Wednesday, January 31, 2007

a creative act

As I drove to work this morning my ears perked up when I heard Charlestown mentioned on the news because it’s our old neighborhood in Boston. What they were saying was quite disconcerting: I-93 northbound was closed, as was the Sullivan Square subway station because “a suspicious package” had been found that looked like a bomb of some sort. The city ground to a halt and I got to work without hearing any updates.

About three, one of the servers coming for the evening shift asked if I had heard what had happened in Boston. I said, “You mean the bomb scare?”

“It was all a hoax,” he said. “It was a promotional stunt for a cartoon.” He laughed.

It seems Turner Broadcasting was out to promote “The Aqua Teen Hunger Force” on The Cartoon Network and distributed these things in about ten cities. Boston just found theirs first – a small black box about the size of a laptop with lights running on it. Man, I would like to meet the brain trust in the TBS marketing meeting who thought imitating a terrorist act was a good way to get folks to watch cartoons. (That said, I’m sure the Hunger Force had their biggest audience tonight.)

To say the stunt was insensitive is an understatement. Rush hour in Boston is a little trip to hell on a good day. If someone sneezes or dials a wrong number on their cell phone, everything comes to a screeching halt that takes hours to untangle. I imagine that some folks trapped north of the city this morning just now got to work. Those who dreamed up and then implemented this fiasco obviously didn’t think much about the consequences of what they were setting in motion. What they thought about was getting attention the same way some of those visual and vocal train wrecks on American Idol get up there because it means they are finally on television.

The other story I heard (and I can’t find a link) was on the BBC News and was about a guy in England who has spent his life studying how bumble bees and hummingbirds fly in order to build miniature airplanes that mimic them. He’s close to reaching his goal. The tiny planes must have flexible wings like their models because they have to hover and move quickly. His quest actually has a point beyond getting in the Guinness Book of World Records. The inventor mentioned using them in fire and rescue operations where they could carry a video camera or heat sensors into burning buildings to let firefighters see what was inside. He had other ideas as well, none of them military. He was trying to imagine the consequences of his brainchild.

Both ideas are creative. No, both ideas are imaginative; only one is creative. Though no one has ever promoted a TV show quite the way TBS did today, carrying out the rush hour equivalent of shouting “Fire” in a crowded cinema doesn’t create anything. Being creative means adding to what it means to be human rather than taking away from it, such that, when we’re finished, we can respond much like our Creator responded as the Universe was breathed into existence: “That’s good.”


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

only connect

Since our first real cold snap a week or two ago, the door on the driver’s side of my Jeep Cherokee Sport has been locked up. I’ve become quite adept at entering the car from the passenger side and, I’m sure, have provided a good bit of amusement to people in various parking lots around the South Shore. Today, when I took my car to have the oil changed, I got the door fixed as well. The problem was not big, they told me: the locks had dried out.

While they were fixing the car, I was next door in the Dunkin Donuts drinking coffee and reading my Utne Reader (one of my Christmas presents from Ginger). The first article was called “Our Blackberries, Ourselves” by Lisa Else (taken from a longer article in New Scientist magazine), in which she discusses whether all the opportunities we have to be “constantly plugged in” help us to be better at self-reflection and community:

People are connecting one on one – they have their online social networks or their cell phones with 250 people on speed dial – but do they feel a part of a community? Do they feel responsibility to a set of shared political commitments? Do they feel a need to take responsibility for issues that would require them to act in concert rather than just connect? Recently, connectivity and statements of identity on places such as Facebook or MySpace have themselves become values. It is a concern when self-expression becomes more important than social action.
Her words took me back to familiar words from one of my favorite novels, Howard’s End by E. M. Forster, which looks at the changing face of human interaction as the technology changed drastically in the days before World War One:
Mature as [Henry] was, [Margaret] might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire . . .

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
When my family first went to Africa in 1957, the only way to get to Southern Rhodesia was to sail from New York harbor, across the Atlantic Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, to the port of Beira in Mozambique on the southeast coast of the continent. The voyage took thirty-one days. When we wanted to call our family in the States at Christmas, we had to make a reservation weeks in advance with the international operator and then pass the phone around quickly so everyone could speak in the three minutes we were given to talk. What news we got from family came by mail that arrived two weeks after it was written.

By the time we came back to America for our first leave four years later, we could fly and be back in Texas in just a few days. Tonight I can read any African newspaper I want with the click of a mouse. I love that I get the chance to make contact with those of you who read this blog – and particularly with those who comment – and I’m aware that it is more than “only” connecting because how we connect is also important. Many use pseudonyms for their online identities. Some reply anonymously or without a way to respond other than in the comment box. I love that I can look at the map on Stat Counter and find readers from Singapore to Seattle; I even had one from Azerbaijan. I love reading the blogs of people with whom I share some “cyberintimacy” because I want to see what the next chapter in the story is. My world is wider because of this blog. And Lisa Else has a point: the value of the connection is only as good as the community it creates. We are treading new ground here. No one before us in human history has had the capacity to get so much information so instantly and in such volume. When I log on to AOL to check my email, I’m often presented with a “news” page that juxtaposes things like “Three hundred killed in car bombing” with “Man breaks hot dog eating record,” as though the two stories deserve equal consideration.

It can’t be as easy as “only connect.”

It isn’t. Listen to Forster one more time:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.
The endless stream of the twenty-four hour news channels tells one story, shows another in a smaller window, and ticks another across the bottom of the screen, fragmenting both our world and us. Margaret’s sermon was to connect head and heart, heart and hands, passion and prose, faith and action, thoughtfulness and intentionality, patience and urgency so that life feels like something other than a centrifuge.

We are paradoxically blessed to live in a time when we can know what is happening around the world. These are days of wonder and days of incredible responsibility. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded;” Jesus said, “and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). I ‘m still floundering trying to figure out what knowing about the situation in Darfur means for my life. What I’m learning is I’m missing an important connection if I think of it in terms of my life or my response alone. It is in the connections that “human love will be seen at its height” – connections I find in family, in church, and here on this blog that help pull the fragments together.


Monday, January 29, 2007

can you hear me now?

There are days that writing comes easy and days it doesn't. There are also a lot of days in between where I find something to say once I get myself up the stairs and put my fingers on the keyboard. Every so often comes a day like today where the issue is not whether it's easy or hard to write as much as it is whether I feel like I have something to say.

When I get to a day like this, the first fear I have to face is the prospect that I'm on the precipice of depression again. I've had moments over the past few days -- more like a week, I guess -- where I can feel the depression lurking around the edges of my life like a stalker in a Lifetime movie. That it can't find a way to get inside gives me some hope that my new medication is working and for that I'm grateful. This week marks six years since I took my first dive off the deep end, as it were. Sometimes I think the pull of my depression is as much muscle memory as anything else. And then, of course, this particular January has offered its share of crisis and uncertainty, creating the opportunity for a symphony of emotions.

I'm also struggling to write tonight because I don't feel very good at what I'm trying to do. I've been writing about Darfur because I really want to have a conversation about how I (we?) can respond. When I wrote about the war in Iraq a week or so ago, I yelled so loudly through the screen that I hardly gave anyone a chance to respond, so few did. My las two posts about the genocide in Sudan garnered two comments. I realize way more people read this blog than comment, and I also realized how much I hoped to hear from more folks when I felt my disappointment at seeing zero comments on yesterday's post.

This is starting to sound as though I fishing for comments, which is not my point. Let me make my point clear: I'm writing about the genocide in Darfur because I want to have a conversation about what we can do beyond calling and writing any and everyone in Washington asking them to wake up. I want to talk about what it means to pray for them. I want to talk about what to do with my sense of helplessness and hopelessness as I look at how the world treats Africa. I want to know how to say all of this in a way that is invitational rather than declarative.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

requiem for darfur

Just as I was getting to work on Saturday, Scott Simon introduced a segment about a Carnagie Hall performance of Verdi's Requiem to benefit the refugees from Darfur. I made a mental note and went to the web site to listen to the program. What I know of classical music I mostly learned from movie soundtracks, so the significance of the chosen piece is a little lost on me. I did find this description at Christopher Lydon's Open Source, who also has a program on the concert:

As great as any of his 28 operas, Giuseppe Verdi’s one Requiem is beyond category among the masterpieces of human affirmation in the depths of suffering and horror. Verdi wrote it in his 60’s to mourn and remember his artistic heroes, the composer Rossini and the poet-novelist Manzoni. The Requiem lives in the choral and orchestral canon as a monument to Verdi himself: his belief, doubt, compositional craft and melodic genius. The work encompasses confessions of sin and guilt, a tour of hell, affirmations of faith and aspirations to heaven. Verdi’s “Dies Irae,” not normally part of the traditional Catholic requiem Mass, has become a Hollywood favorite soundtrack for unidentifiable terror. Prisoners at Terezin, the Nazi camp in Czecholovakia, learned and played the Requiem in defiance of their helplessness. Musicians play it still, not least to remember Terezin.
George Matthew was the conductor for the concert. He was conducting Verdi's piece for the first time. It was not his first time to assemble a variety of musicians and singers for a cause. He conducted a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to raise money for Asian earthquake victims. When Scott Simon asked him why he felt compelled to organize this concert, Matthew said, "We as the classical music community had to say something with our craft."

When Simon asked why Verdi's Requiem, Matthews said it is "at once the music of mourning, at once it is extremely stern, and it is at once full of fear, of active terror in the face of death and really what happens to the human spirit when it's confronted with the prospect of becoming nothing." He went on to talk about its explosiveness and said following those explosions there was "the silent space which is the fertile ground for action." To him, the music suggested that "In our human environment, the prospect of a individual dying unnoticed is not acceptable, it is not natural, and it is certainly not conscionable. It's almost by virtue of the fact that someone is dying, the community must gather and Verdi is speaking to our deepest and best instincts."

Lydon wrote in his commentary of the interview he did with Matthew, "My question to George is how his grasp of Verdi, and Beethoven, can strengthen our limp notions of what is happening in Sudan; how even a rapt contemplation in listening to Verdi can relieve our very contemporary American distance and indifference to what has become the hellish wallpaper of our media and our minds."

I haven't listened to Lydon's show, but I wonder if Matthew's answer to the question was much like his answer to Scott Simon: "We as the classical music community had to say something with our craft." In offering their gifts, the musicians and singers are doing what they can to not let human beings die unnoticed and strengthening our sense of connectedness in the best way they know how.

Our call is to listen and then go and do likewise.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

lives in the balance

I've spent the better part of my day reading about what is happening in Darfur in preparation for a worship service we are going to devote to what is happening there and in other parts of Africa. Between the news of famine, AIDS, malaria, and all the other things that afflict the continent, Darfur stands out because it is genocide. My research has been colored by this quote from Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Bush said, "“We will continue to speak out for the cause of freedom in places like Cuba, Belarus, and Burma -- and continue to awaken the conscience of the world to save the people of Darfur." He didn't give any specifics. I have no need to doubt his sincerity and I don't think his words or actions are going to be what changes things on the ground in Sudan, if Mead is right. And I think she is. So, with determination to become one of those thoughtful, committed citizens, I share what I found today.

As far as understanding the situation in Darfur, I found the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum description helpful:
Sudan's Khartoum-based government is fueling ethnic and racial violence by using the Janjaweed militia as proxies against Darfur insurgents who launched a rebellion in early 2003. But it is civilians who are suffering. Government-sponsored actions include:
  • INFLAMING ethnic conflict

  • IMPEDING international humanitarian access, resulting in deadly conditions of life for displaced civilians

  • BOMBING civilian targets with aircraft

  • MURDERING and RAPING civilians

Darfurians who have fled the violence provide chilling testimony. One refugee told New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that “the Arabs want to get rid of anyone with black skin. . . . There are no blacks left [in the area I fled].”

The death toll exceeds 100,000 and may be more than 400,000. And the crisis continues—the lives of hundreds of thousands more hang in the balance today.
I also loved that the museum is working to apply the lessons we all say we learned from the Holocaust. They also have a disquieting slide show called "Staring Genocide in the Face." Please take time to watch it.

Save has a post called Unity Statement that's worth checking out for the specific things that can be done to help change things in the region, some big and some small. They also have resource packets for worship services of different faiths. In the Christian packet, there is this prayer from a Darfurian woman:
I want to join my prayers to many other voices. Every few months we are driven away from one refugee camp to the other, so far in the desert where nothing, nothing at all exists. This is no way for a human being to live. Now way to live in such a shocking place -- uncultivated, waterless, treeless, and barren region. Everything is burning, Lord, around me, around us; in me, in us. Everything is barren -- hell, hell. Yet, Lord, we believe you are there beside us. We pray for all the Africans living now our same condition. Bring back peace and tranquility to our beloved country. Peace which is desired by everybody, the old and young, rich and poor, women and men. Amen, amen -- let it be so. (© Gloria Silvano, Sudan/CAFOD)
They also offer a sample prayer for use in our worship:
Loving God, we know there are tremendous problems facing the world -- natural disasters, civil wars, violence, disparities in resources, and sickness. We confess that there are days when we look the other way, change the channel, or pretend the problems don't exist. We say that the problem is someone else's concern or displace the blame. We are not confident that we can make an impact and we fear failure for ourselves and on the behalf of others. We might even think that moving to make a difference will change us in ways we will not like or make us uncomfortable. Before we begin, we desire to give up on our opponents and on the victims. Forgive us for our faintheartedness and selfishness, for failing to love others as we should, and for failing to believe that you have empowered us to protect our brothers and sisters. Remind us, Holy One, that some faithful persons refused to give up on us and that You have not given up on any of us. Amen.
Sojourners also has a worship packet and includes this prayer from the United Nations:
Merciful and compassionate Spirit,
Be present to the suffering people of Sudan
Shelter the widows and the children
Comfort all who are weary and afraid
Bring relief to those who hunger and thirst
Center our thoughts with those who suffer in silence
Move us to recall our shared humanity
Unite us in our determination to respond to injustice
May we never forget! May we never forget!
Hear our prayer. Make our action swift.
The prayers bring me to another Margaret Mead quote:
Prayer does not use up artificial energy, doesn't burn up any fossil fuel, doesn't pollute. Neither does song, neither does love, neither does the dance.
I don't know what happens when I pray for Darfur. I'm not giving God any new information. I'm not casting some sort of magical spell. I'm challenged, therefore, to articulate what it is I'm praying for. After today, I'm praying to be changed, to be made uncomfortable. One of the things I've said about turning fifty was I felt some relief because I was coming to terms with my limitations. When I was thirty, I thought I was running out of time to change the world. At fifty, I didn't feel that pressure any more.

I'm wrong. The call to be faithful and committed has no age limit.


Photo is from photo essay, "In Darfur, My Camera Was Not Nearly Enough" by Brian Steidle.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Several experiences and conversations this week have set me to thinking about the words I both say and hear. My thoughts turned to poetry. Here is my attempt to describe some of what I am feeling.


the air in the room is thick with left
behind words from long ago
words from last week
words we just said that took
on lives of their own as they left
our lips and our control

words we picked up off pages
things we repeat because – who knows?
words that ricochet off our shoulders
that haunt us like ghosts
that taunt us like children
that flaunt like lovers

words that break hearts
that wound friends and others
words sent to make up or make right
even though they cannot replace
those that have already cut deep
and taken residence

some dart in and out like fish
in the aquarium of conversation
some hang like wind chimes whispering
of those who talked in these rooms
before we ever stepped inside
others fly out open windows

some change between lip and ear
we don’t remember what was said
but carry away what we heard
what we thought they meant to say
we are so sure that the words
collect like pebbles in our shoes

some are familiar like home
or the curve of the one who matters most
words we say again and again
because there are no better words
I love you I love you I love you
and they shine in the dark like stars

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

rag tag army

My musings on church a couple of days ago led me to look up an old friend. When I was in seminary, someone gave me a copy of The Way of the Wolf by Martin Bell, who was described as an Episcopal priest and a private detective. The book is a series of short pieces built around theological themes. The opening story, for which I think Bell is best known, is called “Barrington Bunny” and is a beautifully sad story about what Jesus meant when he said we must lose our lives to find them. My other favorite is “The Porcupine Whose Name Didn’t Matter.”

Neither of those is the reason I went hunting for the book Sunday night. What I remembered was a small piece on the church called “Rag Tag Army.” Though soldiering has never been a metaphor that has spoken to me very much spiritually, Bell gives it a playful and meaningful turn. I never did find my copy of the book, but I did find the story on line.

Here it is:

I think God must be very old and very tired. Maybe he used to look splendid and fine in his general's uniform, but no more. He's been on the march a long time, you know. And look at his rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army. Listen! The drum beat isn't even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He'll never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on.

Do you see how the marchers have broken up into little groups? Look at that group up near the front. Now, there's a snappy outfit. They all look pretty much alike-at least they're in step with each other. That's something! Only they're not wearing their shoes. They're carrying them in their hands. Silly little band. They won't get far before God will have to stop again.

Or how about that other group over there? They're all holding hands as they march. The only trouble with this is the people on each end of the line. Pretty soon they realize that one of their hands isn't holding onto anything-one hand is reaching, empty, alone. And so they hold hands with each other, and everybody marches around in circles. The more people holding hands, the bigger the circle. And, of course, a bigger circle is deceptive because as we march along it looks like we're going someplace, but we re not. And so God must stop again. You see what I mean? He'll never get anywhere that way!

If God were more sensible he'd take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It's ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to go and bring the soldier back. But that's God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He is going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and he may be tired. But he knows where he's going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren't going to be any forced marches. And, after all, there are frogs and flowers, and thorns and underbrush along the way. And even though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don't know where we are going, and we can't seem to trust God-especially when it's dark out and we can't see him! And he won't go on without us. And that's why it's taking so long.

Listen! The drum beat isn't even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He'll never get anywhere that way!

And yet, the march goes on...
“Make a joyful noise,” said the Psalmist.
“Go and make disciples,” Jesus said.

I can’t find anywhere in scripture where Jesus – or anyone else – says we are to come together as the Body of Christ to make sense any more than we are called to make war. When he knelt in Gethsemane on the night before his death, he prayed, “Make them one.” I remember an old sermon illustration from many years ago that described a conversation between Jesus and a couple of angels after his resurrection. They were congratulating Jesus on all that he had done. One of them asked, “What’s the plan now?”

Jesus answered, “Well, the believers I left behind will tell others and they will come together in groups to worship and take care of one another.”

“Seriously? That’s your plan to save the world?” asked one of the angels.

“That’s the plan,” said Jesus.

“What’s the back up plan?” asked the other.

“There is no back up plan.”

“Uh – good plan.”


Photo is from photo essay, "In Darfur, My Camera Was Not Nearly Enough" by Brian Steidle.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

these are my peeps

Friday and Saturday were two of the best days I’ve ever had working at the Inn. We worked hard, we worked well, and we had fun. Part of the reason things went as well as they did was we were appropriately staffed – finally. Part of it was Chef made some minor adjustments to the menu that streamlined things in a helpful way, allowing us to do an excellent job on the meals we made rather than feeling like we were stretched too thin and could do little more than just get something on the plate to send to the tables.

Part of it, for me, was I felt differently about being in the kitchen. I was there because I chose to be, not because I felt like I had to be. A big part of the reason I chose to be there was I really like the people I work with. I know I can’t really trust the owner to deal with me other than thinking of me as a commodity and I have to keep my guard up. I have been counseled to remember I don’t owe him any loyalty. I do, however, feel a sense of loyalty to Chef and the others in the kitchen, not because I think I owe it to them as much as I am choosing to make that commitment. The kitchen works because we trust each other, we support each other, and we all choose to be there. It matters to me that we share a relational connection beyond the work itself.

The creative tension between the owner’s stark business approach to life and the relational connection that pulls me to stay there in spite of him reminds me of Jesus’ advice to the disciples as he was sending them out: “I am sending you out like sheep with wolves all around you. Be wise like snakes and gentle like doves” (Matt. 10:16). Jesus used and as the conjunction rather than or, calling us to be both at the same time because life rarely offers us singular circumstances when it comes to dealing with one another. When the offer came to return to the Inn, I responded with what it would take to get me to come back, which they were willing to do. The call to wisdom means I am to remember that I’m choosing to live with a certain level of insecurity; the call to gentleness means I’m called to treat those around me as if I were going to be with them the rest of my life.

Ginger preached one of her best sermons ever today, using 1 Corinthians 12 and talking about what it means to be the Body of Christ. The way she contextualized and presented both the scripture and the sermon was an object lesson on its own: six of us read the biblical passage, the choir broke in intermittently (at Ginger’s prompting) to “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” and she also had me throw in a couple of lines from Godspell (with finger snaps): “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” Her best work was when she went “off book” from her manuscript and spoke to us in the same tone I imagine Jesus delivering the words Matthew records him saying as he sent the Twelve out for the first time, which was one of loving admonition. My favorite line was, “We’ve got some of our teams (that’s what we call committees) who have some issues between them. It’s time to let that stuff go.”

After the service our Church Council met to approve the proposed budget for the coming year in preparation for our annual meeting in two weeks. The group is large – about twenty people – and is a fairly good representation of the various life perspectives in our congregation. In the two hours we were together, we painted a pretty good picture of what it means to be the Body. We worked together, we flailed about a bit, we stumbled here and there, we got frustrated, we felt a sense of accomplishment, we asked good questions, tried to give fair answers, we fussed a bit when our joints creaked, and we supported one another.

We did good work being both wise and gentle.

Church, for me, is like my job in this sense: I choose to go there. Every service I attend, every meeting I go to, every meal I help prepare I do because I choose to do so. My loyalty is not demanded; I’ve decided to be a part of this particular band of Jesus’ people. In our church covenant we say, “We welcome all, excluding none, to join us.” We did a good job incarnating those words today.

Ginger closed her sermon by telling the story of The Legend of San Lorenzo, a walled medieval city, which we learned from our friend Ken. The legend says that a group of conquerors came to the city gates of San Lorenzo and said to the inhabitants, “Bring us your riches.” The people went back inside the city walls and later returned, opening the gates and bringing out their sick and elderly, as well as those who were bruised and broken in body, mind, or spirit. They carried them lovingly and gently on their shoulders and in their arms. They said to the waiting attackers, “These are our treasures.” According to the legend, the conquerors immediately threw down their weapons and took off their armor, exclaiming, “May we come and live here? This is the city we’ve been looking for our whole lives!”

None of us knows what the days ahead may hold. This weekend, I learned again that it is both wise and gentle for me to look at those with whom I’ve chosen to spend these days and say, “These are my peeps.”

Beyond the paychecks and the institutions, that’s what matters most.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

tired, new eyes

I’ve worked two days at the Inn since I decided to go back and have quickly realized the two weeks away lessened my capacity to work ten and eleven hour shifts. In short, I’ve come home tired, which is one of the reasons I didn’t write last night. My fortnight of forced freedom also brought some changes to my schedule I’m determined to keep even as I go back to work -- namely ,I’ve been going to the gym four days a week. Both Monday and yesterday I left the house early enough to work out before I started cooking. The other, more significant activity was having time to sit with Ginger in coffee shops and read (or write). We are continuing to do that on my days off.

I’ve found a new confidence as I’ve returned to work, both in my job there and my ability to see possibilities beyond the Inn. The break helped me see some less-than-helpful patterns I had allowed myself to fall into and also gave me some time to rethink how I want to live. I was welcomed back warmly by the staff – particularly the Brazilian dishwashers. One of them saw me and said, “Good for the Red Lion Inn!”

One of the ongoing lessons (for lack of a better word) bouncing around in my head this week has to do with choices. It was far too easy to think my options could be summed up in this song.

You’re right: I just wanted a chance to post The Clash video with that wonderful opening shot of Ron Howard and his caterpillar mustache. And I have learned, once again, not only that life rarely plays out as a dichotomy, but also to remember I have choices; not always easy or even comfortable choices, but choices nonetheless. Last night, Chef asked me what my plan was, if the owner had held fast to not giving me the raise. The answer that came out was, “To do something else.”

I wasn’t being flippant. Even a two-week wage break caused anxiety at our house. And I had choices. It was up to me how I came to terms with them. It was also up to me to realize few of the choices fell into the Either/Or category. Life is complicated and nuanced and requires of us to think and feel and learn and, ultimately, choose. What we must live with are the consequences.

For instance, I’m choosing, apparently, to state the obvious in this post so far. The consequence may be that you, Dear Reader, have long since clicked away.

What I’m trying to get to is how easily we allow ourselves to feel trapped and without options. Again, I know my use of “we” should have several qualifiers. I can put it in context by saying 71% of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day, according to Harpers’ Index. I understand I’m not speaking in universals here. And the options available to us are often wider than the field of vision we allow ourselves. Our national discourse over what to do in Iraq mirrors The Clash lyric: should we stay or should we go? Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said today our troop levels could drop significantly in three to six months if we would provide the Iraqis with more weapons. Most all of our considered options have to do with violence, or the control of violence. Our government has more choices than they appear willing to engage because they are intent on focusing on our national self-interest, which means they never move out of a posture of fear and self-protection.

January and February are budget approval days in most UCC churches, which means at least some discussion of vision and intent as congregations. It also means, in many cases, that the possibilities are tempered, even hampered, by the churches’ choice to begin the discussion with how much money they think will come in during the year ahead. The field of vision is diminished automatically. When our opening question is, “How are we going to pay the bills?” we will see little beyond our own anxiety and the institution’s need for self-preservation. The question is a good one, it just shouldn’t be the first one.

The path, for me, is not so different. Ginger and I have worked hard to talk about more than our fear of how to pay the bills if I was out of work too long. Though finances have been a necessary part of the discussion, we did our best to remember what KQ pointed out a few days ago: danger and opportunity are twins in times like these. I’m grateful I was not out of work for too long and I don’t consider my return to the Inn to be the end of this particular chapter of life.

About a year and a half ago, I started seeing a spiritual director because I wanted to enter into some sort of counseling relationship, but I wanted to do more than talk about my depression, which most of my experience in therapy over the last few years had been. Those sessions were helpful, but I needed a more holistic view: I wanted to look at all of me, not just the ailing part. In the same way, I’m trying to find a view of these days that lets me see more than just my job at the Inn, or even just my job. As I make choices, I’m praying for new eyes that can see my marriage, my faith, my cooking, my writing, those poor Nigerians, and the rest of the world around me such that I’m called to consider things that don’t easily fall into view driving back and forth to Cohasset four days a week. I, too, need a call to choose beyond fear and self-preservation.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

to whom it may concern

One of the things I’ve learned in a little over a year of blogging is how short the life expectancy of a post really is. Once it moves far enough down the page that people have to scroll to find it, it is truly an archive. So, when I woke up this morning to find a rather lengthy and incisive comment on my post, “can’t wait,” I decided to give it the spotlight so I could respond, because it really got me to thinking. Since I allow anonymous comments on my blog, I don’t know who wrote it, but here is what they had to say:

Your blog entry makes good sense and an honest point. However, I have a few objections. It seems you are trying to make your dent just as many people do and that is through talking and blogging. I don't know anything about you or things you have done but it seems if you truly believe in the point you are making then you would be on the streets rather than blogging about those who just do things like blogging. You also seem resigned to the fact that you must just keep on waiting for the world to change rather than changing the world. It seems that as creative as you are in making your point, you are simply pointing out observations and taking part in the same do-nothing stance that you comment on. You do not even point to reasons why our culture is responding to the war in the way they are. I disagree with the statement about more people waiting for an Xbox than protesting the war. You might just be making a point in this statement but it is absurd to state that more people waited for the Xbox360 one cold December night in 2006 than have taken the streets across our nation in protest of the war since it began four years ago. I don't buy that but at the same time realize that even though people DID take the streets, it hasn't been enough. The way our world connects with each other and expresses mass opinion has changed. This war has not affected enough of our own people and their lifestyles as war used to. The Vietnam war killed nineteen times the amount of soldiers that our time in Iraq has. I believe that if the Iraq death toll of our own servicemen and women was to reach near 58,000 as the toll of Vietnam reached, our nation would have a much stronger uprising. If put in perspective and compared, I don't think that the level of reaction to this war now is much to critique. The truth is there have been protests and many voices heard in opposition to the war. 70% of the nation is in opposition. The nation voted as a mandate on the war in November, kicking out many Republican because of their stance. The problem is, when the President ignores his colleagues, his generals, our elected representatives, and the voters themselves, it is hard to do much else; especially when the impact of this war on United States citizens is minimal compared to the impact previous wars have had. Sometimes when our voices become hoarse, all we CAN do is just keep on waiting, waiting for the world to change......or in this case the '08 election.....
I’m printing the comment because I learned something from it and because I want to respond to it.

The first thing I learned (again) is ranting doesn’t create conversation. What I was hoping for in that post was some resonance with my frustration and some sharing of ideas and feelings about how we can help ourselves get off the runway, as it were. The fact that the post engendered fewer comments than most lets me know I missed my mark. in some ways, it seems my writing was the blogging equivalent of putting my fist through the wall. Hyperbole doesn’t elicit much in the way of response., other than to point out my frustration.

The second thing I learned is we, as Americans, are having a very self-focused discussion when it comes to the war in Iraq. We are upset by our troops being killed and wounded; we are worried about our oil and gas prices; the commenter said we are waiting and “it is hard to do much else; especially when the impact of this war on United States citizens is minimal compared to the impact previous wars have had.” We have not spent much time looking at how what we are doing affects the world, much less the people of Iraq.

The third thing I realized is I was writing out of a greater sense of futility than I realized at the time. The commenter said I seemed resigned to not being able to change the world. Not resigned. I feel frustrated, angry, perhaps even hopeless at times, but I am not resigned. Though I’m willing to accept the criticism that joining the host of ranting bloggers is just a step above doing nothing, I write because writing is what I have to offer. My stance may be ineffectual or less than influential, but I’m working hard to figure what to do to be a part of effective and meaningful change.

In response, I do think we as Americans are more enamored of Xbox, Tickle Me Elmo, and our SUVs than we are of significant social change because the kind of change that would alter the world is costly. From the earliest days of our republic, we talked about our inalienable rights being “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” setting us on a course to set individualism above the common good. We have a hard time thinking inclusively, whether on a relational or national level. Though I was mistaken to say more people stood in line at the toy store last Christmas than took to the streets to protest the war, I also think we’ve lost sight of ourselves when we see ourselves as “consumers” rather than contributors.

There’s another element to add here: we are also a frightened people. We are living paradoxes, embodying comfort and fear side by side. What the two share in common is they lead us to isolate and insulate ourselves, as well as teaching us to resist change. We like being comfortable. I know I do. We also don’t like being afraid. To conquer the fear means to walk through the valley of the shadow, and so I write to push myself into disquietude, and hoping to find others looking to become more uncomfortable with where we now stand.

I know what the polls say. I get regular email notices from and Open Democracy. I subscribe to The Nation and Harpers. I also hunt down Keith Olbermann’s “Special Comments.” There are a growing number of voices speaking up and shouting out across our country, for which I’m grateful. And we have yet to engage most folks beyond how many soldiers have died. How can we figure out a way to converse about our nation’s role in the world as a perpetrator of violence so that we do more than polarize ourselves? How do we begin to talk about leadership and government in more than shades of red and blue? How do we begin to think about engaging the world in a way other than one that requires us to wear body armor?

Thanks to whoever wrote the comment because you helped me realize I’m really waiting for me to change. I would have done better to ask questions than rant and pontificate; you’re right. At least I can say it started a conversation, even if a small one. Beyond the frustration and futility, what I want to feel least in all of this is alone. I can best do that by not allowing myself to be self-focused, to speak out, and to listen as we talk together about what to do and how to do it. That's what I'm waiting for.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

breathing lessons

For a mostly white congregation in the suburbs, we do a pretty good job celebrating Martin Luther King Day. It starts with a breakfast (we had fifty people this year) where we hear excerpts from King’s speeches and writings, and then a worship centered around issues of peace and social justice. Paul Nickerson, the Associate Conference Minister for Evangelism, Mission, and Justice Ministries for the Mass. Conference of the UCC, was our guest preacher. He used the texts of Abraham’s call and Jesus’ calling of the disciples to become “catchers of people” as a jumping off place for a great question:

What is God calling you to do that takes your breath away?

I’d never thought about it like that. Abraham stood under the night sky while God told him his descendants would outnumber the stars. Peter, James, and John walked away from perhaps they most profitable catch of their careers because their hearts had been captured by Jesus. They spent the rest of their lives following Jesus and trying to catch their breaths.

After church, a few of us went to see Freedom Writers, a movie based on Erin Gruwell and her experience teaching high school English in Long Beach, California. The film is well done and the story is both moving and inspiring. It also took me back to the seven years I spent teaching English in an urban high school. As different characters emerged in the movie, I heard myself saying the names of kids I saw in them. As I watched her work hard to make a relational connection with kids who had already learned from life to trust no one, I thought about some of the things I did and some of the breakthroughs I had with my students.

The problem for me was, even as I was having fun with the kids, the bureaucracy of the Boston Public Schools beat me up like a mugger in a back alley. At the same time, in ways I did not yet know how to recognize, my depression was beginning to beat me down. Then there was the grading, which I hated. Assigning grades often felt like a betrayal of the relationships I was trying to foster. Towards the end of my tenure, I used to describe how I felt by saying, “Every day while I’m in the building, part of me dies. I have from the time I leave until I go back again to resuscitate the part of me that died; the problem is I can never bring it all back to life.” After seven years in Boston and three in a suburban high school, I left teaching – even though I love working with students – because I didn’t know how to do it in a way that didn’t eat me up in the process.

As much as I love reading and writing with kids, the job didn’t take my breath away. It knocked the wind out of me. There’s a difference. And I left the movie this afternoon feeling a little guilty. The message of the movie is right: teaching is a noble calling; working with city kids is hard, meaningful, and rewarding work. On this January night in 2007, I can look back eight or ten years and see my depression had a lot to do with me leaving the classroom. I couldn’t help but think, “Maybe if I had been emotionally healthier I would still be teaching.”

Maybe not.

Another way to look at it is to see my life in chapters. For a decade, I taught high school English. I loved those days: I did good work, I helped a lot of kids and learned a lot from them, and I wore myself out. For those years, I felt called to teach. Whatever might have been, I don’t feel called to do that now. I feel called to write and cook. If that sense of calling doesn’t take my breath away, then I have not given the Spirit room to capture my imagination with possibilities. When I let myself dream about how my cooking and writing can build relationships and touch lives – and when I take time to notice the ways they have already done so, leaving me as surprised as Peter with his nets – and I understand what Paul was talking about.

And I’m still uneasy. Maybe a little unrest should inhabit our souls on a daily basis, calling us to question and wonder, not so much about what might have been, but what is. When I moved to the suburban high school, I felt guilty for leaving my kids in the city and I found a whole bunch of other kids who needed just as much care for different reasons. Neither Charlestown High nor Winchester High have closed down since I left. I did important work and life goes on without me.

Part of God’s message to Abraham on that starlight night was he was just one of the stars. His descendants might outnumber all the little lights he saw, but he was only one light that would fade and be forgotten by a fairly substantial number of those descendants. God was saying, “Right now you don’t feel like you matter. Follow my lead and you will leave a trail like a comet.” Abraham only got to see only a small percentage of his progeny, but he trusted the gasp he heard himself make out in the dark.

I had good and meaningful years as a minister and as a teacher. Somehow I breathe easier now that I am not doing either one. Both are essential and important and I’m not called to either, at least for this chapter. I am a writer and a cook. I get a little lightheaded just thinking about the possibilities.


Friday, January 12, 2007

to believe in this living

Several years ago, I was singing for a church banquet and came to the point in my set where I was going to sing “Angel From Montgomery,” my favorite song. I prefaced the song very simply -- “I relate to this song more than any song I know” -- then I started to sing:

I am an old woman named after my mother . . .
Not exactly what I meant, but I kept going. Besides, John Prine wrote the song. He must have felt the same way. Today, I feel like this woman more than any other:

Wednesday I called the Inn to tell them I would consider coming back to work if they would give me a raise. For me, it was a way for both of us to save face: they got me to come back and I got to come back with some dignity. Ginger and I got home last night a little after seven to find a message from the Inn on the answering machine telling me the owner wouldn’t go for my offer but would I come back anyway. I called back this morning to say, “No, thanks.” I meant what I said and that was that.

Twenty minutes later, the phone rang again. It was the Inn calling to say the owner had reconsidered and would give me the raise. Please come back. I told them I would think about it. A couple of hours later, I called back again and told them I would be there on Monday. When I went upstairs to check email, I found this note from Gordon who said Blogger had not allowed him to leave it as a comment on “The Next Voice You Hear,” so he sent it straight to me:
Let me begin by saying that I'm sure you've already thought of what I'm about to write. I'm not writing it in the spirit of instruction, but more as an affirmation to something that perhaps is already running through your mind.

I'd like to suggest that this new development with The Inn is not an all or nothing situation. It's not a choice between swallowing your pride and your values and going back to work for the devil, or doing the right thing and telling them to go to hell.

You have now learned something about this place or at least about the owner. You can't trust him or them (whichever it is). You certainly don't owe them any more loyalty than they have given you. So perhaps you go back to work for the money, which is an honest reason to work. Many people work in places they don't like in order to put food on the table. Heck, that's even a heroic thing to do. I mean, it's not as though you're work is hurting children or something like that. You just know that this place cannot be trusted.

But now you can start looking for something new. Perhaps a new restaurant will become available in a few weeks or months. When you find the new thing that is right for you, you say goodbye to The Inn and hello to the next chapter of your life. You give them whatever notice seems right to you, but you don't spend any time worrying about how they will get along without you.

Perhaps this new development is bit of grace in a hard situation. Just enough grace to get you to the next place.
Enough grace to get to the next place. I like that.

In the past two weeks, the shake up in my life and schedule has given me a chance to see my life from a new perspective, forcing me to look anew at my job, my passions, my time, and our money. I’ve made it to the gym four times a week – enough for it to feel like part of my regular routine. Ginger and I both have worked hard to pay close attention to every penny we spend, not knowing how long I would be out of work. Thanks to words of encouragement and support from several folks, I’ve seen new possibilities for my writing and my cooking. I even made cold calls at a couple of restaurants where I would like to work that may prove promising later on. Standing up for myself on the salary front is new ground for me as well.

Though I am going back to the same place, I’m not the same going back and I’m not going back to the same thing, mostly because I have a different sense of myself. This gut check has made me more sure that the two things I love and want most to do in my life are write and cook (and probably in that order). I’ve also learned, as Gordon said, that choosing to return, in part, because I need the money is not a bad thing. I understand the ground rules at the Inn; I also understand there’s a larger world out there.

The final verse and chorus of “Angel From Montgomery” say
there’s flies in the kitchen, I can hear ‘em a buzzin’
and I ain’t done nothin’ since I woke up today
how the hell can a person go to work every morning
and come home every evening and have nothing to say?

make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
make me a poster of an old rodeo
just give me one thing I can hold on to
to believe in this living is just a hard way to go
What I learned – again – this week is believing in this living doesn’t happen because of a job or a paycheck, but because I don’t let myself believe I have nothing to say. I learned – again -- that love and grace are not bound by circumstance. I learned – again – to be thankful that I have choices. I learned – again – that I am rich when it comes to friends and family.

All of that adds up to enough grace to get to the next place.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

can't wait

This morning on the TODAY show, they told of an American Airlines flight from hell over New Year’s Weekend. The flight was supposed to go from San Francisco to Dallas: three and a half hours. Because of severe storms in Dallas, the flight was rerouted to Austin, where it was told to land and wait for clearance to go on to D/FW.

The plane sat on the runway for eight hours without letting the passengers get off.

Evidently, American instructed the pilot not to pull up to a gate so they could keep the other flights on time. The toilets overflowed, they ran out of water, and all anyone had to eat were peanuts. Finally, the pilot disregarded instructions and pulled into a gate anyway, letting the passengers off the plane and into the terminal.

The first question that came to my mind was, “Why did anyone on that plane put up with it for eight hours?”

In this age when they will throw someone off a plane for looking askew at the flight attendant (they’ve even turned a couple of flights around to remove passengers), if even one or two people had gone Peter Finch on the crew in the midst of being held hostage by the schedulers, they would have pulled into a gate faster than you can say frequent flyer. I’m sure someone could have started an inflight insurgency and gotten a good bit of support from the other passengers.

I don’t understand why they stayed in their seats for eight hours.

They aren’t the only ones.

I listened to Bush describe how surging against the insurgents is going to make things better. He said it with a straight face. The reporters parroted his words as their alleged commentary. The morning news programs gave passing notice to what he said on their way to the latest idiocies from Donald Trump. Some members of Congress mouthed off, but were treated with the kind of regard one gives an annoying lap dog. As the war grows closer and closer to the end of its fourth year and the death toll rises on all sides (not to mention those left wounded and maimed), we are being given the presidential equivalent of being told we are going to stay sitting on the runway until the weather clears and we are just sitting there.

We are not all silent. There are voices of dissent, but I don’t hear much outrage. That’s not even the right word. Beyond “I’m mad as hell” or “Hell, no, we won’t go” we need a response of faithful indignation. And I think it is going to take intense indignation to get Bush’s attention. He has not listened to much in any of the reports he has commissioned. He acts as if things are true because he believes them to be. When there were no weapons of mass destruction, we complained. When he claimed, “Mission accomplished,” we smirked. When we began to see we have fomented a civil war in Iraq, we let the Democrats have Congress. As the body count has risen, we watched Cindy Sheehan make a creative nuisance of herself and left her out there mostly alone.

It’s not that we have done nothing. Many of us have written letters and blog entries calling for change. Some have written songs, even books. Hardly a day passes that I don’t have a conversation with someone lamenting what is going on. Yet, more people stood in line at Christmas to get an Xbox 360 than have taken to the streets demanding real accountability and real change.

We are allowing ourselves to be kept on the runway, out of touch and unable to move.

I’ve been sitting here staring at the screen, wondering whose words I can implore to make my point. When I was first learning to play my guitar, Simon and Garfunkel recorded a song called “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” I went looking for the lyric.

Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with powerful men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again

And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands end bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing round and round
And guns and swords and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground

Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I also found something else apropos of this discussion: a video clip of John Denver singing the song, prefaced by an interesting poem I’ve not heard before.

As I’ve said before, Denver was one of the folks who helped me learn to play guitar (his records did, anyway). I saw him in concert several times. He was the consummate idealist: he said the words in the poem as though he meant them, he believed them. As I watched the clip, I realized one of the reasons we may not be rising up in indignation is we don’t really believe the world is going to be much different than it is being painted for us by Bush and the other artists in The School of Violence and Cynicism.

The song for our day is more along the lines of John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change”:
now we see everything that's going wrong
with the world and those who lead it
we just feel like we don't have the means
to rise above and beat it

so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

When I was Mayer’s age, I thought we could change the world. Now, it seems, I’m waiting right along with him. I think we will keep waiting until we become both faithful and indignant enough to wage peace.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

alternate tuning

Something in the day lead me to a poem rather than an essay. I'm less confident in my poetry, but it is what I have to offer.

Alternate Tuning

I’m confused.

I don’t understand.

I’ve played guitar a long time.

But tonight, I’m trying something new.

I press the string against the neck for a

G, but the note that sounds is B.

My fingers go where they have always gone,

Only to find notes they don’t know:

My guitar has learned a foreign language.

My hands know the chords in English, I guess --

But my instrument now converses in

Farsi, French, Urdu --- Arabic?

I am a beginner again,

Trying to recognize an old friend

Who has reinvented himself.

I recognize the shape,

The way the curve fits under my arm,

But I don’t understand what he is saying.

I stumble through the dictionary

Of chord shapes, looking for something

I recognize: a meaningful translation,

Looking for a way to not feel so stupid.

I could retune the strings back to the notes I know,

We could go back to the same old chords,

But I think I would always hear

The trace of an accent in the strings.

So I try again, forcing my

Fingers to find the notes in new

Places, to let my guitar lead

Me to a new melody.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

the next voice you hear

God called again, "Samuel!"—the third time! Yet again Samuel got up and went to Eli, "Yes? I heard you call me. Here I am."

That's when it dawned on Eli that God was calling the boy. So Eli directed Samuel, "Go back and lie down. If the voice calls again, say, 'Speak, God. I'm your servant, ready to listen.'" Samuel returned to his bed. (I Samuel 3:8-9, The Message)
As I have tried to listen this week, here are some of the voices I have heard and read:
Joe: It's not often at halfway to a hundred you get to start all over. Ride on Milton ride on.

Anj: I will be holding you in the Light, as we Friends say, as the Spirit brings you and Ginger to mind.

Zorra: I wonder what God will do with this time in your life?

Bill Hill: Go for it, Milton. Make it happen. Immerse yourself in it. Write your fool head off. Work at other things to support your writing habit. You need to do it, and we need to read it. Grieve over the loss and the injustice of your dismissal, but then write.

Tim Sean: I'm on your side, whatever that might mean.

KQ: I believe two things about your situation (and mine): The twins Danger and Opportunity are always present in the crisis of unemployment. You will prevail over the former and excel in the latter, no matter what professional path you chose.

muphinsmom: I'd say you probably need a much bigger blank piece of paper now.

fishrock: Have faith that you will survive. Keep "a kind heart" to everyone, including yourself. Keep writing.

Lisa in Austin: I was wishing you'd write a book.

Anne: Some of us are aching for such a book...something that validates our lives and feelings as woven into the tapestry of 'normal' life.

RLP: Please God, find Milton a job, if you do that kind of thing. I hope you do.
Ginger and I have felt an amazing amount of love and support from people both far and near, in both words and actions. We have also continued to get bills in the mail. I’ve spent a good bit of time scouring the Web, making phone calls, and reading want ads, trying to see what was out there, trying to discern God’s call in all of this.

Growing up in a preacher’s home, I learned early about call. It was how I was taught to think about work: God called you. My father talked about how he was called into ministry – it wasn’t where he was headed to b
egin with. My mother talked about feeling called to take care of my brother and I. As I sat in Baptist churches growing up, I watched more than one person walk down the aisle during the invitation hymn to answer God’s call to “special service,” which meant the vocational ministry. I never saw anyone come forward to say God had called them to be an accountant, a physical therapist, a truck driver, or a chef.

When we first moved to Boston, Ginger and I both had to find jobs to help supplement our income as church planters. I worked at the Blockbuster Video in Charlestown. One night, I was walking through the store and asked a woman if I could help her find a movie. She looked up surprised and said, “I don’t usually talk to the help in places like this.”

What I wanted to say was, “I have a Masters degree and could talk circles around you when it comes to movies.” What I did was go back behind the counter and leave her to search on her own. It created an identity crisis for me: I had to come to terms with who I was and what I did not being the same thing. If all I was could be summed up in renting copies of Terminator 2, I couldn’t take it.

Once again, I’ve had to learn to live in the creative tension between the two extremes. When people ask me what I do, don’t I usually answer, “I am a chef,” rather than “I cook for a living”?

One of the things I have heard in the past week is both writing and cooking are expressions of my spirit: they are who I am. Regardless of the circumstance, if someone asks who can help with the food, my hand goes up and my mind starts dreaming up what to make. Several times a day, I catch myself looking at what is going on around me and thinking about how to put it on paper so others could be in that moment as well. I do these things; I am a chef and a writer.

The kicker comes when we add money to the equation. A friend used to work in a hospital with a woman who spent all her vacation time working in indigent clinics overseas. The woman said she did her job during the year for those four weeks of meaning. Not everyone in the world gets to think about meaningful jobs. Some get to choose based on necessity and compensation; others have to take what they can find. At different times, I’ve lived on both sides of that line. I’ve come to feel that the sense of calling comes in the doing of the thing: the work ethic, the loyalty, the commitment to excellence, the sense of community with co-workers. Again, not all of those are available in every work place.

About noon today, I heard another voice. The general manager from the Inn called and asked if I would consider coming back to work. She did a good job of saying she knew I had not been treated well over the past few days and she also said they understood what a good worker I was.

I told her I would think about it.

When I hung up the phone, all I could hear was Jackson Browne singing, “Caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender.” Except I don’t feel caught. I do wish there was a clear indication – a Voice, if you will – to show what the best path would be. I won’t know that until I take a few steps, at least; maybe more.

I have some time to keep listening and I will because, before long, it will be my turn to speak.


PS -- And I did find time to post a new recipe.

Monday, January 08, 2007

stand up and sing

Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favorite poets and one of my heroes because of the way she wages peace with words. When I found a book of her poetry I did not have, You & Yours, I whipped out one of my Christmas gift cards and gave it to myself. This was the first poem:

Cross that Line

Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.

He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
that line.

Remind us again,
brave friend.
What countries may we
sing into?
What lines should we all
be crossing?
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?
When I first read the poem, I recognized Robeson’s name as that of an actor and singer from an earlier time, but I didn’t know why he had to sing into Canada, so I did a little research. Here’s what I found.

Paul Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, NJ, the son of a freed slave who became a Presbyterian minister. He received a scholarship to Rutgers, where he became an All-American football player. He then graduated from Columbia Law School, but left the law soon after because his secretary refused to take dictation from a black man (not the words she chose) and he saw no way around the racism in that field. In the mid-twenties, he entered the theater. After singing “Ol’ Man River” in Show Boat, he decided singing full time was what he really wanted to do. One biography describes his growing social conscience this way:
Robeson had been giving solo vocal performances since 1925, but it wasn't until he traveled to Britain that his singing became for him a moral cause. Robeson related years later in his autobiography, Here I Stand, that in England he "learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind." Consequently, he began singing spirituals and work songs to audiences of common citizens and learning the languages and folk songs of other cultures, for "they, too, were close to my heart and expressed the same soulful quality that I knew in Negro music." Nathan Irvin Huggins, writing in the Nation, defined this pivotal moment: "[Robeson] found the finest expression of his talent. His genuine awe of and love for the common people and their music flourished throughout his life and became his emotional and spiritual center."
A PBS biography continues the story:
During the 1940s, Robeson's black nationalist and anti-colonialist activities brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite his contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, Robeson was singled out as a major threat to American democracy. Every attempt was made to silence and discredit him, and in 1950 the persecution reached a climax when his passport was revoked. He could no longer travel abroad to perform, and his career was stifled. Of this time, Lloyd Brown, a writer and long-time colleague of Robeson, states: "Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever."
He wasn’t allowed to leave the US for eight years, when the Supreme Court reinstated his passport. By then he had gone from being a noted celebrity to persona non grata to most. It was on one day during those eight years in the fifties that Paul Robeson sang into Canada.
Remind us again, brave friend. What countries may we sing into?
At the interfaith service before our governor’s inauguration, a rabbi (whose name I can’t find anywhere) quoted another rabbi, Abraham Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery and then wrote afterwards:
For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.
It is a sad thing to me that I grew up in a denomination that is rooted in the South and never met a white minister there who had prayed with his legs.
Remind us again,
brave friend.
What lines should we all
be crossing?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is best known for being one of those whose nonviolent resistance broke apartheid in South Africa. Now he is singing across lines about the way the world treats gay and lesbian people.
“We struggled against apartheid in South Africa, supported by people the world over, because black people were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about; our very skins. It is the same with sexual orientation. It is a given.” Mr Tutu says he could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination which homosexuals endure. "And I am proud that in South Africa, when we won the chance to build our own new constitution, the human rights of all have been explicitly enshrined in our laws," he said, adding that he hoped this soon would also be the case in other countries.
We talked with one man during the inauguration festivities who told us of Deval Patrick going to visit his eighty-year old father, by his son’s definition, a real Boston Irishman. The son was worried about how his dad might take to the idea of an African-American governor and he wanted his father to meet this man whom he respected and supported. When the old man met Patrick, he apologized: “I’m sorry I didn’t know how to do more back then.”
Remind us again,
brave friend.
What songs travel toward us
from far away

to deepen our days?
Darfur is singing.
Sierra Leone is singing.
Iraq is singing (a different song than we are hearing)
Our immigrants are singing.
Our poor are singing.
Our gay brothers and lesbian sisters are singing.

The list is far from exhaustive. The melody, no matter in whose voice, yearns for resonance in our hearts and minds.

Stand up and sing, brave friends.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

what hope sounds like

I opened one of my Christmas presents yesterday. My friend, Lance, gave me a gift certificate to Calabash Music, a global music web site unlike anything I've ever seen (or heard). Here's how they describe themselves:

Calabash Music™ is the ultimate global music destination giving easy access to all the great, but hard-to-find, music from around the world. We’re providing you with the most unique and broadest based international catalog – served the way you like it, via the Internet.

Our equal exchange business model and focus on international artists is revitalizing the music industry in developing nations around the globe. When our artists sell their music directly to you, they keep half the money from each sale and they avoid the high costs of manufacturing, marketing and distributing their music on CDs.

Needless to say, my time spent roaming around on their site, which is full of chances to listen to great stuff -- including a free download of the day, helped to lift my spirits. Thanks to their willingness to share, I'm including two things: a video trailer to a movie about The Refugee All-Stars in Sierra Leone and a listening sampler of the Mutubambile Orphan Choir from Zimbabwe, which is what I got with my gift certificate.

The civil war in Sierra Leone is one of those conflicts that doesn't break into our news cycle very often. Many of the refugees from the war have fled into the neighboring country of Guinea. Calbash describes how the two men who began the band came to do so:
Reuben’s and Franco’s collaboration actually goes back to 1998 in Kalia camp. “I had nothing to do,” recalled Reuben. “In the morning, I would go to the center were all the refugees would just be talking. I saw that many people were not happy. I thought: If I start to play music here, people will really feel well.” Precisely so, and soon a Canadian NGO provided the band with PA gear so they could tour to other camps and raise spirits there. “Me and Franco,” said Reuben, “we were very serious over the matter. At first, my wife was not happy. She didn't want me to go sing in remote places. But I was so stubborn.” His wife, Grace, eventually joined the band once she saw how the music was helping to build community in the camps, drawing people to meetings where they could discuss their circumstances and options.

You can also visit the official web site of the film and hear an interview on NPR.

The Mutubambile Orphan Choir is made up of children from Zimbabwe who were orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Again, here is Calabash's description:
'We are the Orphans' was produced by popular Zimbabwean musican Oliver Mtukudzi alongside children who are part of the Mutubambile Orphan Choir.

The children composed their own songs with Mtukudzi, who also worked on the musical arrangements. This extra-ordinary album by children who have lost most of their parents to HIV/AIDS reflects a sigh of hope and spreads the message of the disease that has taken their loved ones. Through the beautiful, often sad, songs of the choir, produced in collaboration with Oliver, highlights the national problem posed by the many orphans left by HIV & Aids every year. The sale of their album will contribute to the orphans' education.
Use the player below to hear samples. It will also connect you to Calabash if you want to buy some of them.

Reuben is right: when I start to play music, I feel well because I can hear what hope sounds like.


Friday, January 05, 2007

bluebonnet spring

There’s the theology you discuss late at night over coffee or beers and then there’s the theology that gets lived out. The challenge, for me, is for the two to be quite similar.

In coming to terms with my job situation, I turned to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Mt. 6:25-34)
When it comes to dealing with adversity, it’s easy to become self-focused. In some sense, that’s exactly what we have to do: put on our thickest skin. In another sense it’s reflex: we turn inward to keep from getting hurt even more. One of the earliest definitions of depression I learned was it was “anger turned inward.” Since the anger couldn’t get out, it cannibalized whoever was trying to hold it in.

Trust me – that’s a good definition.

It’s easy to do the same thing with adversity or despair. Much of the power in Jesus' challenge to consider the lilies comes from knowing that most of the folks who heard those words that day and the rest of us that have read them over the centuries all have moments when we think, “No one knows how I feel.” I’m not the first person to suffer the anxiety of losing a job, or the humiliation of going to the Unemployment Office, or the tension of wondering how to pay the bills or what to do next for money. I am unemployed, sitting in my house, typing on my MacBook, drinking a cup of coffee, while my wife who loves me works downstairs.

I’m a fortunate person going through a difficult time who wonders what to expect from God.

Every five seconds a child dies from hunger related causes in our world – about 16,000 children a day. Here’s a way I can grasp that number. A Boeing 747 used for domestic flights holds 568 people. Imagine one of those planes packed with children crashing and killing all the passengers every fifty minutes of every day. That’s how many children are dying of hunger in our world. I couldn’t find a number for the adults. Of that number, I have no doubt many are from Christian families who have read the Sermon on the Mount and have prayed for God to provide food. They prayed all the way to the grave.

What do I do with that?

Yesterday, Massachusetts inaugurated Deval Patrick as our seventy-first governor and our first African-American governor. As a part of his inaugural address he said:
On this very day 165 years ago, a young man named Kinna, who had been part of that [Amistad] rebellion, sent a letter from prison to our own John Quincy Adams, who had retired from public life at home in Massachusetts.

Kinna pleaded with Adams to help the 36 captives from his ship to earn their freedom. Adams took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court and won.
As a gesture of thanks and respect, the Africans gave Adams a Bible, called the Mendi Bible, after their tribal homeland.

I took the oath this morning with my hand resting on that same Bible — and with my resolve strengthened by that same legacy. I am descended from people once forbidden their most basic and fundamental freedoms, a people desperate for a reason to hope and willing to fight for it. And so are you. So are you. Because the Amistad was not just a black man's journey; it was an American journey. This commonwealth and the nation modeled on it is at its best when we show we understand a faith in what's possible, and the willingness to work for it.
Ginger and I had a chance to be a part of the interfaith worship service that preceded the inauguration. It was an amazing collection of people from all over Massachusetts. I sat with two Sikhs and a Muslim, the four of us standing shoulder to shoulder singing,
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,

thou who hast brought us
thus far on the way;

thou who hast by thy might
led us into the light;

keep us for ever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places,
our God, where we met thee;

lest, our hearts drunk with the wine
of the world, we forget thee;

shadowed beneath thy hand

may we for ever stand,

true to our God, true to our native land.

The tenor of the day called us outside of ourselves -- beyond our parochialism and our cynicism – to see new possibilities. When Patrick said he was descended from “a people desperate for a reason to hope and willing to fight for it,” I felt he was calling us to claim the same heritage. The story of being human is one of both considering the lilies and working hard to change our circumstances in the midst of adversity.

Face it: the lilies never had to pay a mortgage.

When I lived in Texas, my favorite time of year was early spring, when the bluebonnets bloomed. The beautiful little wildflowers cover every highway median and any number of fields with a purple-blue blanket – for about two weeks. Then they’re gone. They brought Jesus’ words alive to me in a new light. My paraphrase goes something like:
Consider the bluebonnets. They don’t work or punch a clock, but they’re beautiful. They also don’t worry that they last such a short time. They simply revel in being bluebonnets and leave it at that.
If perennial wildflowers are the working metaphor, there is much to learn beyond a bluebonnet spring. After the flowers fade, the Texas Highway Department doesn’t mow the medians until the bluebonnets have gone to seed. Then there is nothing to see beyond the grass and weeds that cover the space between the opposing lanes of traffic. The life of a lily or a bluebonnet involves rest, growth, and some work, along with a little luck and time to bloom. Spring doesn’t come everyday.

Jesus’ last comment on this topic is the clincher for me (again, my paraphrase):
Don’t start worrying about tomorrow – there’s plenty of time for that. You have enough on your plate just dealing with today.
A little over a month ago, I was working hard to put together a plan for running the Bakery at the Inn. Today I don’t work there anymore. If I had worried then, I would not have let myself dream about the bakery and would not have learned all I did about putting together a business plan. If I had gone to work everyday for the past year stressing about the tenuous nature of my job, I would not have been able to let myself get to know my colleagues, or learn as much as I did about cooking. Now my blooming time is over there and I am called to trust God on a day that is not a bluebonnet spring. Whatever I know of time and circumstance, God was here before it and will be here long after it is over. Whatever shape there is to this life we live, I can only live today.

Now I know why I like to discuss theology with a beer in hand.

One of the readings at the service yesterday was “A Prayer” by Maya Angelou. In the midst of change, they came as helpful and hopeful words for me:
Father, Mother, God
Thank you for your presence

during the hard and mean days.

For then we have you to lean upon.

Thank you for your presence

during the bright and sunny days,
for then we can share that which we have
with those who have less.

And thank you for your presence

during the Holy Days, for then we are able

to celebrate you and our families

and our friends.

For those who have no voice,

we ask you to speak.

For those who feel unworthy,

we ask you to pour your love out

in waterfalls of tenderness.

For those who live in pain,

we ask you to bathe them

in the river of your healing.

For those who are lonely,
we ask
you to keep them company.

For those who are depressed,

we ask you to shower upon them

the light of hope.

Dear Creator, You, the borderless

sea of substance, we ask you to give to all the

world that which we need most--Peace.