-Changin'.
Their instructions are to listen to the song and read the words until they can begin to respond to it, look up what others have said and felt about it, find out who has covered it, and then write an essay about the song and create some sort of art project. I created a web page where they could find links to the song and the lyrics. The computer lab has never been as quiet as it was as they listened through their headphones and dug into their songs. At lunch, an hour or so later, one of the boys who is working with “Mr. Tambourine Man,” made a point to come by my room and say,

“Mr. B-C, this guy is a poetic genius.” I smiled and he continued. “He repeats lines, but he changes a word or two so it means something different. It’s really good.”

Bob Dylan was old before this kid was even born. His parents weren’t alive when “Mr. Tambourine Man” was first released and yet today the song was new – to him. Though the song is bumping up on being sixty years old, it was new in his ears:
hey, mister tambourine man play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to . . .
I have a student who deals with mild autism and is very concrete. He is a diligent and bright young man who works his butt off in class. He loves the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing an assignment and presents it to me with almost an air of formality: “Mr. B-C, may I give this to you now?” His class, which is actually during first period, had a vocabulary quiz. Since they finish at different paces, I gave them an assignment related to To Kill a Mockingbird, which we are reading right now, and it listed the characters and asked the students to describe the ways in which each one felt trapped and how they responded to that feeling. The final section asked the students to write about a time they felt trapped in their lives and describe what they did to handle it. During sixth period, when the boy has a study hall, he finished the work and brought it in to me with the usual ritual, “Mr. B-C, may I give this to you?” Then he paused and said, “I put a lot of emotion into that essay.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you.”

There is nothing new under the sun, said the writer of Ecclesiastes. Yes, and life is filled with discoveries of stuff that’s new to us. I’ve read Mockingbird twenty times if I’ve read it once. I learned how to play “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1970 and it’s far too easy for me to agree “the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming.” But it’s not about me. They don’t know what I know, which means it’s yet to be discovered. Scout is still dressed like a ham and Dylan can almost carry a tune. The coolest thing is, thanks to them, I get to see with new eyes as well. What a gift.
hey, mister tambourine man, play a song for me
in the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you

Monday, March 05, 2012

lenten journal: antonyms

One of the joys of teaching English is vocabulary study. Every week or two, I turn the page to a new list of words for my students – expunge, bequeath, cogent, supercilious – and then put them through the paces of the exercises that come in their books hoping that a few of the words take hold somehow. I’m caught between knowing that a random list of words apropos of hardly anything is not much of a way to learn new words and knowing that the structure, however arbitrary, does help. And so we soldier on through the definitions, the completion of sentences, the synonyms, and the antonyms. When we start talking about what a word means, we learn from what we consider its opposite. If I say the opposite of high is low, I offer one meaning. If I say the opposite of high is sober, well, I mean something quite different.

We talked about opposites on Sunday morning in our Bible class. I am helping to lead a class that is using Walter Brueggemann’s great book, The Bible Makes Sense, to help us get a better handle on our scripture. Many in our class are not familiar with much of the Bible and the class has been interesting and inspiring. We talked about opposites as we looked at the stories of the manna falling to feed the Israelites and Jesus using the little boy’s lunch of loaves and fishes to feed a whole hillside of folks. Somehow in the discussion we got to opposites. I don’t remember how exactly, but I do remember saying the opposite of love was not hate. Hate is similar to love in that it takes a lot of energy. When you hate someone, they matter to you. The true opposite of love is apathy. You just don’t care, or even more you don’t even notice. In the judgment scene in Matthew 25, Jesus admonishes those gathered by saying, “I was hungry and you didn’t feed me. I was in prison and you didn’t come to visit . . . “ and the people responded, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or in prison?”

And Jesus replied, “Exactly.”

Another mistaken antonym shows up when we come to faith. I think the popular answer is often doubt, but I think Frederick Buechner had the right idea when he said doubt was “the ants in the pants of faith.” Then again, faith is a hard word in English because we’ve made a noun out of something that is really a verb. Faith is about trust – wholehearted, chips-all-in-before-we-get-to-the-casino (thanks for that one, Jules) trust. When the stakes are that high, doubt rides sidesaddle. The opposite of faith – of trust is fear because it propels us to run and hide rather than to leap and know that love will catch us.

The two Bible stories centered around bread and brought us to a discussion of Communion, which we share on the first Sunday of every month. We talked about what the Bread meant and what metaphors moved us at the Table. As our discussion continued, I remembered one more pair of antonyms that I have carried for a long time -- thanks to an old friend, Kenny – and mentioned in this blog on more than one occasion, I’m sure. Jesus’ command as he passed the bread was to eat and remember. Who knows how many times I have heard the call to take the meal seriously so that I might not forget what God has done in Christ. And that’s a good word. But, perhaps, the opposite of remember is not forget.

Jesus said, “This is my body,” and then Paul said we, the people of God, are the Body of Christ, the incarnation of love in the world. When we remember Jesus, we put the Body back together again. Re-member, as in the opposite of dismember. The centrifugal force of life pulls us apart day by day and flings us to the edges. When we take and eat together, when we gather in close and trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God no matter how painful life is we re-member Jesus: we put the Body of Christ back together again in love so true that it casts out fear.


Sunday, March 04, 2012

lenten journal: when it don't come easy

Our former foster daughter came to Durham this weekend because she is hurting and needed to be cared for. The only words I can find tonight belong to Patty Griffin and her song, “When It Don’t Come Easy” because it is such a tangible description of what love is: “if you break down, I’ll drive out and find you.” I know it is not the first time I’ve mentioned this song, but tonight it’s time to sing it again.

red lights are flashing on the highway
I wonder if we're gonna ever get home
I wonder if we're gonna ever get home tonight
everywhere the waters getting rough
your best intentions may not be enough
I wonder if we're gonna ever get home tonight
but if you break down
I'll drive out and find you
if you forget my love
I'll try to remind you
and stay by you when it don't come easy
I don't know nothing except change will come
year after year what we do is undone
time keeps moving from a crawl to a run
I wonder if we're gonna ever get home
you're out there walking down a highway
znd all of the signs got blown away
sometimes you wonder if you're walking in the wrong direction
but if you break down
I'll drive out and find you
if you forget my love
I'll try to remind you
and stay by you when it don't come easy
so many things that I had before
that don't matter to me now
tonight I cry for the love that I've lost
and the love I've never found
when the last bird falls
and the last siren sounds
someone will say what's been said before
some love we were looking for
but if you break down
I'll drive out and find you
if you forget my love
I'll try to remind you
and stay by you when it don't come easy


Saturday, March 03, 2012

lenten journal: chapter

saturday night at ben and jerry’s
they were the only ones in the place
beside the two behind the counter
they could be identified by
the flavors they had ordered:
peanut and banana greek yogurt
new york super fudge chunk
chocolate with sprinkles
jimmy fallon’s late night snack
but that doesn’t tell the whole story
there’s also the flavor of pain
one lost her husband not long ago
another broke up with her girlfriend
one’s longtime friend had a stroke
the last one’s job is tentative
but that doesn’t tell the whole story
which is ok by me because I was
talking about this particular night
full of rain and fluorescent lights
when the ice cream was stronger
than the pain – for a little while


Friday, March 02, 2012

lenten journal: the question is . . .

My little school is imploding.

I have much the same feeling as I did when I worked in my first restaurant which was a small tea house owned by a woman who had always wanted to own a restaurant, so she found an empty space, took out a second mortgage, spent a lot of money, and lasted six months because she didn’t really know what she had gotten herself into. Though my school has been here six years, it is still trying to find its identity, which has proven to be quite illusive leaving us with predominant daily question of “How do we survive?” which is not a question that fosters growth and learning.

Our foxhole perspective sent me back to something I read in Art and Fear a few days ago.

It is an article of faith, among artists and scientists alike, that at some deep level their disciplines share a common ground. What science bears witness to experimentally, art has always known intuitively – that there is an innate rightness to the recurring forms in nature.
Science advances at the rate that technology provides tools of greater precision, while art advances at the pace that evolution provides minds with greater insight – a pace that is, for better or for worse, glacially slow. . . . [a]nd while a hundred civilizations have prospered (sometimes for centuries) without computers or windmills or even the wheel, none have survived even a few generations without art.
[I]n art as well as in science the answers you get depend upon the questions you ask. (104)
To give some context to the passage, the authors weren’t out to foster a divide between science and art as much as they were using the distinction to say some things about the way art tells the truth by contrasting with how science tells the truth. More about that in a bit. First, I want to go back to the statement in the last sentence: the answers you get depend on the questions you ask.

During one of my first units of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), where I worked as a hospital chaplain, I read an article that talked about how we could help our patients cope with what was going on by helping them to ask better questions. Those who faced difficult diagnoses, for instance, might find more hope in turning from “Why did God let this happen?” to “What will this mean for my life?” The first ends up in blaming or patronization; the second offers room for discovery and growth.

When I read the line about the quality of our questions, I made a note in the margin: what would Jesus ask?

My mind jumped back to the healing stories in the gospels. On the one hand, the disciples saw a blind man sitting at the gate and asked, “Who sinned that this man should be born blind?” On the other hand – and thank God for other hands – Jesus met the man at the pool who had been there for years and years waiting for his chance and asked, “Do you want to get well?”

The answers we get are only as good as our questions.

Instead of asking how we are going to survive or what else could go wrong, I keep asking for the grace to remember that the kids in the building need more from me than fear, bitterness, or resignation. They need me to act like this matters so they can do likewise. They need me to ask questions that call us together and help us figure out how to make meaning of these days, regardless of how much it feels like I’m teaching at Titanic High. I must, therefore, go back and pick up art as a metaphor for life and faith and then reread the following passage:
There is a moment for each artist in which particular truth can be found, and if it is not found then, it will never be. No one else will ever be in a position to write Hamlet. This is pretty good evidence that the meaning of the world is made and not found. Our understanding of the world changed when those words were written, and we can’t go back . . . any more than Shakespeare could. . . . The world thus altered becomes a different world, with our alterations being part of it. (106)
One of our teachers left this week because he got an offer that he was right to take. We had a goodbye party for him on Wednesday. He had been here for almost three years teaching in the middle school, so the eighth graders were only in sixth grade when he arrived. He asked a great deal of himself and the kids and he got great answers from all concerned. At the party, one eighth grade boy said, “You’re the greatest teacher I’ve ever had because you helped me learn to be myself.” That teacher changed the world for the boy and helped him make meaning of the cultural hell we call middle school, which ranks right up there with writing Hamlet.

In a school on its last legs, in a culture built on greed, in a political climate of rage and cynicism, in a world that is broken and hurt, what would Jesus ask?

What will I ask? And then, how will I answer?


Thursday, March 01, 2012

lenten journal: second sleep

This is the first day this week I have not had to go to the computer store to work a shift after my day at school. This is also the morning I got up earlier than usual (4:30) to take Ginger to the airport to go help out a friend who recently suffered a minor stroke. I stopped at Fullsteam on my way home to meet a couple of friends, got to the house, greeted Rachel and fed puppies, and then came upstairs and fell asleep. Ran out of gas on the couch, surrounded by Schnauzers, which is a great way to be reminded you are loved.

I was reading something online the other day about people’s sleep habits before electricity and how they would often have a “first sleep” from dark until about ten or so, wake up and do something for a couple of hours, and then go back to sleep for the rest of the night. The idea of eight hours at once is a relatively new one. OK, those of you who know me also know eight hours has never been a part of my pattern; six is the basic aim. I realized, as I read, that I had never thought about sleep patterns being different in other times. That just seemed like something that had always been. The truth is there is very little of our lives, whether big or small details, that has always been, and we live in a time when that change feels as though it is accelerating.

In the midst of that change, I am grateful for some of the staples in my life: a wife with a big heart who takes care of her friends, friends of my own on a sunny afternoon, and Schnauzers who are as loving as they are demanding.

And now for my second sleep.