Wednesday, August 29, 2012

don't write alone

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

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

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

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

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

There is no joy in eating alone.

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

Saying all those words is easier than incarnating them.

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

It seems you can’t really dream alone either.

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

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

And then invite me over for dinner.


Monday, August 20, 2012

summer rain

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

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


Sunday, August 19, 2012

the grammar of togetherness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings

We are running out of the glass rooms

With our mouths full of food to look at the sky

And say thank you

We are standing by the water looking out

In different directions

Back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging

After funerals we are saying thank you

After the news of the dead

Whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

In a culture up to its chin in shame

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

Over telephones we are saying thank you

In doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators

Remembering wars and the police at the back door

And the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

In the banks that use us we are saying thank you

With the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable

Unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

With the animals dying around us

Our lost feelings we are saying thank you

With the forests falling faster than the minutes

Of our lives we are saying thank you

With the words going out like cells of a brain

With the cities growing over us like the earth

We are saying thank you faster and faster

With nobody listening we are saying thank you

We are saying thank you and waving

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

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


Monday, August 13, 2012


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

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

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

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


Friday, August 10, 2012

it's a miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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