Thursday, September 28, 2006

not the same

This morning after Ginger left for work, I loaded up the Cherokee Sport with two old grills, a broken hand push lawnmower that would have made Bagger Vance proud, and some other junk -- all of which has been sitting on the non-driveway side of our house for at least a couple of years. – and took it to the town dump, I mean Transfer Station. Every time I go there, the same woman is in the little booth at the entrance. First she opens the sliding window and asks what I’ve brought to drop off. Then she asks to see my window sticker, punches the card the town issued me if I have any household trash, and instructs me as to where to dispose of the different kinds of rubbish I’m hauling because there are very specific places for different kinds of refuse. We have the same conversation most every time I go there, the only differences having to do with the different kinds of trash I’m carrying. I’ve never seen her leave the booth or walk around; I’ve never heard her ask different questions. Everyday from eight to four, she sits in her tiny little booth, punches cards, and tells people what to do with their trash.

My day had a different contour.

After my dump run, I came home to prepare food for the New Clergy Group that Ginger facilitates once a month. They are a wonderful collection of folks; my contribution to their gathering is to keep them fed as they talk. Each month I try to vary the menu, but I always have to make little bites of Brie and caramelized pears wrapped in puff pastry. The group meets for three hours, during which time I usually get out of the house. It’s probably three and a half hours before I come back and they are always still there. The meeting has officially ended and the conversation may have lightened a bit, but they stay as the tone of the gathering moves from one of colleagues to friends.

Then I headed for the Fall Planning Meeting of the Clergy Spousal Support Group, which meets as often as we can at Namaste, our favorite Indian restaurant in Plymouth. The group is composed of my friend Doug and me, since we are both husbands of ministers. Our planning meeting went well: we decided to keep meeting for Indian Food. I also anticipate the continued meetings of our subcommittees on Good Music, Barbeque, and Fine Ales. If our wives were not in ministry, we would still meet for lunch; that’s what friends do.

By the time we had finished eating and talking, the better part of the afternoon had passed. I went on to Kiskadee, since I was in Plymouth, and had a good cup of coffee while I tried to get a handle on my parting words for Sunday.

After an hour or so, I came home to fix dinner, since Thursday is one of the few nights during the week that I get to cook for Ginger and we get to eat together. There’s no better meal for me than one shared with her. We caught up on our days and enjoyed being with each other. I don’t know anything better.

The other night, while I was watching TV as I walked on the treadmill, a local television station had a story on Parker Brothers, who makes Monopoly and Life (and are now owned by Hasbro). They were founded in Massachusetts and still have a factory here. The visual in the story showed women in the factory putting the pieces in the game boxes, each person putting the same piece in the box over and over again. There was no way to do it creatively, no way to spend the afternoon eating Indian food with a friend.

Patty Griffin sings a song about a person who works at the Table Talk Pie Company in Worcester, Massachusetts, called "Making Pies." The song begins:

It's not far
I can walk
Down the block
To Table Talk
Close my eyes
Make the pies all day

Plastic cap
On my hair
I used to mind
Now I don't care
I used to mind
Now I don't care
Cause I'm gray

Did I show you this picture of my nephew
Taken at his big birthday surprise
At my sister's house last Sunday
This is Monday and I'm making pies
I'm making pies
Making pies
My work week is four ten-hour days and I do my share of cooking, though I’m not making pies. And I’m not on an assembly line. I can end up making a whole bunch of burgers or Caesar salads in the course of a day, but it’s never the same thing over and over. Whatever my life is, it’s not the same ole same ole. I often take for granted that my life is normal. Driving away from the woman in the box today, I was reminded it’s not. Griffin’s song concludes:
Here I am
Walking the block
To Table Talk
You could cry or die
Or just make pies all day
I'm making pies
Variety is a gift, not a given. I’m grateful for my choices.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

here's to the day

This time of night the minutes pass faster than the words can move from my brain and through my fingers on to the page. As I look towards Sunday and bringing my time at the Hanover church to a close, I’m struck that serendipitously my farewell falls on World Communion Sunday. (I learned from Jan that it is also the fifth anniversary of the beginning of our bombing of Afghanistan.) Of all the aspects of Christian worship, Communion is my favorite. I even wrote about it in an earlier post. One of the reasons I love the Meal is its unending layers of meaning. Like any good meal, there’s more going on that just eating; like any good worship experience, God finds ways to surprise.

At a youth camp one summer many summers ago, we were closing the week by sharing Communion together. That night, we set up the elements in the middle of the room and let people come in various groupings to the Table to serve one another. I went to the table with my friend Reed. Before we served each other he said, “You know what blows my mind? We’re doing something every Christian before us has done and every Christian after us will do.” A few years later, I was with my friend Ken (who pastors here) and he was talking about being moved by Jesus’ words, "But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom." (Matt. 26:29) My friend Billy and I took his words and wrote a song, which I’m going to sing at Hanover on Sunday.

here’s to the day

pieces of life laid on the table
here is the blood poured out in love
fill this cup raise it up

here’s to the day, my friend

time draws a line down innocent faces
years mark the dreams that failed to come home
so you’ll say goodbye say goodnight
and here’s to the day remember

can you say it for the ones whose voices are silenced
can you say it for the ones who’ve never been free
can you pray for peace ache for peace
here’s to the day that’s coming
god speed the day

gather in close now cling to each other
sing to the night you don’t sing alone
fill this cup raise it up
here’s to the day remember
Jesus served his disciples the bread and the cup in the context of goodbye. Part of the deep meaning in the meal is love is stronger than forget (I know I’m borrowing that from someone; I just can’t figure out who). Part of the meaning is no one is around forever. We are all essential to God, but, in these days we call life, none of us is indispensable. When I was youth minister in Fort Worth, I tried to communicate my point by sticking my hand in a glass vase full of water.

“While my hand is in the water, you can see its place,” I said. Then I pulled my hand out of the vase; the water didn’t leave a hole where my hand had been. “The only evidence I have that my hand was there is that it’s wet.” The church in Hanover has gathered for around three hundred years and generation after generation, person after person, has left fingerprints all over the place and, one by one, they have been both remembered and forgotten. The point of standing in the Unbroken Line that brings us all to the Table is not to be remembered as much as to be in line. I’m proud of the fingerprints I’ve left at Hanover and the water will fill in behind me (I think that’s mixing metaphors) and the church, both in Hanover and around the world, will keep going. When November comes (we share Communion once a month), I will be in a different church, but still in the same unbroken line, leaving my fingerprints there.

Don’t let my theologizing fool you: I’m sad to leave. I’m leaving people I have grown to love. I’m leaving people I’ve grown accustomed to being with. I’m leaving things unfinished. I’ve spent my life saying goodbye and have yet to experience a time when it doesn’t suck to have to do it. I’m grateful we will get to say goodbye gathered at the Communion Table, where we can lean into the love that reminds us goodbye is not an ultimate word. One day, we will say hello.

Here’s to the day.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

borrowed words

Tonight was my last deacons meeting, preceded by my last staff meeting. For many months Don, Chad (our choir director and organist extraordinaire), and I have met at the local Panera each Tuesday evening at six to eat and discuss whatever we feel like talking about – and some church stuff as well. Our time together has a been an amazing idea factory. I will miss being with them each week.

As I left deacons’ meeting and walked across the parking lot to my car, the reality of this goodbye came to rest on my heart in a way it has not done before. I’m making the move I feel called to make and I’m going to miss these people terribly.

Since I came up to write tonight, I haven’t been able to get past the parking lot. So, I turned to The Writer’s Almanac hoping to find some words that might speak for me. I even read ahead through the poems yet to be broadcast this week. Thursday’s poem is one by Mary Oliver with which I find deep resonance, and so I share it with you. If you are a regular listener to Garrison Keillor’s daily dose of verse, act surprised when he reads it on Thursday.


My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
What she said.


Monday, September 25, 2006

what i like about you

Tonight marked the beginning of my final week at the church in Hanover, which means the first in a series of last things. The Monday Night Bible Study group had a special gathering tonight for me (it doesn't usually start up until after Columbus Day). The group has met on Monday nights for twenty five or thirty years. I started going because I figured the folks who were committed to the group would be leaders in the church whether they held any church office or not. Over three years of Mondays we studied and laughed and cried and prayed together. That group is one of my favorite things about the church.

One of the things Don did tonight was to ask people to tell me what they appreciated about my ministry. Their affirmation was overwhelming, deeply affirming, and incredibly humbling. The people who were speaking have great stories to tell in their own lives and were taking time to encourage and compliment me. As I drove home, I thought about how few jobs ever offer the kind of moment I got to have. I'm a fortunate person to have been able to sit in that room tonight, breathing in the love that filled it, and being offered words of healing and hope.

I worked lunch today at the restaurant, which means I got there about ten and left around six. I arrived to find Robert in the kitchen and all burners blazing; there was a brunch that no one had told him about until Sunday evening. He was on his own trying to feed about twenty five people everything from Eggs Benedict to pancakes to raspberry danishes -- and all at a time of day he does not usually see. When breakfast was over, he and the servers who helped stacked all their dishes and pans in the dishroom and left. Usually on a Monday, Joe (the other cook) and I fill up the dishroom on our own because Monday is a prep day: everything was used up over the weekend and we have to restock. Today we made clam chowder, lentil vegetable soup, crab cakes, lobster salad, cole slaw, along with all the dressings and other little things that have to be done.

Pedro, the dishwasher, usually comes in around five or five-thirty, after working all day on a construction site. We have a running joke. He comes in and looks at everything we have piled up and says, "Why you no like me?" Then he smiles. Around two o'clock, Joe and I took some time to try and make some order of all the dirty dishes that were strewn around the dishroom. We stacked plates, put the silverware in the soaking tray, and tried to collect the pots and pans in a way that would at least make the huge collection of stuff to be washed a little more manageable. Pedro came in, looked at the stuff stacked up and dropped the Portugese equivalent of an F Bomb.

"Why nobody call for two dishwashers?" he asked. I didn't have an answer. He felt disregarded and taken for granted. No one ever gets the staff together in a circle around Pedro in the dishroom and tells him how he has helped. They don't do it at his construction job either, I'm sure. A couple of our servers say "Thank you, Milton" everytime they pick up an order to take to the table. I also hear them say thanks to Pedro when they take their dirty dishes to him. In a lot of circles, that's as good as it gets.

None of us can ever get too much of some saying, "Here's what I like about you." Go ahead -- sing along.


Sunday, September 24, 2006

the sound of solidarity

I heard two things today at church I want to pass along.

After our ten o’clock service, Bob, who is a fellow NPR listener, asked me if I had heard this week’s SoundClips: Audio Experiences on All Things Considered. They have asked people to send in audio clips of meaningful or unusual sounds and then they do a short piece on what the sound is and what it means. This week’s feature was the sound of glass Communion cups being put in the cup holders after Communion at the Mayflower Congregational Church UCC in Oklahoma City. Vicky Werneke, who sent in the sound clip, said her pastor likes to refer to the sound as “the clicking sound of solidarity.”

Tonight at Senior High Fellowship, Tom, who is a fellow lover of odd movies, brought The Brave Little Toaster for us to watch together. Last week I mentioned we would do a movie night and Tom jumped at the chance to bring his favorite movie. I had never heard of it before I heard him talk about it. I don’t know why that’s the case because it is a wonderful piece of work. The story follows five appliances – a desk lamp called, Lampy, a small electric blanket called Blanky, a vacuum cleaner called Kirby, an old-fashioned radio who is nameless, and the Toaster (who is affectionately known as “Slot Head”). They live in a cabin that was the summer home for a child whom they love and think of as master. He hasn’t been back in a long time, so they decide to go to the city and find him. At some point in the story, each of the group has to do something sacrificial to help the others and to keep them going on their journey. Though the toaster’s bravery gets him the marquis billing, everyone in the group made an essential contribution in one way or another. They, too, understood the sound of solidarity.

I heard it in the way Bob and Tom brought something to me they knew would help us connect. What wonderful news it is when someone says, “I heard something the other day and it made me think of you.” Sometimes solidarity clicks as the cup hits the holder. Sometimes it sings in a song that carries a memory in its melody. Sometimes it whispers in a word of encouragement or connection. Sometimes it travels silently in a touch or an act of hopeful sacrifice. However it comes, it’s a great word.

I don’t hear the word without thinking of Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Worker’s Union in Poland, whose uprising in the summer of 1980 led to the overthrow of the Communist government there and contributed to the dissolution of Soviet control in Eastern Europe. They stood together and changed the world. I thought of them this week as crowds have begun to gather in Hungary to demand a more honest government. Walesa said, “The thing that lies at the foundation of positive change, the way I see it, is service to a fellow human being.” He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.

Most of the noise in our world these days is divisive: we are labeled Red or Blue, black or white, right or left, right or wrong, us or them. War has become our primary metaphor for living. But listen – listen to the strain of hope underneath the cacophony of chaos. You can hear it in the clink of a cup or the word of a friend, in the bold marching of an earnest throng and the small gathering of people coming together to create a memory. It infuses life in everything from Communion cups to small appliances, youth groups to labor movements.

The sound of solidarity keeps on clicking.


Thursday, September 21, 2006

intelligent design

I was listening to Weekend Edition on NPR as I drove to work onSaturday and was fortunate enough to hear a wonderful interview with Chris Smither, a folk/blues singer from this neck of the woods. He has a new album out and he sang a couple of songs. My favorite was “Origin of Species,” which begins:

well eve told adam, “snakes – I’ve had ‘em”
let’s get out of here
go raise this family somewhere out of town
they left the garden just in time
with the landlord cussing right behind
and they headed east and they finally settled down
one thing led to another
one son killed his brother
and they kicked him out with nothing but his clothes
but the human race survived
because those brothers they found wives
though where they found them ain’t nobody knows
The song was still floating around in my head when I read the news about the Dikika baby, a 3.3 million-year-old infant skeleton discovered in Africa by an Ethiopian paleoanthropologist called Zeresenay Alemseged (that’s almost as much fun to say as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). He said the skeleton was a key piece in the human “biography,” pointing to a time of transition in our development as a species when our childhood became longer so our brains could grow larger and we could develop further. The article closes with this paragraph:
The Dikika baby's biography is short, but the evolutionary steps she embodied have had profound and enduring effects. Although bipedalism and big brains carried a high cost, particularly for the mothers of our lineage, these traits ultimately combined to produce smarter babies who would eventually be able to master technologies, build civilizations, and, yes, explore their own origins.
I wonder if I ought to send Zeresenay Alemseged a copy of Smither’s record. Here’s his closing verse:
well charlie darwin looked so far into the way things are
he caught a glimpse of God’s unfolding plan
God said, “I’ll make some DNA and they’ll use it any way
they want from paramecium right up to man
they’ll have sex and mix up sections of their code
they’ll have mutations

the whole thing works like clockwork over time
I’ll just sit back in the shade while everyone gets laid
that’s what I call intelligent design

yeah, you and your cat named felix
are both wrapped up in that double helix
that’s what we call intelligent design
Of course, I’m sure the hardcore Creationists – er, Intelligent Design guys will weigh in soon. I wish I understood why they feel these kinds of discoveries threaten the wonderful story that begins the book of Genesis. True, many of the scientists who study the development of the human race are not Christians, but that doesn’t mean they are out to disprove or threaten the Bible because they are trying to make sense of what they’ve found in the dirt of the very planet God spoke into existence. Why do some Christians get defensive so easily when we can’t explain something with a Bible verse?

I have always been somewhat amused that we call the part of Christian theology that has to do with defending or proving Christianity “apologetics,” as if we are somehow saying we are sorry for our arguments. When I was in seminary, Josh McDowell was doing big business with his Evidence That Demands a Verdict. (When I “googled” him tonight I found out he’s still going strong.) I struggled with his approach because I never felt like God was on trial. Yes, I know many Christians around the world are persecuted for their faith, but that’s not what I’m talking about and that wasn’t his point back then, either. The courtroom metaphor quickly tires me because I don’t think we’re going to debate anyone into faith.

In my bookmarks I have a link to the UDF Skywalker, which shows pictures taken by the Hubble telescope. The picture on there now shows ten thousand galaxies and captures light we are just now seeing that goes back to when the universe was 800 million years old, which is, according to the site, one seventeenth of its current age. 17 x 800,000,000 = 13,600,000,000 years. And we’re trying to come to terms with a three million year old skeleton.

Our brains need to keep growing.

The Psalmist said to God, “When I gaze into the night sky and see what kind of imagination you have, I wonder why we ever cross your mind” (my translation). His intent was not scientific observation or theological explanation. It was a statement of faith by one who was “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” To make this a battle between science and faith is to create unnecessary adversaries. Read the Psalmist again and then take in this quote from Stephen Crane (sorry, I can’t find the context):
A man said to the universe: "Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe, "The fact has not created in me a sense of obligation.”
In some ways, the conversations don’t appear to be so different, but the Psalmist’s question begs for a response and carries hope of relationship: the Creator of the Stars does notice him standing in the dark. Crane’s character cries for affirmation only to be humbled without much hope.

Let’s speak up about that. Let’s quit fighting straw Neanderthals and debating in Theological Moot Court and speak, to borrow Paul Simon’s words, “of things that matter and words that must be said.” We were dreamed up and breathed into existence by a God who made us to do something more creative than argue about bones and biology when we live in a world crying out for hope.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

church as family

As the day fades, the thoughts in my head swirl like water going down a drain. I’m not sure I can make much sense of them before they disappear. Since Sunday is getting closer by the minute, I’ve been turning the idea of family as metaphor for church over and over in my mind. Here are a few random, yet tangentially connected thoughts that I will remember better if I write them down.


I was late getting to my adolescent rebellion, so my twenties were hard on me and my parents. One of my seminary colleagues called me one day and said, “I heard your dad preach today and he talked about you.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He said, ‘We face two kinds of difficulties in life: problems and predicaments. A problem is something you can do something about; a predicament is something you have to learn to live with. I used to think of my eldest son as a problem; now I understand he is a predicament.’”

Since I was carrying a chip on my shoulder the size of Cleveland at the time, I failed to see the humor and the grace in his words. Since then, we’ve both learned to live with each other rather than trying to solve or fix one another. I'm glad.


Here’s a great quote from Erma Bombeck: "The family. We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together."


In my search for quotes, one of the things I noticed was a majority of them focused on children. Neither Ginger nor I have ever felt called to have children of our own. We have amazing godchildren and have been foster parents, and we have spent a great deal of our lives helping raise other people’s children in one way or another. Family begs for a wider definition that we often give it.


I learned a new name tonight in my search for quotes: Mignon McLaughlin. Here were her thoughts on family: “Family quarrels have a total bitterness unmatched by others. Yet it sometimes happens that they also have a kind of tang, a pleasantness beneath the unpleasantness, based on the tacit understanding that this is not for keeps; that any limb you climb out on will still be there later for you to climb back” (The Neurotic’s Notebook). Both her words and the book title make me want to know more about her.


After my folks and I worked through The Hard Years, we had a conversation about how we had experienced those days. My mother said, “There were times we thought when we hung up the phone that we would never hear from you again.”

I can remember feeling surprised by her words. The thought that I could just walk away had never crossed my mind. I figured family stayed family whether I walked away or stayed. The challenge was not to find a way to escape, but a way to live with it. Dad was right: it was a predicament.


The church is a family. What then shall we say?


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

einstein's ipod

The last of the seniors from youth group leaves for college tomorrow. She’s going to a school in Washington State that, I suppose, starts late so they don’t cut into anyone’s time in the sun. I’m particularly glad it worked out for her to be here for our Mission Trip dinner because she was the catalyst for our youth group during her time in high school. We went to breakfast this morning to say our farewells. She’s an awesome kid who is well grounded and knows how to dream big – an incredible combination. She’s headed out west because of her interest in environmental and oceanographic things and she has an adventurous spirit. I’m looking forward to hearing about what she finds in the days to come.

As we sat at breakfast, she told me about some of the classes she is taking. One she had to miss out on, because of scheduling, was a seminar that combined art and biology. (That makes me think of a guy from my youth group in Texas who majored in geographic biology. I pictured him saying to someone, “If your body were a map, your spleen would be Spain.”) Since my days in college, more and more schools have moved to a synthetic approach that pulls a variety of disciplines into conversation. When I was teaching, I became acquainted with The Coalition of Essential Schools; part of their emphasis was on learning in context. Each year there was a topic, time period, or area of study that connected all the disciplines – the Great Depression, for example – creating possibilities for students to draw cross-disciplinary conclusions from their learning.

We don’t live in solitary confinement, neither do we deal with life in single issues. Everything is interrelated. We are influenced and shaped by what happens around us, what happened before us, as well as what happens to us – maybe even stuff we don’t know about. My college history professor (my major) taught all his classes using novels as textbooks; he told us the novelists were the ones who captured the essence of the times in which they lived more effectively than those who came later to catalog wars and dates. I learned about the Industrial Revolution from Dickens and Tsarist Russia from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. What Dr. Daniel imprinted most on my mind was the story part of history, and a good story has lots of layers.

In seminary, I read Hans Kung’s Does God Exist? An Answer for Today and was profoundly moved by something that was not his main point. In the book, Kung gives an amazing history of modern Western thought, beginning with Descartes. When he got to Hegel’s dialectic, he talked about how the philosophy played out in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, the economics of Karl Marx, and the theology of Karl Barth. I knew something about all three men, but I had never thought of them as contemporaries. That discovery has never let go of me. I wonder what Einstein would have listened to had he had an iPod; what Jackson Pollock read; who was alive alongside of Gandhi or Genghis Khan or Jesus. For all of the classes I sat through in New Testament and theology, I never heard any professor talk much about what was happening beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. We studied theology in the context of theology. What were the Chinese doing in those days, or the Africans? I know Jesus didn’t talk to them, and I would love to know what was on the wind that blew across cultural and religious lines. What’s to be learned from noticing that Martin Luther King and the Beatles stormed this country at the same time? There are more layers to the story that what we have already been told.

Our stance as Americans is too often like Bette Midler’s character in Beaches: “Enough about me; let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” While I’m at it, I’ll make another cinematic allusion: we’re not listening, Barton. When life is reduced to pragmatism, to looking out for Number One, to focusing on one slice of existence, we lose the layers of life that offer opportunity and hope. We cease to be story tellers: we quit listening and we lose sight of the layers. We have to push ourselves to see more than The View From Here, and I mean more than keeping up with current events on other continents. The same dynamic is true on a relational level. Sunday night, I made up a recipe for our Mission Trip dinner, which I called Barbeque Bonfire Packs. I knew how to make it up because of what I’ve learned from working with Robert, the Head Chef at the Red Lion Inn. He made me look good. I had a better story to tell because I know his story.

This month, Don and I are preaching on different metaphors for church. I chose family because it is a metaphor rich with possibilities and contradictions. Even in a family like my family of origin, which is small enough to have a family reunion in a minivan, there are layers of life that require intentional listening of each of us if we are going to do more than be related to each other. The commonalties we share are a good jumping off place, but it’s in the differences and divergences where we find the real possibilities for relationship. My brother and I are both committed Christians, he in a Southern Baptist mega-church and I in a small church that is part of the United Church of Christ, deemed by some as “the last house on the left” in the Christian neighborhood. We have both grown into learning how to ask good questions of one another, trust one another, disagree with one another, and love one another. (That last sentence, by the way, has taken the better part of our adult lives to write.) I’m better because he’s my brother.

A rabbi, a priest, a physicist, a yoga instructor, an auto mechanic, a bag piper, a farmer, a ballet dancer, a soccer player, and an economist all go into a bar. I’m not sure where that story goes, but it will be better than one that begins, “Six teachers (or accountants, or artists) locked themselves in a room together and said, ‘Good. Now we’re safe.’”

At least the first one will have one hell of a punch line.


Monday, September 18, 2006

talk like a pirate

I would be remiss if I did not begin by pointing out that September 19 is International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Please act and speak accordingly. Arrr.

I would guess it's a big day in Arrrgentina and Arrrkansas, among other places. Might be a good day to go to an Arrr-rated movie. I'm going to be a landlubber, myself, spending most of the day around the house, cleaning the yarrrd and so on. Maybe I'll wear an eye patch just for fun or just stand out front and yell, "Ahoy!" at people passing by. I might even invite them in for some grog.

I would have to say that my favorite pirate is the Dread Pirate Robert from The Princess Bride, which ranks as one of my favorite movies. The other pirate movie I could watch again and again is Hook. I know it didn't get great reviews, but I still find it enchanting. I think it's the kids. But the best pirates in the world are The Pirates Who Won't Do Anything who will soon have their own movie. In honor of Talk Like A Pirate Day, I leave you with the lyrics to their song.

Arr, arr, arr, arr

We are the pirates who don't do anything
We just stay at home and lie around

And if you ask us to do anything

We'll just tell you we don't do anything

Well I've never been to Greenland

And I've never been to Denv
And I've never buried treasure
in St. Louie or St. Paul
And I've never been to Moscow

And I've never been to Tampa

And I've never been to Boston in the fall

We're the pirates who don't do anything

We just stay at home and lie around

And if you ask us to do anything

We'll just tell you we don't do anything

And I've never hoist the main sail

And I've never swabbed the poop deck

And I've never veer to starboard 'cause I never sail at all

And I've never walked the gangplank

And I've never owned a parrot

And I've never been to Boston in the fall

'Cause we're the pirates who don't do anything
We just stay at home and lie around

And if you ask us to do anything

We'll just tell you we don't do anything

Well I've never plucked a rooster

And I'm not too good at ping ball

And I've never thrown my mashed potatoes up against the wall

And I've never kissed a chipmunk

And I've never gotten head lice

And I've never been to Boston in the fall.

Huh? What are you talking about?
Whats a rooster and mashed potatoes have to do with being a pirate?

Hey, thats right!
We are supposed to sing about pirate-y things.
And who's ever kissed a chipmunk? That's just nonsense!
Why even bring it up?
Am I right? What do you think?
I think you look like Captain Crunch.

Huh? No I don't!

Do too.

Do not!

You're making me hungry.

Thats it! You're walkin' the plank.

Says who?

Says the Cap'n, thats who!

Oh yeah?
Ay Ay, Cap'n Crunch! hehehehe



And I've never licked a spark plug

And I've never sniffed a stinkbug

And I've never painted daises
on a big red rubber ball
And I've never bathed in yogurt
And I don't look good in leggings (You just don't get it.)
And we've never been to Boston in the fall!

(spoken) Pass the chips!
Who's got the remote control?
Here it is!
Time for Heraldo.
It's definately time for Loch Nech.

Ohh.. I don't like this show.

Hey look! I found a quarter!
Have a piratey day.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

feeling and failing

After today, I have two weeks before my time at Hanover comes to an end.

Tonight we had the Stockholders’ Dinner for those who helped us go on the mission trip to Jackson, Mississippi. The evening went well and I sorely missed all our graduated folks who are now writing the first chapter of their college lives. One was there tonight because she doesn’t leave for school until Wednesday. The others who went on the trip and the adult sponsors were there to tell about our experiences. We fed folks, talked a lot, and then watched a movie that one of our college students made of the trip. We asked him to go along as “documentarian” and he filmed all week and then put together a wonderful twelve-minute film that really captured the emotion of our experience.

Ginger asked me when I got home if I was sad. The short answer to her question is yes and I also feel good about the move I’m making to cook full time. Within about thirty minutes, I had descended into a strange funk that gave off such a toxic vibe it almost had an odor. I came upstairs to try and figure it out. I’ve been sitting here for an hour, and I think I understand it better: leaving feels like failure to me. I know I’ve worked hard the last three years. I feel good about what I’ve done. I’m grateful for the relationships that formed in the time I was at Hanover. I can hear the compliments and affirmations that have come from folks in the church AND leaving feels like failure to me. It always has. On a visceral, guttural, core of me being level, something tells me I’m leaving because I’m not enough. I’m on my own now because I’m not enough. The song that keeps running through my head (and showed up out of nowhere) is David Bowie’s “Ground Control to Major Tom” about the astronaut who goes out on a spacewalk and never makes it back:

here am I floating like a tin can, far above the moon
planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do . . .
I don’t know how to articulate more than that tonight because I’m falling asleep and my exhaustion is probably exacerbating the intensity of the emotion. I do know it’s more than an Oskar Schindler saying, “I could have done more.” Of course I could have -- and I did a good job. It is also something other than desperately needing someone to tell me they’re proud of me. The best I can describe it, I feel a sense of failure in the disconnect and, at some level and quite forcefully, what I hear – even in making this move for reasons I believe in – is I am more alone, therefore I failed.

I know the voice is insidious. I know it’s a lie. And it wounds my soul and makes life miserable for Ginger. I don’t know anything else to do right now but to name it and work hard to do more than just stink up the place.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

so long, ann -- and thanks

Ann Richards died yesterday of esophageal cancer. She was seventy-three.

Living in Texas during the seventies and eighties meant getting to hear and watch Ann Richards. She was, to me, the epitome of a Texas woman, brash and beautiful at the same time. I'm proud to say we share the same alma mater -- Baylor University -- though Baylor, who keeps hoping to land the George W. Bush Presidential Library (one trailer, two books), has never been quick to claim her, even though she ranks among the best they have helped produce.

She was a person who knew herself, flaws and all, and had no problem admitting hers and calling others to own up to theirs, which made her an unusual and refreshing addition to both the Texas and national political scene. She served one term as governor of Texas -- the last Democrat to hold that position, losing her bid for reelection to none other than Dubya himself. When she was asked if she would have done anything different had she known she would only serve one term, she said, "Oh, I probably would have raised more hell."

Her life story is an inspirational one. When she spoke, she had a way of drawing on her life experience to connect with others, rather than making it all about her. She was bright, sometimes bawdy, witty, and honest. No wonder she was happy to leave politics. Many of her words are worth remembering. One of m
y favorites comes from her Keynote Address at the 1988 Democratic Convention, where she described George Bush 1 by saying,"Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

The most poignant quote I found today was also from that speech.

I'm really glad that our young people missed the Depression, and missed the great big war. But I do regret that they missed the leaders I knew. Leaders who told us when things were tough, and that we would have to sacrifice, and these difficulties might last awhile. They didn't tell us things were hard for us because we were different, or isolated, or special interests. They brought us together and they gave us a sense of national purpose.
I read those words and thought, here we are eighteen years later and the problem is still the same. We don't have leaders as large as the problems we face. We are hard pressed to find folks who live, act, and speak by the courage of their convictions rather than the latest poll numbers or the directions of their handlers. My point is not to wax nostalgic, but to voice concern. We have done a lot of things well in America, but creating a society that fosters and develops capable people to lead it is not one of them.

Yesterday, our list of enchanting leaders was decreased by one.

So long, Ann -- and thanks.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

learning from laughter

Good news to report tonight: Rachel went home today, five days after her surgery. She is in good spirits and is feeling well, all things considered. Now the challenge is figuring out how life will look for her and Reuben, my father-in-law, who has some issues of his own. Thanks again for your prayers.

On the nights I have not been working, I've watched a couple of movies that I knew would not interest Ginger. The one that got me thinking the most was Albert Brooks' lastest film, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. The title was enough to make me pick up the movie, but I had also heard about it on NPR a while back. If you've never seen one of his movies, I will say he is an acquired taste, but a taste worth acquiring. As in his other movies, Brooks plays himself -- this time as a comedian who is asked by the U. S. State Department to go to India and Pakistan for a month to find out what makes them laugh and then to write a five hundred page report. In return, they promise him the Medal of Freedom.

He goes to New Delhi, and when he can't get anyone to respond on the street when he asks them what makes them laugh, and because he can't find any comedy clubs in the city, he rents a school auditorium to put on a free comedy concert. He begins with this joke:

Why is there no Halloween in India?
Because they took away all the Ghandi.

He got nothing but crickets. They don't have Halloween in India because it's an American holiday. His search for humor reflects the way most Americans tend to ask questions about the rest of the world: why aren't they more like us? His quest is painful, informative, poignant, and funny.

One of the things that struck me had to do with the original request from the State Department. They were asking about comedy as part of the war on terror: if they could learn what made the Muslims laugh, they would have another weapon in their arsenal. The shallowness of their understanding shows through when Brooks comments that India is a Hindu country. Rather than point out there are more Muslims in India than in any other country in the world, the response is, "When you learn what makes the Hindus laugh, you'll know what makes the Muslims laugh."


In the comedy concert, Brooks tells the audience he is going to show them what improvisation is. He brings out a blackboard and asks them for suggestions to help shape a character he will embody: nationality, occupation, married or single, kids or no kids, rich or poor. He takes their suggestions and, one by one, changes them until he gets to the character he wants to do, which is not at all what the audience gave him. They didn't laugh. He was trying hard to connect, but he wasn't listening; he wasn't looking for what they thought was funny, he was looking for them to tell him he was funny.

We, as Americans, are not malicious or malevolent for the most part, but we do damage around the world because we take much the same approach: we don't listen, we tell; we don't investigate, we assume; we don't cooperate, we lead; we don't see ourselves as equals, we see ourselves as heroes. In the end, Brooks, for all his good intentions and earnest need for affirmation, didn't understand what made Muslims laugh anymore than George Bush understands what's going on in the minds of those he calls "evil doers." Neither knows how to make sense of those who are different from them (though I think Brooks, as writer and director, understood that was the point he was making).

I remember my dad telling me a story of an American journalist who came to visit Zambia when we lived there. He was staying a month and was going to write a book on Africa. One of the Zambian pastors told him, "It is good you are only staying a month, because then you will leave with all the answers; if you stay longer, you will find you have none of the answers." Whenever my dad told that story (we Cunninghams are good at repeating the stories we like), he always laughed. Now that was funny.

And sad.

My favorite joke is one I heard on Prairie Home Companion several years ago on the April Fools' Show, which is always filled with jokes. It goes like this:

Two penguins are talking.
One says, "Some people think we look like we're wearing tuxedos."
The second one says, "Maybe I am."

I love that joke. I can't explain it. But then again, if you have to explain a joke, it's no longer funny.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

the art of friendship

We are in the middle of a string of beautiful early autumn days in New England. I have the day off and I’m sitting at my MacBook in the Kiskadee Coffee Company in downtown Plymouth relishing the afternoon. My mother-in-law is continuing her good progress: it looks like she’ll go home tomorrow. Amazing.

I got out of the house because I wanted to write at some other time than midnight and the Nap Monster was lurking behind the couch, with the two Schnauzers acting as his minions, determined to put me to sleep beneath the soft sea breeze. Once I finish writing, I plan to go home and allow myself to fall prey to their devious plot.

One of my favorite things about working at the Red Lion Inn is the variety of people with whom I get to interact. The staff in the function kitchen is from El Salvador, the dishwashers and some of the restaurant staff are from Brazil, the manager is French, the owner is German, and the servers are an interesting collection of twenty-something white people. Together we make a good team. Life in the kitchen is often hectic, yet also offers room for conversation. Two such moments caught me by surprise last week. The first was finding out that one of the Salvadorians, a gentle good-humored guy who is among the most helpful people I know, fought against the rebels in his country years ago. His brother told us about it with a great deal of admiration. Now, he strikes me as a kind and peaceful guy, but in another time and another place, he was different.

The second surprise was similar: I was talking to one of our servers, a twenty-one year old white woman who weighs about a hundred pounds soaking wet, and found out she was in the National Guard and had served a year in Iraq as an Army aircraft gunner (I’m not sure my military terminology is precise). She will probably have to go back to the Middle East after the first of the year. I still can’t picture her in a plane strafing the desert for insurgents.

We live much of our lives like billiard balls, bouncing around and grazing each other on the way to whatever the pocket is. My encounters last week remind me of how quickly I allow myself to decide I know who someone is, when all I know comes from brief contact or my own preconceived notions drawn from external circumstances.

In the first restaurant where I cooked, I came out from the kitchen late one afternoon with a carry out order. The man who came to pick it up said to me, “You look familiar. You a cop?” When I said no, he responded confidently, “Hockey player.” I said yes so he could get going. My large frame and shaved head had led him to his own conclusions. He wasn’t looking for his mind to be changed.

My friend Doug is a painter. He and his wife were in Maine a couple of weeks ago and he took the opportunity to paint some wonderful landscapes. One of them was of the bay at sunrise. He talked about how they got up early, made a pot of coffee, and drove in the dark to the site from which he wanted to paint. In the early morning twilight, he set up his easel so he could be ready to catch the moment. “You only have a few minutes to get it down on canvas,” he told me. And he got it; the painting is beautiful.

What works for the painter is not a good metaphor when it comes to dealing with one another. Too often we do a quick study and then paint the portrait of someone, frame it, and hang it on the wall in our minds as if we have captured the essence of that person the way Doug captured the sunrise on the water. Such a two-dimensional glimpse is not good art when it comes to friendship. In the late ninties, a movie called Smoke told the story of Auggie (Harvey Kietel) who owned a smoke shop in Brooklyn. Every morning at eight o’clock, he walked across the intersection from his store and took a picture of his shop. He kept each and every photograph in albums behind the counter. When one of the other characters asked him why he took the same picture everyday, he was quick to point out it was not the same picture. He was taking a picture of the same store at the same time everyday, but the details were always different: the weather, the people walking by, the traffic. The art of friendship requires us, as artists, to commit ourselves to picture after picture, offering a more complete image of our subjects by learning from the details and the differences.

My Salvadorian co-worker is more than a soldier or a prep cook; the Italian-American woman is more than a server or a tail gunner. I have to be willing to keep taking pictures if I want my friendship to be good art.


Monday, September 11, 2006

marking the day

I started my day, as I'm sure many did, being inundated by the various morning talk shows’ commemoration of the September 11 anniversary. By nine-thirty, I was on my way to the restaurant, having said goodbye to Ginger, who was on her way back to Birmingham. I didn’t get off work until 9:30 tonight, which meant I didn’t hear anything else about the anniversary; my world today consisted of the folks I saw at work.
Anniversaries can be strange things. When it comes to public events like 9/11, something pulls us to notice and remember, but I’m not sure we can articulate – or have articulated – what we want the moment to mean. Perhaps the meanings among us are so diverse that we struggle to find cohesion, or even understanding. We want it to make sense. Two planes full of people crashing into the Towers will never make sense. The talk shows seemed to think that pulling our emotional strings was a way of giving the day meaning. The teaser before one commercial break was they were going to talk to the children who had been in the schoolroom with Bush when he found out to see what they remembered about the day. They were six or seven; now they’re eleven or twelve. Do they really have something to add to the public conversation?

September marks the fifth anniversary of the onset of my depression. Though I think it lurked in me like a terrorist for many years, as I look back now, it was September of 2001 when it took me down and took me down hard. In past years, this has been a dark month. So far this year, it does not seem to be so. Other than feeling I have lived another year and learned some things about how to live with depression, I don’t know what to make of the anniversary. Next year I will say it has been six years, and then seven after that. Septembers will pass like mile markers giving me a sense of the distance I have traveled, but not much else.

My aunt died five years ago last spring. For the first couple of years, I called my cousin on the anniversary of her death to say I was thinking about her. After the second or third anniversary, I got an email asking me not to do that again. The day was not one to be marked for her. “Call me on my mom’s birthday,” she said; “ that’s a day to celebrate and remember.” Composers are remembered on their birthday rather than they day of their death. For most other historically significant figures, it’s the other way round. I like thinking of Pegi as a composer; she created quite a symphony in the way she lived.

I wish I could say all my rambling was leading to some incredibly insightful comment, but I don’t know how to make sense of the day any more than anyone else, other than to say I spent it well. Something in that is worth remembering.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

say it again

First, let me say a word of thanks for the prayers and words of encouragement. My mother-in-law is “ahead of schedule” according to her doctor: she was moved to a room Saturday morning and was up walking down the hall less than forty-eight hours after the surgery. She is weak but in good spirits. I’m really proud of her. Ginger came home Saturday night to be here for church today and goes back to Birmingham tomorrow to stay for the week. Keep praying as we try to figure out how life goes in the days and weeks to come.

Tonight we had our first meeting of Senior High Fellowship for the year. For me, it marks the beginning of the end of my time at Hanover. After today I have three more Sundays until I leave. We had ten or twelve kids show up and part of what we did as a way of introducing ourselves was name one of our favorite movies. I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear, but I was surprised. Here is a partial list:

  • The Lord of the Rings
  • Accepted
  • American Graffiti
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • V for Vendetta
  • Funny Farm
  • Grease
  • The Big Lebowski
  • Fight Club
  • Legends of the Fall
  • The Brave Little Toaster
As each of us named our favorite film, others chimed in with favorite scenes or sayings. The discussion continued over ice cream and a few of us came to the conclusion that one of the things that makes a movie an enduring favorite is its quotability: the more lines that become a part of your conversation, the better the film. Robert, the head chef at the Red Lion claims he would not have a personality if were not for movie lines. In seminary, several of us who went to Baylor together moved up I-35 to Southwestern Seminary. We had all sat through multiple viewings of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Three Amigos, among others. One day, a new acquaintance to our group said to me, “I need you to give me a list of the ten movies I need to watch so I can be a part of your conversation.”

There is something powerful in the language of ritual. The shared memory we tap into in repeating the lines again and again is important work. This week marks thirty years since I met my friend Burt. I was a junior at Baylor when he entered as a freshman. We have been friends ever since. For a guy who moved around growing up and lost track of everyone pre-college (though I have found some of them again, thankfully), it is with a great sense of accomplishment that I say that Burt and I have been friends for thirty years. Ours is a friendship that has flourished and thrived on ritual, much of which came out of things we saw and heard together – the words of Barney Fife and Inspector Clousseau in particular.

There is the sense of shared experience, and there is something in the language – in the DNA of the words themselves – that becomes part of our beings; we are not just repeating words, we are inhabiting them together. One of the hymnals we use at church made a valiant attempt to be more meaningful and relevant by making the language of the hymns more inclusive, which means they had to quite radically alter some of the hymns that mean the most to me. Hymns in church are to me what movie lines are to friendships and I get tripped up by the word changes. I understand what they were trying to do, but I’m not sure they realized the consequences of their good intentions. I keep singing the original words because they are deep abiding connections to God for me. The ritual of singing the songs the way I learned them is one I’m not ready to let go.

Though Ginger and I can have a rather spirited discussion about the value of our hymnal, we share a growing collection of verbal rituals, thanks to many songs and movies, as well as a few of our own creation. I continue to be moved and amazed by the power of a familiar phrase to remind me of what I know is true. Just like Lola and Gracie know that when you come in from outside you get a cookie (which means you are loved), I know that the often repeated phrases carry with them the power and promise of a life lived together.

All of the movies that matter most to me matter because of who I was with when I saw them. The phrases we repeat to one another still make us laugh out loud and remember what matters most. All of this makes me want to stay up late watching movies and then makes lots of phone calls tomorrow to say the lines and tighten the bonds.


Friday, September 08, 2006

a quick update

Here's the news: Rachel had triple-bypass surgery today. She was in surgery about four and a half hours and did very well. She had no complications during the procedure. She weathered the anesthesia well and is alert, but groggy tonight.

Thanks for all the prayers and words of support.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

hope and history

The last forty-eight hours have been full of almost every emotion I can name. Though I've been here by myself, I've spent much of the day talking to Ginger in Birmingham, keeping up with what is going on there. Rachel goes in for her surgery early tomorrow morning. Ginger comes back home Saturday evening to be here on Sunday and will go back to Birmingham for the week on Monday night. One of the calls from Ginger was to process how Irondale is changing -- even dying, thanks to the Super Wal-Mart going up in Trussville. Not long afterwards, she called to tell me of the conversation she had with the mother of one of her childhood friends. Ginger was walking through the neighborhood and the woman was sitting on her front porch journaling. They had a good visit and then Ginger walked up to the Irondale Cafe for a glass of sweet tea before she went back to her folk's house.

Any trip to Birmingham is time travel in some sense for her. Every rock and tree, every small house, every smiling face is the top layer of an onion of memory that peels back to reveal a past that is not so far away. Here in New England, we have history all around us, but it is preserved and guarded, even revered. The South has never forgotten that the biggest part of the word history is story, which means the past is not preserved but participated in, not guarded but mined, not revered but relished. It's a place to find comfort rather than pedigree.

As I have listened to Ginger and prayed for Rachel, I've also looked for words for tonight, since mine are lacking. I found them in Pierce Pettis, a son of the South, who has spoken to me deeply at different times over the years. As Friday dawns, here is a song for us all.

I've Got a Hope

Man is born to trouble

All the days of his life

As the sparks fly upward

From bonfires at night
They fill up the heavens

With pin points of light

And I've got a hope
that is not in this world

Time, it is turning

Like a plow in the field

It roots up the earth

And what's hidden is revealed

Sewing the future

While the past, it is sealed

I've got a hope

That is not in this world

Half of the battle

Is only with myself

While the other half

Is something I can't help

Lest I should stumble
I try not to forget

That every hair is numbered

Every footstep, every breath

And this life that I'm living

It will not end in death

I've got a hope
that is not in this world

I've got a hope that is not in this world
I will post something tomorrow night about the surgery.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

pivot point

This is not a week like any other week.

Yesterday, Ginger flew to Birmingham to be with her mother who had a heart catherization today. When we found out about the procedure last week, Ginger called her mother's doctor to ask what was going on. The physician's assistant was compassionate and careful in her responses, which meant she did not give Ginger much clarity as to the severity of the situation. When Ginger articulated her struggle in trying to figure out whether or not to go to Alabama, the woman said, "If it were my mother, I'd come."

The test showed blockage "in the worst possible place," according to the doctor, and Rachel is to have open heart surgery on Friday morning. Both Ginger and I have family who have survived the same surgery and thrived following it. My dad is alive because of his quadruple bypass. We know this is not experimental stuff. And it's Rachel: my wonderful, beautiful, crazy mother-in-law. We are both hopeful and concerned.

Beyond the surgery, we have several things to sort out. When you are an only child who lives a couple thousand miles away from your parents who both have health issues, how you think about the days to come becomes a multi-layered process. We are not in a panic, or in a place where we have to make big changes immediately or even contemplate them in the near future; we are aware that we are entering a new chapter in our lives together. This week is a pivot point from which life swings us in a new direction.

I'm not prepared to get much more philosophical than that this evening. I'm writing tonight to ask you to pray -- for Rachel, for Reuben, for Ginger, and for me. Thanks.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

what the stone said

As I drove around running errands today, I met someone I did not know before: I. F. Stone. Though he died a few years back, he was the topic of Talk of the Nation with his biographer, Myra McPherson. Though the facts of his life are interesting, what made me wish I had known him sooner was the description of his work ethic. Victor Navasky described it this way in The Nation:

But in short order, although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.

His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain.
I thought about Stone again when I got home and happen to see clips of Bush speaking today, ratcheting up the fear as election season begins, and actually saying Osama bin Laden’s name, which has not been part of his vocabulary for some time. As I skipped around from channel to channel, no one made mention of his tactics, or called him on the carpet for such a blatant move; they just repeated what he had said. I guess I’ll have to wait for Jon Stewart to come back to work to see someone play these words alongside of other clips to show the inconsistencies and manipulation.

I met a wonderful woman in Jackson, Mississippi a couple of years ago who had a bumper sticker on her refrigerator that said, “If you’re not appalled, you’re not paying attention.” We, as a rule, are not paying attention; we are getting what we deserve. We are allowing ourselves to be told what is going on rather than looking for the truth ourselves. Something is wrong when the best journalist I know is on a fake news show.

Though I do sport a “Bush’s Last Day” sticker on my guitar case, my point here is not that he is The Problem. Both sides of the aisle are filled with folks more consumed with power games than truth telling. When they talk about what is important to them, they talk about beating the other guys. Few of our leaders articulate anything other than what the polls show they should say or what will make their opponents look bad.

Navasky closed his article by quoting Stone’s own credo:
To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them.
I drove home from a meeting at church tonight and heard a report saying the three gubernatorial candidates in my state each released attack ads today making sure we would be afraid of them all. Election season means those seeking office will act and speak on the assumption that we are stupid people with very little memory. They will make empty promises, speak in clich├ęs, and keep telling us to “Be afraid; be very afraid.”

It’s worked before. We’ve given them no reason to believe it won’t work again. How I wish we would.


Monday, September 04, 2006

do you want fries with that?

My new schedule at the restaurant means I work forty hours in three and a half days: Monday I work twelve, Wednesday I work six, and then eleven each on Friday and Saturday. The long day on Monday makes it a challenge to write Sunday through Thursday, which is my goal. But here I am.

Mondays at the restaurant are fun and challenging because it is the day after the weekend, which means there have been no produce deliveries in Sunday and I get to take stock of what is left over and what had been left undone after the busiest days of our week. Last night about midnight, Robert, the head chef, called to tell me Sunday had been especially busy and I might need to come in a bit early. He’s never done that before. I went in at nine instead of ten.

Being the lunch chef means I have a lot of room for creativity because I’m the only one there and because it’s my job to turn the leftovers into the special of the day. Today that meant I made Uncle Milty’s Guinness and Chocolate Chili (better known as Red Lion Chili at the restaurant) for the soup du jour and a roasted statler chicken breast with caramelized onions and mushrooms in a Guinness demi-glaze (can you spot my favorite ingredient?) with roasted garlic mashed potato cakes and green beans. Though some folks tried my creations, most came in for a burger on a holiday afternoon. The funny thing was almost everyone had some change they wanted to make from the way things were listed on the menu: mixed greens instead of fries, onion rings on the side, and who knows what else. Today, the menu was only a suggestion to most, as if everyone had watched When Harry Met Sally and came into to do their best Meg Ryan impression and order everything on the side.

Two of the requests I remember in particular. One man was allergic to wheat, which meant he couldn’t eat the potato cakes (flour) or the demi-glaze (Guinness); the bartender wanted to know if I could figure something out so the man try the special. I had some potatoes that had not been made into cakes and I made a sauce for the chicken out of butter and roasted garlic. Not only did the man get to eat, but he thoroughly enjoyed his meal. The second request came from a woman who comes in regularly and has yet to order off the menu. A couple of weeks ago, she came in and asked if we could make Fettuccine Alfredo. The simple answer was yes. Last Monday night she was less specific – she just wanted something other than what was in print – so I made her a vegetable risotto. Tonight she came in and asked the bartender, “Is Milton cooking tonight?” When he said yes, she asked him to ask me what her options were. What I had was wild mushroom risotto (leftovers) that I doctored up a bit to give it a little more pizzazz. Her husband ordered the chicken special. When I went out to the pub to get some cranberry juice and check the Sox score, I had a chance to talk with them a bit. They were both quite happy. So was I.

I smile at myself because I get such a rush from being able to cook for people. I’m glad folks ask for food the way they want it. I love that someone knew if I was there I would fix a dinner just for them. I wish I had a place where I could talk to them while I was cooking. Who knows – maybe someday. For tonight, I’m just thankful I get to do what I love doing.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

flat tires and tamales

I drove to church in the rain this morning.

Somehow the weather reads the calendar: as soon as September comes there is a marked change. Of course, this year even August cooled off, but we have always been able to count on Labor Day Weekend giving us tangible proof of the end of summer as things cool off. This year it seems the sun will not make much of an appearance either. More folks than I expected made showed up for worship on a wet holiday Sunday and it was a Communion Sunday, which always helps me.

After church and a cup of coffee with Don, my senior pastor; from there I headed to the gym for some treadmill time, where I would meet Ginger, before my well deserved Sunday afternoon nap. Don and I talked about using the September Sundays to preach on different metaphors for the church as a way of trying to engage more of the congregation in the conversation on who our church is and feels God wants us to become. I realized the challenge with such a sermon is to articulate meaningful metaphors without getting caught up in shooting down the ones we don’t find helpful. When I was teaching English, we approached metaphors by starting with an odd comparison and seeing what we could find there, sort of like Forrest Gump: “Life is box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to find.”

I left Dunkin’ Donuts and turned on to the street toward the gym (part of a commercial/industrial park) to find a red Ford truck with its flashers on and a man standing beside it. I pulled over to see if I could help, thinking I could at least offer my cell phone. Abel, the man standing there, didn’t speak much English, but I did learn he had a bad flat, no spare, no phone, and no one to call for help. I offered to drive him to a nearby service station where I knew they had a mechanic. About that time we were joined by Santiago, his friend who had gone looking for help and who also spoke English. We drove to the service station; they had no one on duty that could help us but told us Sears at the mall had an auto shop open on Sunday.

On the way to the mall, I got to learn a bit about my fellow travelers. They were Mexican immigrants who had come up here from North Carolina. Santiago worked as an electrician and Abel helped him. When I told them I was a cook in a restaurant, our talk turned to food, then to the dearth of good Mexican food in our area, and then to a rather wistful conversation about tamales. I do love me some tamales.

When we got to Sears, I realized I needed to hang around because they had no way to get back to their truck. As we got in line at customer service, I also realized my two companions were the only non-Anglos in the place. I was painfully aware of how what seems simple to me is a difficult if not daunting task for those who are new here. There were no signs directing us where to stand in line, nothing that offered much help at all. The salesperson was a bit curt at first, though he warmed up, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much of that had to do with my running interference for Santiago and Abel. Regardless of what the Statue of Liberty says, we are not set up to be kind to immigrants.

We got the tire and I got them back to their truck. I left them to mount the tire and I went on to the gym, though I was tempted to reward my kindness by skipping the time on the treadmill. (Run, Milty, run.) Hey, no good deed goes unpunished. I worked up a sweat in yet another room of white people, watched a little beach volleyball to distract me, and then came home. When I passed the place I had seen Abel, the truck was gone. They had to get to work, Santiago told me: “We work seven days.”

Most of the Brazilians I work with at the restaurant also work at least one other job. Pedro, our head dishwasher and all around handyman, works construction all day before he comes and washes dishes from six to midnight. He just got a new construction job las t week. When I asked if he liked it, he said, “It’s good job. Dishwashing is good job. I like work. I feel good to work.”

In our church, as in many UCC churches, we invite people to Communion by saying, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” I know we mean it and I know we have a lot to come to terms with to incarnate our words well. I’ve been thinking about the name of the guy I first met this afternoon when I stopped to help: Abel because of this verse:

Then the Lord said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Am I supposed to look after my brother?"
(Genesis 4:9, NIRV)
If church is a family -- the Family of God, then the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. Look after your brother, your sister, your cousins, your uncle in prison, and your crazy aunt with all the cats. If church is a meal, then there are seats for everyone and all the seats are the same. There is plenty of food to go around and lots of people working hard to make sure everyone gets to eat. There is also chocolate, ice cream, chicken fried steak, and Guinness. And fried catfish. And hushpuppies. Oh – and tamales.

If church is a nation, then the borders are open and citizenship is universal. The debate over who’s in and who’s out is old business. Living in Promised Land has less to do with milk and honey than it does with keeping our promises to love God with all of our beings and our neighbors as ourselves. Homeland security gives way to “ally, ally, oxen free.” The legacy of any civilization is not in conquest but in how it cares for its citizens. We will be remembered for how well we loved one another.

It seems like a no-brainer to me that everyone would want to be a part of a group that is determined to love one another, regardless of the metaphor. Instead we opt for church as business, or fortress, or battlefield, or courtroom. I’m not sure it’s because we don’t want to be loved and to love as much as it is we don’t believe that love is stronger than fear, or power, or insecurity, or even death. We have a hard time trusting God and each other.

If church is a guy with a flat tire on a rainy afternoon, then we stop to help. I know -- I went to that church today.