Thursday, August 31, 2006

rubber road to nowhere

Today marks a week since I joined the gym.

When it comes to exercise, I can think of at least fourteen other things I would rather do than walk or run or do sit-ups. But I am about three and a half months away from my completing my fiftieth year on the planet and I would rather weigh four times my age on my birthday than weigh five times my age, which is where I am now. Years ago, when I was in seminary, I went waterskiing with my roommate Burt and his family. His granddad was driving the boat and he almost drowned me because the motor wasn’t big enough to get me out of the water. He turned to Burt and said, “He’s a big ol’ boy!”

I still am.

I went to the gym this morning and spent about forty-five minutes on the treadmill and stationary bicycle, which is good for me. I punched the “cardio” button on the treadmill so it made sure my heart rate was where it needed to be. To keep from fixating on the digital clock telling me how much longer I had to go, I watched the television screen in front of me (and I thought about the kids in the grocery carts). One of the side effects of going to the gym is I am going to be more conversant about sports than I have been in years. The two viewing choices I had were ESPN and a soap opera. I opted for Sports Center and am on my way to being semi-informed about any number of things I don’t find particularly interesting or know much about.

One of the things they have talked about incessantly is Fantasy Football. Though I’ve heard people talk about it enough to know lots of people play and it has something to do with picking teams, I can’t say I understand it. (And please don’t feel like you need to explain it to me; I’m good.) Twice this week I’ve heard a commentator articulate one of his twenty-five rules for Fantasy Football. Number 18 was “Mike Shanahan hates you” and Number 19 was “The preseason means nothing.” Neither comment was particularly helpful to me.

Last week at work, it was slow and I walked around to the pub to talk to the bartender for a bit. He was watching something called the World Sports Stacking Championship on ESPN. We were both intrigued as we watched kids – I mean ten and eleven year olds – stack cups faster than, well; watch the video of the world champion. (The announcer is annoying, but hang in there.) Now these are kids who are doing more than watching TV in the grocery store. Chris and I talked about the kind of concentration, determination, and focus it took for these kids to get to where they could stack the cups as fast as they did. My guess is it’s pretty good developmentally for them as well.

When I see stuff like that, my mind gravitates to thinking about the kind of practice involved. It took hours and hours for Emily to get where she could stack those cups in less than eight seconds. Mastering the skills can’t be much more interesting than walking on a rubber road to nowhere for thirty minutes. I just need a taste of her determination to walk until the pounds starting falling off. And besides, if I keep practicing, maybe I’ll be as good as these guys.

Check out the video below.

OK Go, Dancing on Treadmills


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

shopping carts and skinned knees

Wednesday is my early release day at work, which means I got to listen to All Things Considered on the way home rather than listening to the Red Sox lose another game on their West Coast slide. They were just beginning a story on Grocery Cart TV. Seriously. Wal Mart (of course) and a couple of other supermarket chains are testing grocery carts with TV’s built in so the kids won’t drive you nuts while you shop. One of the people who commented said she was afraid this was another way we were teaching the younger generation that life happens on a screen rather than by actual experience.

Before long we are going to be a nation of people like Chance, the gardener in Being There: “I like to watch.”

Quick disclaimer: I have no children of my own. I’ve seen parents in the grocery store try to shop while Jeffy or Mikey or Buffy tries to pull down every box of Pop Tarts or wants an explanation about every can on the vegetable aisle. I see their pain. I can also see the attraction of a screen that will numb them into submission while you grab the Hamburger Helper, though I think the woman who worries about our creating a nation of watchers is probably right. But that’s not my point.

I came home to find a great comment from Suzanne about yesterday’s post on bananas which began, “I hear what you're saying, Milton. But, at the same time, I'm wistful about times when I could eat without fear.” Put that together with the grocery carts and here’s my point: I’m glad I got to be a kid when I did because I got to grow up without much fear.

  • I never knew anyone with a peanut allergy.
  • I never wore a bike helmet.
  • I hitchhiked in high school (sure, it was in Nairobi, but still --).
  • I played with other kids without having to have a play date.
  • I climbed trees, dug holes, built forts, and never worried much about being safe.
  • I thought skinned knees were part of growing up.
My list is not intended to wax nostalgic or to trivialize the danger that truly exists, though I’m guessing George W. didn’t wear a bike helmet either. (I’m just saying . . .) I do think it’s harder to be a kid because the world is more afraid. Fear changes us and causes us to crave what is safe and familiar. We become too easily accustomed to taking the path of least resistance; we learn not to ask too many questions. We end up being watchers rather than experiencers. (I think I made up a new word.)

In a somewhat related tangent, what just popped into my mind is the scene with Butch and Sundance at the top of the cliff looking down at the river. Sundance flinches before he jumps and says he can’t swim. “Can’t swim?” says Butch. “Hell, the fall will kill you.”

I taught English is a wonderful suburban high school that worked hard to support the kids in every way we could. The guidance counselors were amazing. Teachers stayed late so kids could get extra help. We bent over backwards to help them succeed. The one thing we didn’t do was help them learn how to fail and live through it. I had semester after semester when not one of my one hundred and twenty-five students failed. Our grading system was the bike helmet that kept them from feeling the full brunt of the fall, and kept them from learning that they could live through the pain and learn from it. One bad grade wasn’t going to kill them. We should have told them when the stakes were low; I’m guessing they have had to learn the lesson when people were playing for keeps.

The woman who critiqued the TV carts talked about the grocery store as opportunity for conversation and exploration, as a chance to engage and interact with your kid as you shop. Yes, they do get bored before the shopping is over, and they get to learn – or begin to learn – that life isn’t about keeping them comfortable or out of the way.

Spookyrach had a great post this week about starting a new church that made me laugh out loud and want to join right now. “Church leaders,” she said, “will wear robes and sometimes capes,” which reminded me of my second-favorite Guy Clark song, “The Cape,” that is an appropriate way to end my meanderings.
Eight years old with flour sack cape
Tied all around his neck

He climbed up on the garage

Figurin’ what the heck

He screwed his courage up so tight

The whole thing come unwound

He got a runnin’ start and bless his heart

He headed for the ground

He’s one of those who knows that life

Is just a leap of faith

Spread your arms and hold you breath

Always trust your cape

All grown up with a flour sack cape

Tied all around his dream

He’s full of piss and vinegar

He’s bustin’ at the seams

He licked his finger and checked the wind

It’s gonna be do or die

He wasn’t scared of nothin’, boys

He was pretty sure he could fly

He’s one of those who knows that life

Is just a leap of faith

Spread your arms and hold you breath

Always trust your cape

Old and grey with a flour sack cape

Tied all around his head

He’s still jumpin’ off the garage

And will be till he’s dead

All these years the people said

He’s actin’ like a kid

He did not know he could not fly

So he did

He’s one of those who knows that life

Is just a leap of faith

Spread your arms and hold you breath

Always trust your cape
Maybe – just maybe – the fall doesn’t kill us.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

going bananas

I came up to write this evening without much on my mind. Today has been another cool, rainy, and gray day (in August!) and I felt on the inside much like the weather felt on the inside. So I began clicking on some of the news links in the sidebar to see if I could find a story that could pull a response out of me. What I learned is The Nation has just published a food issue and one of the articles by Alice Waters is called “Slow Food Nation.” Here’s how she begins:

It turns out that Jean Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin was right in 1825 when he wrote in his magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste, that "the destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed." If you think this aphorism exaggerates the importance of food, consider that today almost 4 billion people worldwide depend on the agricultural sector for their livelihood. Food is destiny, all right; every decision we make about food has personal and global repercussions. By now it is generally conceded that the food we eat could actually be making us sick, but we still haven't acknowledged the full consequences--environmental, political, cultural, social and ethical--of our national diet.
I picked up some bananas in the supermarket today because I’m supposed to eat a banana everyday to accompany my high blood pressure medicine. (I sometimes wonder if instructions like that are really doctors’ cute little practical jokes – “tell him to stand on one leg when he takes the pill and then sing the chorus of “Hit Me, Baby, One More Time.”) Bananas are not grown anywhere in the United States. Most of our bananas come from Haiti, I believe. I picked up the almost ripe fruit and checked the price: sixty-nine cents a pound. I tried to figure out any way I could assume, with the cost of shipping and handling, that anyone who picked those bananas could have been paid a living wage. Not a chance. I couldn’t sell the tomatoes out of my garden to my next-door neighbor for sixty-nine cents and make a profit. Someone’s getting screwed so I can eat bananas. When I look at Haiti, I can see how the destiny of nations depends on how they are fed: they are starving and I’m not.

They are also the ones paying the true cost of the banana, not me.

Waters concludes her article by saying:
The pleasures of the table also beget responsibilities--to one another, to the animals we eat, to the land and to the people who work it. It follows that food that is healthy in every way will cost us more, in time and money, than we pay now. But when we have learned what the real costs of food are, and relearned the real rewards of eating, we will have laid a foundation for not just a healthier food system but a healthier twenty-first-century democracy.
On average, the food we eat as Americans travels over two thousand miles before it reaches our tables. We no longer understand that fruits and vegetables have a growing season; we just have it shipped from the other side of the world and expect to pay about the same as we do for what is grown closer to home. Until about eighty years ago, Americans didn’t even know what bananas were. Once American companies figured out there was money to be made in buying up the farms of Haiti and commercially growing bananas, they taught us to eat and to want what should be a treat we get to have when we visit the Caribbean.

Man, I had no idea I was going to end up ranting about bananas. But Waters’ caution about every decision we make about food having personal and global repercussions hits close to home. There has to be another source of potassium that doesn’t require someone else to pay the price for my health.


back from black

Thanks for the feedback. I didn't see the kindler, gentler version of this template when I was switching things around. Hope this makes things a little easier on the eyes.


Monday, August 28, 2006

some dreams

Ginger and I spent the afternoon at the Marshfield Fair yesterday.

For over a hundred and fifty years, Marshfield has been the town on the South Shore that hosts a fair with everything from lambs to lionhead bunnies and ferris wheels to fried dough. Something about the fair makes me hungry. My afternoon could easily have been mapped by the food booths we visited: corn dog, fried dough, chocolate-peanut butter fudge, and a chocolate shake. We walked through the buildings that housed all the animals, watched a spinning demonstration by one of the kids I know through the church at Hanover, listened to some blues at the bandstand, and strolled among the rides and the barkers trying to convince us that “everyone wins a prize.”

As we passed the shooting gallery, where you had to fire a BB gun and completely erase the red star in the middle of the white card to win, the barker was proudly proclaiming he had a big winner. The prize he was awarding caught me as a bit of a paradox: it was a giant stuffed seal.

The rides every year are provided by something called Fiesta Shows. I don’t know much more about them other than what I found on their website and what I saw at the fair. Most of the rides have to do with strapping you in and flinging you in a circle either sideways or up and down. Each ride is blaring a different heavy metal anthem and is staffed by someone who looks as though they stepped out of a Flannery O’Connor short story or a Lifetime movie. As we walked and watched, Ginger said, “I wonder what it’s like to be a carney.”

Me, too.

I wouldn’t want to live their lives, and there’s an attraction – the best adjective I can come up with to describe it is literary – they are the stuff good stories are made of. Part of the pull, I suppose, is the hint of danger that comes from a life that seems so foreign. These are folks who travel from town to town, always at the margins and always fairly anonymous. At work the other night, I was talking to one of the servers who just graduated from nursing school. When I told her I was going to the fair this weekend, she said she had never been because her mother wouldn’t let her go. When I asked why, she said it was because of what her mother remembered about going to the fair as a teenager: it wasn’t safe. I came away from the conversation wondering what her mother had been up to on those summer nights.

Another part of it, for me, is that they live on the fringes. In the material Fiesta Shows publishes to recruit new employees it says:

Cookhouse - A cookhouse is available at each site to serve meals throughout the day.

Bunkhouse - A bunkhouse is available for housing ride employees. No room guarantee is here or implied. Check with the on-site supervisor for availability.

Employee Comfort Trailer - A mobile "recreation room" has been created to provide employees with an area during the day to relax. The trailer has men's/women's room, air conditioning/heat, 2 satellite televisions and vcr's, as well as soda and vending machines. Please check the posted rules in the trailer for proper behavior.
Now that’s what I call job security. From the fringes, life has a different view. Charles Dickens told his stories about such characters to point out the social injustices of his day. Some of the carnies I saw were not so far removed from Pip and the others. Life viewed from the fringes gives a crosscut perspective, allowing us to see layers not visible from the top, or even the middle. I’m not trying to speak romantically here. Loading and unloading the Tilt-a-Whirl in Anytown, USA over and over, surrounded by hay-covered mud and people who look at you as though you were part of the machine, or look down on you as though you were out to rob them blind is a life that sees the layers of desperation and visceral hopelessness that I don’t touch, even on my most depressed days.

And, that said, part of the pull is the romance of the carnival and the circus as metaphor for being able to take off and follow our dreams. On his first record, David Wilcox sang a Buddy Mondlock song called “The Kid,” which I found myself humming by the time we left the fair:
I'm the kid who ran away with the circus
Now I'm watering elephants
But I sometimes lie awake in the sawdust

Dreaming I'm in a suit of light

Late at night in the empty big top

I'm all alone on the high wire

Ladies and gentlemen, there is no net this time

He's a real death defier

I'm the kid who always looked out the window

Failing the tests in geography

But I have seen things far beyond just this schoolyard

Distant shores of exotic lands

There's the spires of the Turkish empire

Six months since we made landfall

Riding low with the spices of India

Through Gibraltar, we're rich men all

I'm the kid who thought we'd someday be lovers
Always held out that time would tell

Time was talking
, guess I just wasn't listening
No surprise, if you know me well

As we're walking down toward the train station

I hear a whispering rainfall

Across the boulevard, you slip your hand in mine

In the distance the train's last call

I'm the kid who has this habit of dreaming
That sometimes gets me in trouble too

But the truth is
I could no more stop dreaming
Than I could make them all come true
Every good story has heartbreak as its subtext. The conversation between danger, desperation, and dreams that makes for a good story pulls me in because I want to believe the dreams don’t get bludgeoned to death in the interchange. I want to believe that there is some life in the words exchanged in the Bunkhouse or the Comfort Trailer, some sense of hope and humanity. I don’t have to have a happy ending; I just want to know that some dreams live, even at the fringes. As Steve Earle, a man who has looked at the crosscut of life from some of its most desperate vantage points sings:
Well, just because you've been around
And had your poor heart broken

That's no excuse for lyin' there

Before the last word's spoken

'Cause some dreams don't ever come true

Don't ever come true

Aw, but some dreams do

Sunday, August 27, 2006

breaking the code

The blog is taking on a new look because it was the only way I could figure out to deal with the disappearance of the sidebar on the other template. As much as I like blogging, that sentence is so boring it makes my teeth hurt. I know way more about HTML code than I want to -- not that I know a lot; it's just more than I want to.

Anyway, I think the new look is going to work. I appreciate your feedback.

I will be back tomorrow with something more interesting than cyber mechanics.


Friday, August 25, 2006

feeding friendships

Last night was my one night this week to not be working in my restaurant, so Ginger and I went to eat in someone else’s place.

We got a call a couple of weeks ago from friends in Winchester who wanted to get together for a meal. It’s Restaurant Week in Boston, which means a number of restaurants usually out of our price range are offering a prix fixe menu of appetizer, entrée, and dessert for $30.06. (I don’t think they intended for the price to be the name of a rifle; rather, I think the six cents has to do with it being 2006.) That these places think thirty bucks is a bargain also lets you know we were not in our usual haunts.

The restaurant we chose was Olives in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston, which was our neighborhood for twelve years before we moved to Marshfield. We loved it there. But for all our years in the community, this was only the second time we’d been to Olives because it’s one of those skip-the-house–payment-and-sell-the-children-so-we-can-eat-dinner kind of places. Based on our experience in Charlestown, we also stayed away because of the attitude of the place: Todd English was never a very good neighbor to the folks who lived near his restaurant and treated the community as though we should consider ourselves lucky to have him.

The host last night seemed to have picked up his attitude. Ginger and I arrived before our friends and stepped up to the host stand to let her know we were there. She treated us as if we were an inconvenience from the start. With her Euro-chic hairdo and her librarian-chic glasses, over which she looked at us, it was all I could do to keep from saying, “OK, what you do for a job is check reservations and hand out menus; don’t cop a ‘tude with me.”

I didn’t say that. Ginger and I walked across the street to City Square Park and waited for our friends. When they arrived, we went back in together and the other host showed us to our table. The food was quite good, though quite sparsely portioned (two tablespoons of “creamy corn polenta” doesn’t qualify as a side dish, Todd) – as was the wine, which was plentiful (thanks, Josh) – but the feast of the evening for me was the friendship. Betsy, Josh, Dave, Sue, Ginger, and I have shared a lot of years together. Children we saw born are now in middle school. We’ve all moved at least once. We’ve been through job changes, family tragedies, as well as triumphs and celebrations. We spent the evening rekindling memories and catching up on what is going on in real time. I came away full and happy.

A few years back, Ginger preached a sermon on the Ten Commandments in which she took the “don’t” statements and turned them into “do” statements: “Thou shall not covet,” for example, became “Be content with what you have.” You get the idea. The quote that has been on this blog since day one is, “There is no joy in eating alone.” Our wonderful dinner together last night leads me to follow Ginger’s example and look for a positive rephrasing: there is great joy in eating together. What makes a meal is whose around the table. The food tastes good when it was steeped in friendship.

We were on the early side of dinner. By the time we left, the place was packed. I looked around the room and saw circles of friends in varying number around each table, laughing and talking. When we passed the host stand, her demeanor had not changed. I wondered if she had any idea of what she was a part of.

When I put plates up to be served at the Red Lion Inn, I imagine they are going to tables filled with friends like ours was last night. That possibility is what makes my job most rewarding: I’m feeding friendships.

Last night, I was fed.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

it was a dark and stormy night

One of the biggest hurdles to clear as a writer is the first sentence. You want to grab the attention of your reader and pull them into your story. One of the first authors I remember as a kid -- Snoopy -- began his work with, "It was a dark and stormy night."

That is the way perhaps my favorite book of all time -- A Wrinkle in Time -- actually begins. And that story still has a hold on me. Back in the late eighties, I came across a book who used that opening line as its title, claiming it contained "the funniest opening lines from the worst novels never written." I bought the book and learned about The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. (I'm sad to report the book and it's sequels are all out of print.) I also loaned the book to someone years ago and forgot about it and the contest until The Goddess reminded me of it on her blog. Bulwer-Lytton used the sentence ito begin a novel he finished, and thus gave the inspiration for the contest over a century later:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents -- except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
Oh, yeah, baby!

The winning entry for this year comes from Jim Guigli of Carmichael, California:
Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you've had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.
You can find the rest of the 2006 results here and a "lyttony" of winners over the years here. For my post today I offer a few of my favorites:
It had been a dark and stormy night, but as dawn began to light up the eastern sky, to the west the heavens suddenly cleared, unveiling a pale harvest moon that reposed gently atop the distant mesa like a pumpkin on a toilet with the lid down.
-- Gerald R. Johnson, Vancouver, WA
Despite the vast differences it their ages, ethnicity, and religious upbringing, the sexual chemistry between Roberto and Heather was the most amazing he had ever experienced; and for the entirety of the Labor Day weekend they had sex like monkeys on espresso, not those monkeys in the zoo that fling their feces at you, but more like the monkeys in the wild that have those giant red butts, and access to an espresso machine.
-- Dennis Barry, Dothan, AL

The bone-chilling scream split the warm summer night in two, the first half being before the scream when it was fairly balmy and calm and pleasant for those who hadn't heard the scream at all, but not calm or balmy or even very nice for those who did hear the scream, discounting the little period of time during the actual scream itself when your ears might have been hearing it but your brain wasn't reacting yet to let you know.
--Patricia E. Presutti, Lewiston, New York (1986 Winner)

Like an expensive sports car, fine-tuned and well-built, Portia was sleek, shapely, and gorgeous, her red jumpsuit molding her body, which was as warm as the seatcovers in July, her hair as dark as new tires, her eyes flashing like bright hubcaps, and her lips as dewy as the beads of fresh rain on the hood; she was a woman driven--fueled by a single accelerant--and she needed a man, a man who wouldn't shift from his views, a man to steer her along the right road, a man like Alf Romeo.
--Rachel E. Sheeley, Williamsburg, Indiana (1988 Winner)

The corpse exuded the irresistible aroma of a piquant, ancho chili glaze enticingly enhanced with a hint of fresh cilantro as it lay before him, coyly garnished by a garland of variegated radicchio and caramelized onions, and impishly drizzled with glistening rivulets of vintage balsamic vinegar and roasted garlic oil; yes, as he surveyed the body of the slain food critic slumped on the floor of the cozy, but nearly empty, bistro, a quick inventory of his senses told corpulent Inspector Moreau that this was, in all likelihood, an inside job.
--Bob Perry, Milton, Massachusetts (1998 Winner)

A small assortment of astonishingly loud brass instruments raced each other lustily to the respective ends of their distinct musical choices as the gates flew open to release a torrent of tawny fur comprised of angry yapping bullets that nipped at Desdemona's ankles, causing her to reflect once again (as blood filled her sneakers and she fought her way through the panicking crowd) that the annual Running of the Pomeranians in Liechtenstein was a stupid idea.
-- Sera Kirk, Vancouver, BC (2001 Winner)

On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.
-- Rephah Berg, Oakland CA (2002 Winner)

They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese that is orange and yellowish-white, the orange probably being a bland Cheddar and the white . . . Mozzarella, although it could possibly be Provolone or just plain American, as it really doesn't taste distinctly dissimilar from the orange, yet they would have you believe it does by coloring it differently.
-- Mariann Simms, Wetumpka, AL (2003 Winner)

Dolores breezed along the surface of her life like a flat stone forever skipping across smooth water, rippling reality sporadically but oblivious to it consistently, until she finally lost momentum, sank, and due to an overdose of fluoride as a child which caused her to lie forever on the floor of her life as useless as an appendix and as lonely as a five-hundred-pound barbell in a steroid-free fitness center.
--Linda Vernon, Newark, California (1990 Winner)
There are more where those came from; check them out and remember:
Grasshopper, the three secrets of life are as follows: first, keep your eyes and ears open; second: don't tell everything you know.
-- Andy Otes, Frenchs Forest NSW, Australia

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

big change

Ginger goes back to work today.

Her sabbatical and vacation have ended and she is getting ready to go to her office at the church. She woke up early and has been a bundle of activity all morning: she took Gracie to the beach for a walk and a prayer, washed her car and cleaned it out, did a couple of loads of laundry, and who knows what else -- Lola and I slept through most of it.

I love watching her process because mine is so different. When I was teaching high school and it came time for a new year to begin, I would lay in bed and moan, "I don't want to go back to school."

"You're the teacher;" she would say with a smile in her voice, "you sound like one of the students."

I know returning to a job as relationally intense and complex as the pastorate after having had the chance to live for some time watching a clock without hands makes for harsh reentry. I also know, as I have listened to her prepare for today over the past couple of weeks, that she has missed seeing the smiles and faces of the folks at North Community Church and is truly at her best as a pastor, which is where her best self and what the world needs most from her intersect.

I've always admired her singular sense of calling. If purity in heart is "to will one thing," as Kierkegaard put it, then she is as pure in heart as they come.

"Blessed are the pure in heart," Jesus said, "for they shall see God." I watch Ginger as she both works and plays and expect that if my Bible had illustrations, were I to look up that particular Beatitude I would find her picture. As for my own vocational experience, I think I know why there's not a Beatitude that begins, "Blessed are those who want to try and do just about everything. . ."

Today, I send Ginger back to work with a poem -- one by Mary Oliver, whom we both love:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Being a part of "the family of things" is as wonderful and as complicated as being a part of any family; it is both harsh and exciting. We have a great deal to say about how we choose to perceive and receive it. As we both head off to work today, Ginger to the church and I to the inn, we move in formation with the rest of our family, praying for eyes to see the world with imagination rather than buckling under the weight of obligation.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

if I had a boat

My writing schedule is off this week because I'm working more at the Red Lion Inn. Robert, the head chef, had a chance to get away for a few days with his family and I'm filling in some of the shifts. He has been so generous in working with my schedule so I could go on our mission trip and to my in-laws' fiftieth wedding anniversary party that I was more than happy to adjust how I would have spent these days.

What I want to tell you about is seeing Lyle Lovett last Thursday night. My first date with Ginger was to see Lyle Lovett at Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth, Texas, a wonderful little club. Since then, we've seen him every year. He never disappoints. I will get a chance to post about the whole evening, but for today I would like to leave you with my nomination for our new national anthem, "If I Had a Boat":

If I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat

If I were Roy Rogers
I'd sure enough be single
I couldn't bring myself to marrying old Dale
It'd just be me and trigger
We'd go riding through them movies
Then we'd buy a boat and on the sea we'd sail

And if I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat

The mystery masked man was smart
He got himself a Tonto
'Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free
But Tonto he was smarter
And one day said kemo sabe
Kiss my ass I bought a boat
I'm going out to sea

And if I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat

And if I were like lightning
I wouldn't need no sneakers
I'd come and go wherever I would please
And I'd scare 'em by the shade tree
And I'd scare 'em by the light pole
But I would not scare my pony on my boat out on the sea

And if I had a boat
I'd go out on the ocean
And if I had a pony
I'd ride him on my boat
And we could all together
Go out on the ocean
Me upon my pony on my boat

Monday, August 21, 2006

bartender jesus

Since our senior pastor is on vacation, I’ve preached three of the last four weeks. Since the Lectionary in August can’t seem to get away from “bread” passages, I’ve preached from some of my favorite scenes in the gospels. This week I realized I had created an inadvertent sermon miniseries on some of the miracles of Jesus: three weeks ago, I talked about the feeding of the five thousand; two weeks ago, Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool at Bethesda; this week, Jesus’ turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. I’m drawn to the accounts of Jesus’ miracles in the gospels because they speak to me of God’s creative and risky side, God’s effusive generosity and spontaneity, and maybe even a little of God’s mischief.

Yes, I know God is the Creator of All Things who breathed the universe into existence out of nothing, setting in motion an intricate and interconnected web of existence that continues to confound us at every level of life. And I know that part of the way we have come to terms with what we strain to comprehend is by identifying the order and patterns we can see and quantifying then. We have laws like the Law of Gravity or the Second Law of Thermodynamics (I never can remember what that one is); we have named everything from animals to asteroids; and we have set about trying to find a way to explain most everything through science and reason. All of that is good work and none of it leaves room for a guy to feed five thousand with a sack lunch, walk across the sea, heal a man with a few words, or change a hundred and eighty gallons of water into mighty fine wine.

He always had some mighty fine wine.

When I was a teenager, I lived, for a time, in Accra, Ghana. One Sunday, a Ghanaian seminary student was preaching. He was Indian by heritage and spoke English with a strong accent. “We cannot weigh God,” he said, “and we cannot measure God, which is a great disappointment to the scientists you know because they want to weigh and measure everything.” The scientists are not alone: there’s some of that in all of us. Most of us like to know what’s coming, like to be able to plan, like to feel some sense of structure and familiarity to life. One of the great paradoxes of our existence is the God who made us lean towards order is a God who is full of surprises and disguises, who loves to ambush us with grace and leave us with gifts we can accept but not explain.

Gail O’Day writes: “John 2:1-11 poses hard questions because the miracle challenges conventional assumptions about order and control, about what is possible, about where God is found and how God is known. Indeed, the impact of the miracle is lost if one does not entertain these and similar questions, because the force of the miracle derives precisely from its extraordinariness, from the dissonance it creates” (NIB IX 540).

The miracle described in John 2 is Jesus’ first recorded miracle. John begins his gospel by waxing eloquent about the Word becoming Flesh, describes Jesus calling his disciples and then recounts what Jesus did at Cana as a way of introducing who Jesus was and what he was about. One of my favorite renditions of the story of Jesus’ life is a play called The Cotton Patch Gospel, which retells John’s gospel as if Jesus had been born in Gainesville, Georgia and grown up in the South. As the wedding unfolds and Mary comes to Jesus and says, “They have no wine,” Jesus steps aside to pray and says to God, “You give me the task of saving the world and here I am playing bartender!”

However dissonant it feels to us, his mother thought it was an appropriate role. When Jesus seemed reluctant, she told the servants to follow his instructions. Just as he told the disciples to start handing out the loaves and fishes, and the crippled man to rise up and walk, Jesus told the servants to fill the six giant water jars with water and then fill their pitchers from them and serve the guests. They put in water and poured out wine – lots and lots of wine -- and top shelf stuff so much that the guests accused their host of holding out on them. They thought the wine was gone and now there was almost two hundred gallons of the good stuff. Unless there were a couple of thousand people at the wedding, Jesus’ extravagance created enough wine to let the party go on for a long, long time.

God’s extravagance is the first stumbling block for us when it comes to miracles. Why have twelve baskets full of leftovers after feeding the five thousand? Wasn’t feeding them a big enough deal? If Jesus could change the properties of liquids so easily, why not have it happen in each guest’s glass? Why give the party a lifetime supply of Pinot Noir? I say stumbling block because we are created in God’s image and called to live like Jesus. If extravagance is the hallmark of our God, we have to come to terms with our unwillingness to live generously. God is extravagant; we are not – that trips us up every time.

We’re created in the image of a God who paints sunsets in so many shades of pink and orange that we don’t even have names for them. We’re created in the image of a God who built the universe out of particles smaller than we can detect and made them stretch out to be larger than we can fathom. We’re created in the image of a God who creates beauty in creatures deep in the rainforests and jungles, or at the bottom of the ocean, that we never see. We’re created in the image of a God who made wildflowers that bloom brilliantly for a couple of weeks a year, springs that flow constantly, hippos who bellow beautifully, and Schnauzers (one of my personal favorites). We’re created in the image of a go-for-broke-swing-for-the-fences-what -can-I-do-next-man-that-was-fun-do-you-know-how-much-I-love-you-you-ain-t-seen-nothing- yet-I-saw-this-and-knew-you’d-like-it-what-do-you-say-we-skip-school-and-go-to-the-beach- drive-with-the-windows-down-singing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs kind of God who does miracles and other things with an extravagance we can’t explain and we live much of our lives in fear. How can that be?

Jesus’ miracles are not the first indicator of God’s extravagance. When we look for it, we can see God has been the Ultimate Spendthrift since the beginning. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes:

So I think about the valley. And it occurs to me that everything I have seen is wholly gratuitous. The giant water bug’s predations, the frog’s croak, the tree with the lights in it are not in any real sense necessary per se to the world or to its creator. Nor am I. The creation in the first place, being itself, is the only necessity, for which I would die, and I shall. The point about that being, as I know it here and see it, is that, as I think about it, it accumulates in my mind as an extravagance of minutiae. (129)
The creative and artistic extravagances we see all around us in creation becomes relational in Jesus, who incarnates God’s love and grace with the same kind of abandon. The first act – the first indicator of what kind of Messiah had come – was to keep the celebration going for one small wedding party. All of Jesus’ miracles have an intensely personal context. There were no grand gestures to rid the world of hurricanes, or eradicate all disease. Even when he calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee he did it because his disciples – his friends – were frightened. Though we may not be necessary to God (in the way Dillard describes), we are essential. Such is the nature of extravagant love: God doesn’t love us because God needs to or is required to; God loves us because God is Love and love thrives only in relationship.

“Be filled with the Spirit,” Paul wrote in Ephesians 5, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Then he says on more thing: “Subject yourselves to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Actually, Paul finishes the chapter the same way he started it. In Ephesians 5:1 he says, “Be imitators of God.” When he wrote to the Philippians, he said, “Have the same mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”

We are called to be creatively extravagant in the way we act towards one another, speak to one another, pray for one another, share with one another, deal with one another, and help one another. John, in one of his letters, said it this way: “Little children, let us love one another.”

And may there always be some mighty fine wine – singing, “Joy to the world, all you boys and girls; joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea; joy to you and me.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

these days in an open book

Ginger has an unusual attachment to her Wrangler. When she came back from the “southern sojourn” of her sabbatical, I drove her Jeep to Providence to pick her up. When she got to the car, she hugged it – she didn’t think I saw her. On these highs-in-the-seventies-cloudless- summer-afternoon-drive-with-the-top-down kind of days, I understand why she loves her car.

We were driving back from Boston the other afternoon and our soundtrack (you gotta have a soundtrack when the top’s down) was a CD I burned for her southern trip. Two Nanci Griffith songs are on it, both from her album Flyer, one Ginger’s favorite off the record and one mine. My song is a duet with Adam Duritz of Counting Crows called “Going Back to Georgia.” The melody is lilting and lovely and the harmonies full of friendship.

As the song finished, I said, “For all of our CDs -- I’m surprised to say it – but I think Flyer is one of the most essential to us over the years.” She agreed.

When Ginger was working on her doctorate, the record was especially meaningful because of one song – the second one on the disc we were listening to in the Wrangler: “These Days in an Open Book.” Getting through the process of her D. Min. was hard work for Ginger and she handled the challenge with all the grace and tenacity that made me fall in love with her in the first place. As the deadline for finishing the dissertation drew nearer and consumed more and more of her days, Flyer was the only CD in the player. As she began to work, she would press play and Nanci’s voice would begin to sing:

Shut it down and call this road a day
And put this silence in my heart in a better place
I have traveled with your ghost now so many years
That I see you in the shadows
In hotel rooms and headlights
You're coming up beside me
Whether it's day or night

These days my life is an open book
Missing pages I cannot seem to find
These days your face
In my memory
Is in a folded hand of grace against these times

No one's ever come between your memory and me
I have driven this weary vessel here alone
Will you still find me if I leave you here beside this road
Cuz' I need someone who can touch me
Who'll put no one above me
Someone who needs me
Like the air he breathes

These days my life is an open book
Missing pages I cannot seem to find
These days your face
In my memory
Is in a folded hand of grace against these times

I can't remember where this toll road goes
Maybe it's Fort Worth, maybe it's a heart of gold
The price of love is such a heavy toll
That I've lived my life in the back roads
With your love in my pocket
If I spend the love you gave me
Tell me where will it go?

These days my life is an open book
Missing pages I cannot seem to find
These days your face
In my memory
Is in a folded hand of grace against these times
After the song played two or three times, she would get to work, looking for the missing pages. She found them and her dissertation and has been the Reverend Doctor Ginger Brasher-Cunningham for some time now.

(Brief pause while I beam with pride.)

A couple songs after Nanci and Adam sang in the Jeep, “These Days” began. We both looked at each other and smiled. Over the years, the missing pages and open book have come to stand for different things at different times. What hasn’t changed for me is the truth in the end of the chorus: her face is, for me, a folded hand of grace against these times.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

first, for me

One of the summertime specialties at the Red Lion Inn, as in a lot of New England coastal restaurants, are Steamers. For the uninitiated, they are clams. We get ours from nearby Duxbury Bay and prepare them by boiling them in a mixture of white wine, clam juice, and rosemary. They are boiled until they open up and then served in the broth with clarified butter and garlic bread.

They’re good.

I bring them up because they also take some instruction to eat properly. When you take one out of the pot, it has a black tail hanging out of the shell. When you pull on the tail, the black skin comes off and you can pull the whole clam, both belly and tail, out of the shell to dip in the butter and eat. I had some with friends the other night at dinner and, as I watched them eat the steamers my mind flashed back to a recurring thought I have in similar situations: how did someone ever decide to eat a steamer the first time?

I was in Quincy Market years ago, which is a haven for street performers, and watched a guy juggle chainsaws. They were running at the time. I wondered then how he ever did that the first time, or practiced without ending up with a nickname like “Stumpy” or “Nub.” When the first person jumped out of an airplane, was he halfway down before he thought, “I should have invented the parachute first”?

Working with food offers many opportunities to ponder the question. Who was the first person, when they saw an egg drop out of a chicken’s butt, to think, “I should eat that”? What other animal droppings did they try before they found one that worked? Trial and error – perhaps trial and success – has to be involved. When I start trying to put new ingredients together, or I begin to think about how to prepare a dish, I lean into the history and experience of the cooks who have come before me and have stood staring at the ingredients in front of them, trying to figure out what to make for dinner. I have the luxury of following those who went first, those who gave it their best shot and then said, “OK, don’t do that again.” My seminary preaching professor used to say, “Being original means knowing how to hide your sources.” The truth is when I think of something for the first time, it’s a first for me but rarely is it a first for the universe. I owe much to those who have come before me.

Elaine Pagels has a wonderful book called Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. It has nothing to do with cooking, but it has much to do with how faith gets passed down, as she notes “Christianity had survived brutal persecution and flourished for generations – even centuries – before Christians formulated what they believed into creeds” (5). Faith has been passed down the years not by institutions but by individuals who lived, ate and worshipped together: “These simple everyday acts – taking off clothes, bathing, putting on new clothes, then sharing bread and wine – took on, for Jesus’ followers, powerful meanings” (14). My experience in faith is much like my experience with food: what is new to me is rarely new to the universe. I have learned about being faithful much like I learned to eat steamers: by watching and imitating.

Part of Pagels’ point is the variety we see in modern day theology has been there from the start, just as someone mixed coconut, pecans, and chicken long before I did. But imagination and originality are not the same thing. I don’t have to be the first one to ever think of something to be creative. We do our best work when we are mindful of what we have been given and what we have been taught and then we take the pieces and shape them into our own expression, which is both imaginative and full of history.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

monday night special

I know part of the reason I like to cook is so people will tell me how good the food is. I come by it honest. One of my most enduring memories of dinner time as a kid was my mom biting into the food she had prepared for us and saying, "Isn't this good?"

It was -- as we were all happy to say so.

Last night was the first time I worked the dinner shift by myself. Mondays are notoriously slow in the restaurant business and Mondays at the Red Lion Inn mean only the pub is open, so we don't need a full staff. Alfonso came in to wash dishes; Chris and Elaine were the bartender and server, respectively. Mondays are also our chef's day off. I worked lunch and dinner and had the kitchen all to myself, which meant it was my job to come up with the dinner special, which is a challenge because Mondays are the days when our supplies are at their lowest. After perusing the dry storage area and the walk in refrigerator, I created Coconut and Pecan Crusted Fried Chicken. I served it with bleu cheese mashed potatoes, sauteed spinach, and a ginger-coconut rum beurre blanc garnished with a slice of grilled pineapple.

Since I was making it up, I made a plate for the staff to try during the late afternoon. Part of my logic is if I let them try the special they will sell it better. Part of it is, as I said, I just like to hear them say they like the food.

The night was slow, so I only got to make the dish once. Elaine went and got Chris so he could see the plate before it went out. I had to keep myself from going out to the table and watching the customer eat her dinner. Elaine was kind enough to come back and tell me the woman was making yummy noises.

I smiled and said, "It's good, isn't it?"


Monday, August 14, 2006

coming to you cordless

Most Monday mornings, Ginger and I get to take our time eating breakfast and then I come up to my trusty old iMac to write. Two things are different today. Due to some staff changes at the Red Lion Inn, I'm working today so Robert can get his day off. He's been so good about negociating my schedule that I'm happy to return the favor.

The second thing is I'm taking a step up in the computer world. Thanks to the Tax Free Weekend here in Massachusetts, I'm the proud owner of a new MacBook, which means the blog will become a bit more mobile. It also means, thanks to one of my neigbbors that I have a free wireless connection in my house. I'll be "coming to you cordless." (Extra points for anyone who can tell me what movie that comes from.)

I will also have more to say a bit later. For now, I'm off to the kitchen to cook for whoever wanders in on yet another absolutely beautiful New England summer day.

Peace, Milton

Thursday, August 10, 2006

cooking with gas

Wednesday nights are not supposed to be a particularly busy night at the restaurant; last night was jammin’. For reasons we knew, and some we did not, the place filled up early and stayed that way until the kitchen closed about 9:15. My shift started about 10:15 – that morning.

Joe and I were working the line together. He’s a hard worker at the Red Lion Inn and the two other places he works. I think he gave up sleep for the third job. As fall approaches and the college students go back to school, Joe and I will be working together a lot. That’s a good thing. We work together well. As the evening progressed, we were challenged with the number of tickets that came in, but we stayed organized and focused and we never “got in the weeds” as we say.

I wish I knew how to describe the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes with getting a big ticket out correctly and on time. A group of sixteen people came in last night. Besides appetizers, the ordered six burgers, three fish and chips, mussels Dijon, a chicken Caesar salad, fried calamari, buffalo wings, two lobster rolls, and a duck quesadilla. (That’s right – a duck quesadilla -- check out the menu.) Right behind them came a party of six and one of eight with similar requests. When it was all said and done, Joe and I kicked some serious kitchen butt because of three things.

First we prepped well. I got there about ten because I was the lunch chef; Joe came in around noon. Afternoons in a restaurant are spent getting ready for the evening. We check all the stations to make sure we have what we need and then we go to work filling in the blanks: chopping lettuce for the salads, making the garnishes, caramelizing the onions, filling the bins in the stations with sauces and dressings, making the chowder and other soups, baking the bread – you get the idea. Though there is a lot of slicing and dicing, which sounds like fairly pedantic work, I’m energized by the process because it is infused with expectation: company’s coming and we’re getting ready for them. Each of us has our favorite things to do, or things in which we take particular ownership. One of mine is the cole slaw, because it’s my recipe. The whole thing is very much a group activity. As we work, we get to talk and laugh. We have a good time together. I think it shows up in the food.

We also did well last night because we communicated effectively once the rush started. When there are several tickets on the board, we have to find a balance between working on individual tickets and maintaining a more global view of everything that ought to be in progress. While a big ticket is being finished up, an order for a bowl of chowder may come in, which requires nothing more than filling the bowl from the soup pot and garnishing it with the fried clam strips, so one of us does that on the way to something else. If I’m making lobster rolls for one order and there are two more coming up on the next ticket, I can make them all at once, which means the person reading the tickets (that was me, last night) needs to say things like, “I’ve got five lobster rolls all day” to make sure we are working as efficiently as we can.

The third thing is connected to the second: we trusted each other. I knew Joe was going to do what he said and he knew the same about me. When I called out an order and he said, “got it,” I didn’t worry about his part anymore; I just did my part. We both knew we could ask for help from each other and get it. We both knew the other was capable of doing what needed to be done and doing it well. Together we created food we were proud to serve and we had fun doing it.

According to the time clock, I left work 11.35 hours after I arrived. I was tired, but it was a good kind of tired. There are obvious analogies about the roles that preparation, communication, and trust play in most every aspect of our lives, but what I want to say is more basic, I guess: I love feeding people; I love being in a kitchen; I love my job.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006


I've lived in Marshfield for a little over five years. The town is a small beach community that rambles up and down the coast for about seven or eight miles, it's two lane roads winding between forests, marshes, and cranberry bogs, which means there is no particular design or logic to the way the streets are laid out -- and there are very few street signs, as is the custom in New England. From time to time, I turn down a street I don't know just to see where it takes me and then drive around until I come to something familiar.

Since I don't have any burning issues to speak about today, I thought would take the same kind of journey in Blogland, starting at Skewed View and using her blog roll as a signpost to see what sort of new places I could find. Here's who I found:

Soul & Culture -- "pondering my role in a bigger story" is the caption for this blog written from Denver. I liked the cow.

Texas Trifles -- written by Cowtown Pattie, who is doing great stuff. Scroll down to her post from August 6 on the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Waiter Rant -- Since I spend my days in a restaurant kitchen, I can relate to this guy.

Wide Lawns and Narrow Minds -- is an incisive and pointed blog written by a "witty and often abused country club employee" in Florida.

Crummy Church Signs -- my favorite find of the day, is a collection of just what it says. The website has all of the signs archived by category.

Enjoy the journey.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

cleaning out

Today our garage is going to lose some weight.

On what is turning out to be a perfect New England summer day, Ginger and I are going to pull everything out of our garage (which is actually more of a storage shed) and take most of it to the dump. For the five years we have lived here, the garage has been the repository of everything from boxes that haven’t been opened since we left Charlestown to stuff we were going to get to later to stuff we put out there to get out of sight.

Moving as much as I did growing up, I never had much of a chance to accumulate things. We moved often and traveled light. In my adult years, I have realized, I never learned much about throwing things away. I’m a pack rat, pure and simple. Some stuff I hang on to because I think I might be able to use it; most stuff I just hang on to. Something in me would rather put it in the garage, or in a closet or a drawer, than put it out with the trash, take it to Goodwill, sell it at a yard sale and let it live in someone else’s garage. I feel like Steve Martin in The Jerk, walking through the house saying, “The ashtray, the paddleball, and the remote control – that’s all I need . . .”

I think there is something in all of us that resists getting rid of stuff. I worked at the Red Lion Inn last night. The evening was slow, as are most Mondays in the restaurant business, and I took it upon myself to clean out the walk-in refrigerator. We do a pretty good job of making sure what is in there is what is we need and is fresh, but I did find a couple of bain maries with remnants of soup de jours from jours gone by, or pans of things that had, for one reason or another, gotten pushed to the back of the shelf and forgotten. In the kitchen, as in the garage or in life, we have to stop from time to time and deal with what’s left before we continue with what’s new. I’m not good at cleaning out until I need the space for something else or what’s there becomes a nuisance. Part of my resistance to getting rid of things is an irrational fear of throwing away something important. I say irrational because if I haven’t needed what is in those boxes for five years, how could it be that important? Why is it so hard to let go? Why am I so attached to trash?

The way I want to answer those questions is the other reason we are cleaning out today: it’s a jumpstart for a new beginning. Ginger goes back to work in about two weeks, fall means a new church year and – even without kids of our own – a new school year, which changes the sense of time for everyone. We want to start with a cleaner slate (and garage) than we have right now because we want the year ahead to be different for us in how we handle our things or money and our time. Once again, creating open space reaps benefits.

As the space clears, the other intriguing aspect of cleaning out is what I learn about myself as I look at what I have collected. I’m embarking on an archaeological dig, in a way, sifting back through the layers of my life as told by what has become superfluous, stacked in reverse chronology. As we clean, we will find both what we no longer need and what we have forgotten, both calling us to remember where we have been and to evaluate once again who we are now and who we are becoming.

When we walked among the ruins of ancient cities and civilizations in Greece and Turkey, everything we saw had been unearthed, city built on top of city. The dust and debits that had collected over time buried turned one civilization into the foundation of the next. When they dug the subway system in Athens, they found parts of the old city underground, even though people had lived there continually. In her wonderful book, For the Time Being, Annie Dillard writes:

New York City’s street level rises every century. The rate at which dust buries us varies. The Mexico City in which Cortes walked is now thirty feet underground. It would be farther underground except that Mexico City itself has started sinking, Digging a subway line, workers found a temple. Debris lifts land an average of 4.7 feet per century. King Herod the Great rebuilt the Second Temple in Jerusalem two thousand years ago: the famous Western Wall is a top layer of old retaining wall near the peak of Mount Moriah. From the present bottom of the Western Wall to bedrock is sixty feet.

Quick: Why aren’t you dusting? On every continent, we sweep floors and wipe tabletops not only to shine the place, but to forestall burial. (123)
I said yesterday that both the present and the future call us to respond with a mixture of wonder, creativity, tenacity, and compassion that can't be carried in a fist. They also cannot be carried in arms already filled with things.

Here’s hoping I can let go of the ashtray, the paddleball, and the remote control.


Monday, August 07, 2006

the end of the world

I woke this morning, as did we all, to news of more bombings in Lebanon, more rockets being fired into Israel, more uranium enrichment in Iran, more floods in India and Ethiopia, a volcano about to erupt in the Philippines, and a breakdown in oil production in Alaska. All we need now is news that Celine Dion is releasing a new CD and I will know it’s the end of the world.

My friend Jay called yesterday afternoon to read me parts of a “Rapture web site” that has created a “Rapture Index” much like the stock market indexes to measure how immanent the rapture is (my choice not to provide the link – I don’t want to encourage them). They give points for everything from debt-trade ratios to natural disasters to foreign governments to the Anti-Christ (there’s Celine Dion again), creating a number that’s supposed to show how close we are to Jesus’ return to rescue the faithful and leave everyone else behind to read Tim LaHaye novels.

I had email from another friend who pointed me to Bill Moyer’s new PBS series Faith & Reason, specifically his conversation with Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist teacher and writer from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. In their conversation, Chödrön made a distinction between pain and suffering:

BILL MOYERS: The Buddha talked about the truth of suffering


BILL MOYERS: What do you think he meant by suffering? And what do you Buddhists mean by suffering?

PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Suffering?


PEMA CHÖDRÖN: Well, that's a complex question, but it doesn't mean that we could be free of that, if fire burns you, it won't hurt. If you get cut, it won't hurt. It also doesn't mean that if someone you love very dear, deeply, dies you won't feel sadness. And it doesn't mean that bad things won't happen to you anymore, you know? It doesn't mean that you won't have your personal tragedies and catastrophes and crisis. And it also certainly doesn't mean that you could avoid planes flying into the towers, you know? Do you know what I'm saying?

BILL MOYERS: I do know about that because—

PEMA CHÖDRÖN: So it's all about that the end of suffering has to do with how you relate with pain. Let's distinguish just for semantics, the difference between, let's call pain the unavoidable and let's call suffering what could what could lessen and dissolve in our lives. So, if there's sort of a basic phrase you could say that it isn't the things that happen to us in our lives that cause us to suffer, it's how we relate to the things that happen to us that causes us to suffer.
My friend Kaye wrote in response: “Loss hurts. Suffering is different. Refusing to approve of suffering, refusing to be resigned to suffering is something we see too seldom. It's something that requires us to be our best selves. We all know how hard that is.”

Growing up Baptist means I got my share of Rapture stuff. It never really made sense to me because it seemed more about escape from pain than it did hope in the midst of suffering. What I heard was, “We’re all going to get out of here before it gets really bad because Jesus loves us; everyone else is screwed.” Funny – the Christians I knew growing up in Africa, who lived most all of their lives in poverty and pain never talked that way. The Rapture makes sense mostly in American suburbs, where we live in fear of losing our SUVs. If Jesus is as angry as the Rapture Rowdies say he is, I would expect the suburbs to be the first targets.

If God is Love and Jesus is the best human picture of that love, why would God unfold the whole story of Creation to bring it to a surprise ending of vengeance? If the Christian Church is the Body of Christ – the continuing incarnation of God’s love – why would Jesus come to pull us all out of here so we could all sit back and watch everyone else writhe in pain and despair? If there is a wideness in God’s mercy, a peace that passes all human understanding, and a love that excels all others, why are we looking to the future as if the ending were going to be directed by Wes Craven or John Woo? When we see how well we have solved problems in our world by responding to violence with violence, can’t we assume God is smarter and more creative than we are?

I wonder if Garrison Keillor was thinking on some of these things when he included Stanley Kunitz’ poem on The Writers’ Almanac today:
Halley's Comet

Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there'd be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground's edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
"Repent, ye sinners!" he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I'd share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family's asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.

Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that's where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I'm the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.
Both the present and the future call us to respond with a mixture of wonder, creativity, tenacity, and compassion that can't be carried in a fist. Maybe it is the end of the world. Maybe not. Before the credits roll, let us pray for strength to be our best selves rather than looking to the sky for an escape hatch.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

caught by surprise

The heat finally broke at our house this afternoon.

About three-thirty, the wind started coming in off the water, the blinds on the east side of the house began to sway slightly letting in the cool air, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. According to the forecasters, the week ahead won’t see too much over eighty degrees. It has taken the upstairs longer to cool off than downstairs, so I’m just now getting to the computer. As I sat down, I heard the pups bark and then smelled skunk in the air.

About ten-thirty every night, our two little dogs wake from their places on the couch and make the loop from the through the kitchen, living room, and dining room prancing with their heads in the air like the Royal Lipizzaner Schnauzers. Then they tear out through the puppy door into the backyard, barking like crazy. After a few minutes, they come back in, hop back up on the couch, and go back to sleep. Their job for the evening is done. Depending on how tired we are or whether The Daily Show is a rerun, we all usually head for bed soon after the backyard is secured.

Sometimes I’m surprised by the sacredness of simple things.

The surprise doesn’t come because I didn’t realize they were sacred before; it comes when I find what Marcus Borg calls a “thin place,” which is a moment or an experience when I am vulnerable enough to be caught by surprise. That’s the phrase I’m looking for. I want to revise the earlier sentence.

Sometimes I’m caught by surprise by the sacredness of simple things.

Caught the way a child is caught when he jumps off the side of the pool into his waiting mother’s arms, gleefully giggling the whole time. Caught the way an expression is caught in a photograph, a two-dimensional picture holding layer upon layer of memory. Caught the way a fly ball is caught when the outfielder lays himself out in a desperate dive and comes up with the ball in his glove.

Caught by surprise.

These are days when the sacredness of the simple has to speak up because I’m not sure what the bigger picture is. Once again, for me, life is a waiting room. August has come. I’m very aware that these final weeks at Hanover will pass quickly and I want to do my goodbyes well. It’s beginning to look as though I will be able to work full time at the Red Lion Inn, which is great news – particularly financially – but I know, since I’m running to open space, there is greater light yet to break forth. For a guy who grew up learning that work is worth, waiting is a daunting thing. I’m supposed to be changing the world, not just coming up with the lunch special.

I got to see Ken, my spiritual director on Tuesday for the first time in a couple of months. I talked about the darkness of the past weeks and the uncertainty of the weeks to come. As I began to articulate my struggle with waiting, he began to quote T. S. Eliot:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
And I was caught by surprise, which is to say by grace.

Robert, the Chef at the Red Lion Inn, prides himself on begin able to taste something and tell you what’s in it. When he comes into the kitchen and one of us has made something new, he tastes it, concentrates on nothing else but the food in his mouth, and then –quite accurately – names the ingredients he has discerned. The wind that comes in off the water has a distinct aroma. There is some moisture, though not necessarily humidity. There is a hint, shall we say, of those who live in the sea. But there is more, as if the crashing waves have a smell and the sand and rocks, too – even the stars overhead somehow.

The sea breeze, our crazy pooches, dinner together with squash from our garden and wine from Greece, and time to write tonight have caught me by surprise. I’m seeing more light. I’m learning to wait and savor the simple things. I’m beginning to taste the possibilities.


Wednesday, August 02, 2006

africa hot

It could top 100 degrees in the Boston area today.

The heat wave that has been systematically baking the nation has reached us. As Matthew Broderick said in Biloxi Blues, “It’s hot. It’s hot. It’s Africa hot.” Well, I lived in Africa and I lived in Texas.

Texas is hotter.

Over the years we have been in New England, Ginger and I continue to be amused when the weather people talk about a “heat wave,” the official definition being three days over ninety degrees. By that measure, Central Texas has been in a heat wave since 1957. In the early eighties, I spent the summer working on the farm of one of the families in the small country church I pastured. They hired me to haul hay. For thirty-two days the temperature was over 100. Now that’s a heat wave.

The problem is not so much the temperature but that we’re not used to it. Most homes around here are not air-conditioned, which means by late afternoon the temperature outside is the temperature inside. We have enough fans blowing to make the house sound like a small airfield, but hot air that is circulating is still hot air. So we look for cool places. Ginger and I went to the movie yesterday evening mostly because it was cool inside.

During the winter, when my folks call to say they’ve had an inch of snow and ice and the entire region has shut down, it’s our turn to smile. We live with weeks of sub-freezing weather and often weeks with snow covering the ground. We also live with snow plows that keep the streets scraped and sanded. We know what to do with cold; we’re ready for it. We aren’t prepared for the heat.

I guess it boils down to what you’re used to and what you’re prepared for. Forty degrees is cold in Waco because it’s fifty degrees below what feels like normal. Forty degrees in March around here means we pull out the shorts because it’s thirty degrees warmer than it was in February.

When I was a kid and we were on leave from Africa (the same year I got to watch the World Series), we went to Cranfills Gap, Texas, which was my father’s seminary pastorate. The family we were visiting had a boy my age. They decided to take us hunting, which is what they were used to doing. I was not. We were walking across a field when we surprised an armadillo, who jumped straight up in the air and then scurried into the underbrush. When I asked what it was, the boy said, “You ain’t never seen a ‘diller before? Where you been?”

“Africa,” I answered. I knew about lions, leopards, and hippos that he had never seen. I just didn’t know about dillers. He thought I was nuts and I thought he was a hick. We both looked confused.

Our environment affects what we experience and, therefore, the questions we learn to ask. Last summer at UCC National Synod, I picked up In The Company of Others: A Dialogical Christology by David H. Jensen. The opening sentence of his preface reads:

In order to become more faithful disciples, Christians need the insights of persons who profess distinctly different religious commitments. (x)
He continues a bit later:
In this polyglot environment, we who are Christians need others to hold us accountable to our traditions, to criticize the instances in which our thinking and acting have denigrated others, and to express appreciation for how our traditions have affirmed other ways. Christians need others not simply to become more responsible theologians, but, more profoundly, to become more authentic followers of the One from Nazareth who placed others at the center of his ministry and message. (xi-xii)
Our answers are only as good as our questions. If our questions never move us beyond, “Why is it so hard for those folks to deal with stuff that feels normal to me?” we will never come up with answers that move us beyond the province of our own minds. The weather is not the same everywhere, nor are the animals.

I think I made my point.

I don’t know -- it’s getting too hot to think. Africa hot.