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.

Peace,
Milton

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.

Peace,
Milton

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.

Peace,
Milton

Thursday, April 05, 2012

lenten journal: opening day

Ginger, Rachel, and I got up early to catch a flight from Love Field in Dallas back to Durham. The flight was fine, though the route required of us to stop in Austin and Nashville on the way. And all we did was stop. We never got off the plane. By the time we got to the house, it was around four o’clock and I had time to turn on the Opening Day game between the Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers. I started watching in the top of the ninth as the Sox came back from a 2-0 deficit to tie the game and raise my hopes. They went on to lose it in the bottom of the inning. I went on upstairs to change clothes and get ready for our Maundy Thursday service at church.

The Lenten road to Easter and Opening Day are intertwined rites of spring for baseball fans. Some years ago when I was serving as Associate Pastor of First Congregational Church of Hanover, Massachusetts we were beginning our morning worship on a Sunday that happened to mark the Red Sox opener when one of the men stood up with the hymnal open and said, “Here are the words we need for today” –

time like an ever rolling stream
bears all its sons away
they fly forgotten as a dream
dies at the opening day
As one who finds deep meaning in the ritual of Communion as well as the game of baseball, I was grateful to also find a poem (poetry being the third member of my personal trinity, I suppose) that resonated.
Baseball
by Gail Mazur
(for John Limon)
The game of baseball is not a metaphor
and I know it’s not really life.
The chalky green diamond, the lovely
dusty brown lanes I see from airplanes
multiplying around the cities
are only neat playing fields.
Their structure is not the frame
of history carved out of forest,
that is not what I see on my ascent.
And down in the stadium,
the veteran catcher guiding the young
pitcher through the innings, the line
of concentration between them,
that delicate filament is not
like the way you are helping me,
only it reminds me when I strain
for analogies, the way a rookie strains
for perfection, and the veteran,
in his wisdom, seems to promise it,
it glows from his upheld glove,
and the man in front of me
in the grandstand, drinking banana
daiquiris from a thermos,
continuing through a whole dinner
to the aromatic cigar even as our team
is shut out, nearly hitless, he is
not like the farmer that Auden speaks
of in Breughel’s Icarus,
or the four inevitable woman-hating
drunkards, yelling, hugging
each other and moving up and down
continuously for more beer
and the young wife trying to understand
what a full count could be
to please her husband happy in
his old dreams, or the little boy
in the Yankees cap already nodding
off to sleep against his father,
program and popcorn memories
sliding into the future,
and the old woman from Lincoln, Maine,
screaming at the Yankee slugger
with wounded knees to break his leg
this is not a microcosm,
not even a slice of life
and the terrible slumps,
when the greatest hitter mysteriously
goes hitless for weeks, or
the pitcher’s stuff is all junk
who threw like a magician all last month,
or the days when our guys look
like Sennett cops, slipping, bumping
each other, then suddenly, the play
that wasn’t humanly possible, the Kid
we know isn’t ready for the big leagues,
leaps into the air to catch a ball
that should have gone downtown,
and coming off the field is hugged
and bottom-slapped by the sudden
sorcerers, the winning team
the question of what makes a man
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t
like the bad luck that hounds us,
and his frustration in the games
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves
the ball park is an artifact,
manicured, safe, “scene in an Easter egg”,
and the order of the ball game,
the firm structure with the mystery
of accidents always contained,
not the wild field we wander in,
where I’m trying to recite the rules,
to repeat the statistics of the game,
and the wind keeps carrying my words away
One thing can be said of both baseball and faith: if you make an error you can still come home.

Play ball. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: mammoth sight

My parents took us to the Waco Mammoth Site this afternoon. Some years ago, two teenagers stumbled upon some bones in a dry creek bed which led to the discovery of a “nursery herd” (meaning females and babies) of nineteen mammoths that had all died together in a flood during the Ice Age in Texas (in which Texas was still not very cold). Excavations at the site have found five layers of flood victims over thousands of years, each one stacked on top of the next. Along with the mammoth bones, they have found evidence of giant bears, armadillos, and even a camel. I found myself humming a song I wrote with my friend Billy for a UBC youth retreat. The lyric said

like dinosaur tracks down at glenrose
everyone’s leaving a trace
life is a hand’s on adventure
what marks will I leave when I’m gone from this place
Glenrose is not so far away from Waco and is home to an excavation that uncovered dinosaur bones. (I guess you’d already figured that out.) The chorus of the song said:
I have a fingerprint
it’s like no other one
I leave my fingerprint on this world
God has a fingerprint
it is a mark of love
God leaves that fingerprint
all over me and this world
I have been fascinated by our finitude for as long as I can remember. We are only passing through, as far as our time on this planet goes. Not even the mammoths could amount to much more than the dust between the layers of bones left behind when the creek dried up. None of us gets remembered forever. And – not but – and we leave our mark, our fingerprints in the dust. It matters that we are here not because of anything other than we are here.

Peace,
Milton

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

lenten journal: handle with care

Ginger and I spent most of the day today at my parents’ house going through things and identifying stuff we want as they prepare to move from their house where they have lived for thirteen years, to a much smaller apartment. The journey through boxes, shelves, cabinets, and closets was a roller coaster of discovery and memory, and a chance to tell stories. One of the surprises was this old blue suitcase, which I found in the closet under the stairs and remember using when I was very young; inside were quilts my dad’s grandmother made out of his mother’s dresses. His mother died soon after he was born.

And that was just one of the surprises.

pokea kwa utaratibu
(handle with care)

in the closet under
the stairs of your heart
is an old blue suitcase
even though you are
in the middle of moving
the idea of more baggage
is never appealing
still you set it down
snap the silver locks
and lift the lid
to find hand stitched
quilts made of dresses
your grandmother
might have worn
to visit had you ever
had the chance to meet
you take the blanket
out of the baggage
and wrap it around
your shoulders
pulling it up over
your nose to smell
for even a trace of
what might have been
or what is to come
and then you fold it
and put it back
close the suitcase
and try to prepare
for the next journey
to say goodbye
Peace,
Milton

Monday, April 02, 2012

lenten journal: glitches and grace

We have made a quick trip to visit my parents—we being Rachel, Ginger, and me – and I say to visit my parents rather than going to Texas because we are spending the sixty-four hours we are here in the Lone Star State with them. The trip was not precipitated by an emergency. It had just been too long since we’ve been here. The trip is short because these were the days we had to get here. It is difficult to be here and not cast a wider net of friendship.

Our day started this morning about four when we got up to catch a flight that took us from Raleigh-Durham to Orlando to San Antonio to Dallas. Sunday morning, I dutifully set an alarm clock to get up at six so I could save a place in the boarding line. Our printer was ailing, so I just checked in, knowing I could pick up the passes at Southwest when we got to the airport. When the Skycap handed me the passes they were in the last boarding group. She knew nothing of my reservation. Once we got through security, I went to the customer service desk to get it straightened out. I told my story and the woman behind the counter answered, “I have no record of any activity on the account since you purchased the tickets.”

I bristled. “I feel like you’re calling me a liar,” I said and we both kind of squared off, though neither of us lost our composure or sense of tact. She was intractable, other than offering to get her supervisor. I took her up on it and told my story once more. I got the same response. It wasn’t any more helpful than the follow up question: “What would you like me to do?”

In the frustration of the moment, I couldn’t answer well. We got in line and got on the plane. Though I was hardly awake, I began writing to release the tension I was feeling. I made notes for a letter to Southwest customer service to let them know it was the first time I had ever had dealings with them where it left me feeling like they were no different from any other airline. I was disappointed, confused, and, well, put out. Then I wrote in my notes:

I would like to answer your question now. What I wanted you to do was admit your computer had made a mistake. I wanted you to ally with me, to help me feel like you were on my side rather than make it feel like it was my fault. Maybe you were too worried about liability so you spit back rehearsed corporate speak. Maybe someone tries to pull this stunt everyday and I’m na├»ve to think telling the truth is enough. But what I wanted was for you to be on my side.
I relaxed and fell asleep. I may have even dreamed about sending the email and getting a response. I will have to push myself to really send it because I am not the least bit hopeful when it comes to expecting big companies to act with any humanity, regardless of how they are viewed by the Supreme Court. I kept telling myself I needed to send it because that’s the only way things do get changed, but I get caught in a sort of quixotic resignation that expects little from going through such motions.

We were sitting at lunch in San Antonio when Rachel said she thought she heard our name called over the intercom. Ginger went to check it out at the gate and came back with a smile and a handful of papers. The gate agent told her the people at RDU kept trying to figure out what had happened after we left. They went back through their records and found the glitch that had not only messed up our check-in but had also charged us for the trip three times over, leaving us with bad boarding passes and a bunch of debt. They had gone through and cancelled the redundant charges, made sure the real reservation had not been cancelled in the process, and gotten everything ready for a refund. All I had to do was call Customer Service.

Which I did and they straightened it all out.

The obvious thing to say here is, “Thank you, Southwest” because they turned out to be different than the other guys and they did a great thing. Learning to be an ally on the front side of the issue still needs to be part of their education, and I am grateful for their tenacity. The more obvious thing to say to myself is remember to listen. I know how I felt this morning; I don’t know how the two women on the other side of the counter were. They both seemed defensive and terse. Who knows how much of that belonged to our interaction and how much to someone else. Since I managed to not lose my cool I also managed to be the beneficiary of their continued work on my behalf, even when they knew they would probably never see me again. They managed to make me hopeful when I saw little hope.

I am grateful.

Peace,
Milton

Sunday, April 01, 2012

lenten journal: april fool

the prank pressed
deepest in my memory
is my frantic father
wrecking our breakfast
with warnings of an
elephant stampede

(it helped that we lived
in Africa at the time)

I could picture the
pachyderms pounding
their way to Lusaka
and was beginning
to feel the tremble
in the floor when

he smiled with his eyes
followed by a full-fledged
laugh that let the
elephants evaporate
into the vapor of
myth and memory

that april fool’s day
was the closest
they ever got to town
I have listened every
year since, thankful
my dad keeps laughing

Peace,
Milton