Tuesday, March 31, 2009

lenten journal: words can save your life

By the time most of you read this (actually, by the time I finish writing), it will be April, whose first week holds a sort of harmonic convergence for me. The First of April marks the beginning of National Poetry Month (National GeekFest, as Ginger lovingly calls it); this weekend brings the NCAA Basketball Tournaments to a glorious close; and, Monday marks Opening Day for my beloved Red Sox. I suppose I should also mention Palm Sunday falls in there as well.

Basketball has dominated the airwaves for some time now and I know there will always be Sox stories to tell. Tonight I will tell you a story about poets, two of them, and let their words be the invitation to the month to come.

Several years ago – OK, a whole bunch of years ago, just after Ginger and I moved to Boston, I drove to Rochester, New York to meet my brother, who was living in Akron, Ohio at the time. We picked Rochester because it was about halfway. Meeting halfway was a good metaphor, even though we didn’t see it at the time, because we were at a place in our relationship where we were having a hard time finding each other. We gave it a valiant try, but were not very successful. (Later, we were.) I drove back to Boston, trying to make meaning out of what had happened and chose to drive home down Route 20 rather than the Interstate. Somewhere in the Berkshires, I met Jimmy Santiago Baca as he talked with an interviewer on NPR. Somewhere in my library is a paperback book of NPR interviews with the transcript of what I heard, but I’m not digging for quotes here; I’m remembering a moment. Whatever he said marked my heart as the sun fell behind me and I drove toward the ocean, toward home, toward whatever was next.

A couple of years later, I found Baca again as a part of Bill Moyers’ series, The Language of Life (which also introduced me to the Dodge Poetry Festival). I was teaching high school English in the Boston Public Schools and Baca made me believe poetry had a pivotal role to play in the lives of my students. I put one of his quotes above the board at the front of the room:

words can save your life.
Nathan Brown and I came to know each other through a mutual friend and have found a bond of our own that began with two important things: poetry and depression. He came to visit Ginger and me in Boston and, in the aisles of Wordsworth Books in Harvard Square, I handed him one of Baca’s books and said, “You need this.” A couple of weeks later he called me from a coffee shop somewhere in Oklahoma City doing his own version of Whitman’s barbaric yawp, almost unable to verbalize what Baca’s poetry was doing to him.

More years passed and I was driving one day when my phone rang and it was Nathan, again, on the other end of the phone. “Hang on,” he said, “I have someone who wants to say hello to you.” The next voice said,

“Milton, this is Jimmy Santiago Baca.”

For the next few minutes, he told me how Nathan had invited him to come to the University of Oklahoma, where Nathan teaches. And a few words coming out of the radio on a winding road found a way to connect the three of us across years and circumstance. I wish the years had afforded me the chance to know both men better; I’m grateful for the connection that exists and, in that gratitude offer a poem from each one as companions for your winding road.
I Am Offering This Poem
Jimmy Santiago Baca

I am offering this poem to you,
since I have nothing else to give.
Keep it like a warm coat,
when winter comes to cover you,
or like a pair of thick socks
the cold cannot bite through,

I love you,

I have nothing else to give you,
so it is a pot full of yellow corn
to warm your belly in the winter,
it is a scarf for your head, to wear
over your hair, to tie up around your face,

I love you,

Keep it, treasure it as you would
if you were lost, needing direction,
in the wilderness life becomes when mature;
and in the corner of your drawer,
tucked away like a cabin or a hogan
in dense trees, come knocking,
and I will answer, give you directions,
and let you warm yourself by this fire,
rest by this fire, and make you feel safe,

I love you,

It's all I have to give,
and it's all anyone needs to live,
and to go on living inside,
when the world outside
no longer cares if you live or die;

I love you.


Loose Words
Nathan Brown

I’ve intended to tape it back in
for months – page 455 of my
fraying paperback dictionary.

I have to slide it into place, fix it,
every time I look up a word.
Page 455 hangs by a thread.

And like I said, I’ve intended
to tape it back in for months,
but . . . I don’t know . . .

there’s just something about words
in constant danger of being lost
that keeps me from doing it.
Happy Poetry Month. Happy Final Four. Go Sox. Hosanna.


Monday, March 30, 2009

lenten journal: what rhymes with tired?

I would like to say
at the end of the day
that I still had some play
but that would be (somewhat) lying

I would like to reveal
all the things that I feel
you know – keeping it real
but that would be (mostly) sighing

So I’m going to bed
with much left unsaid
and though that rhymes with dead
I intend to be quite death-defying

For a good night of sleep
and all that will reap
will for sure help me keep
my promise to keep lentifying


Sunday, March 29, 2009

lenten journal: we are loved

My friend Gordon has been telling the story of his church in San Antonio at his blog at at the High Calling website. Part of the story is about the pastor who preceded him -- a friend of many of us – who was amazingly gifted at offering grace to others that he was not able to accept himself. Ultimately, it destroyed him.

Of course, that’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of a much more complex and complicated story. I thought about him today during Communion because Communion was one of the places he most creatively invited those around him to open their hearts to God.

We continued our Lenten practice, as a congregation, of celebrating Communion in different ways each Sunday. Today we came forward to the Table where the bread and cup were laid out and we served ourselves. The metaphor in our movement that spoke to me was the Meal was only as sustaining as my willingness to take and eat. I had to get up and come to supper. As I walked down the aisle, the tune playing in my head was a song our nephew, Scott, wrote for his older brother, Ben. I don’t know the story behind the song, other than it was a birthday gift. I know it speaks to me.

Ben’s Song (You Are Loved)

you’re hanging by a thread
it’s thinner everyday
but hold on –
there’s someone there to catch you

your plate had been wiped clean
there’s nothing left to eat
but hang in there --
you’ve been invited to a feast

you are loved
you are forgiven
you are safe inside
the center of redemption

your crippled body’s weak
you’re crawling on the ground
stand up –
there’s someone here to heal you

your eyes are old and blind
you’re groping in the dark
look around –
there’s a light that shines in darkness

you are loved
you are forgiven
you’re safe inside
the center of redemption

you’re wandering in a field
got lost along the way
but sit tight –
there’s a shepherd who will find you

you are loved
you are forgiven
you’re safe inside
the center of redemption
I spent some time tonight with iMovie, since I can’t for the life of me figure out how to upload music to Blogger, and made a (very rough) music video so you could hear the song, as well as read the lyric.

We are loved.
We are forgiven.
We are safe within the center of redemption.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

lenten journal: cosmology

can it be on these nights
when we are tucked in our home
curled up on the couch with
doughnuts of dogs at our feet,
the kitchen still holding the aroma
of the garlic I roasted this afternoon
the way we are holding life close,
with only a couple of lights burning

even the clouds have closed us in
still – beyond them the stars shine
small lights, from my view,
lights like ours, crossing the sky
constellations of community
each one a household shining
in the darkness; such is the stuff
of which universes are made

when we go to bed each night
we never turn off all the lights
two lamps stay burning in the kitchen,
both made from old fixtures;
can it be some sailor on a sea
we have yet to name finds his way
because our light is shining,
our kitchen light, our star?


Friday, March 27, 2009

lenten journal: it's the little things

I finished Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper the Knife, The Less You Cry today and found myself moved by her closing words:

As in cooking, life requires that you taste, taste, taste as you go along – you can’t wait until the dish of life is done. In my career, I always looked ahead to the place I wanted to go, the next rung on the ladder. It reminds me of “The Station” by Robert Hastings, a parable read at our wedding. The message is that while on a journey, we are sure the answer lies at the destination. But in reality, there is no station, no “place to arrive at once and for all. The joy of life is the trip, and the station is a dream that constantly outdistances us.”

How many tears did I cry because I didn’t get what I wanted? “The sharper the knife,” as Chef Savard had said, “the less you cry.” For me, it also means to cut those things that get in the way of your passion and of living your life the way it’s meant to be lived.

Of course, I also learned to make a mean reduction sauce and to bone an entire chicken without removing the skin, which is nice, too.
With a little searching, I found a copy of “The Station,” for which I’m grateful. He follows the words Flinn quoted with these:
"Relish the moment" is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 118:24, "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it."

So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, swim more rivers, climb more mountains, kiss more babies, count more stars. Laugh more and cry less. Go barefoot oftener. Eat more ice cream. Ride more merry-go-rounds. Watch more sunsets. Life must be lived as we go along. The Station will come soon enough.
With those sentiments swirling in my soul, I made my (mostly) daily journey to The Writer’s Almanac to find today’s offering, “Meditation on Ruin” by Jay Hopler:
It's not the lost lover that brings us to ruin, or the barroom brawl,
or the con game gone bad, or the beating
Taken in the alleyway. But the lost car keys,
The broken shoelace,
The overcharge at the gas pump
Which we broach without comment — these are the things that
eat away at life, these constant vibrations
In the web of the unremarkable.

The death of a father — the death of the mother —
The sudden loss shocks the living flesh alive! But the broken
pair of glasses,
The tear in the trousers,
These begin an ache behind the eyes.
And it's this ache to which we will ourselves
Oblivious. We are oblivious. Then, one morning—there's a
crack in the water glass —we wake to find ourselves undone.
One of the things Flinn mentions more than once in her book that I have come to find both true and necessary in my work in the kitchen is a good cook cleans up between tasks. Part of the reason is basic hygiene: if you’re cutting raw meat, you need to change the cutting board and clean your knife before you start dicing vegetables. Part of the reason is practical: you run out of counter space in a hurry if you don’t take time to put away and wipe down. When I fail to keep up with my cleaning, I learn (again) what Hopler is saying: the little details will kill you.

And they will save you.

Before I could get too philosophical, my mind first took a country turn after reading the poem and dug up Robert Earl Keen’s song, “The Little Things,” from my mental juke box. Keen can be as cynical as he is country, and this song is no exception.
It's the way you stroke my hair while I am sleeping
It's the way you tell me things I don't know
It's the way you remember I came home late for dinner
Eleven months and fourteen days ago

It's the little things the little bitty things
Like the way that you remind me I've been growing soft
It's the little things the itty bitty things
It's the little things that piss me off
I’m not sure why the song has stuck with me over the years, because I don’t like it. I mean it’s a catchy little country number, but the sentiment is crass in that Henny-Youngman-take-my-wife-please attempt at humor sort of way that, well, isn’t funny. It is, however, instructive because Keen articulates the very despair in the details that Hopler warns against. A marriage falls apart just like the rest of the world: it’s the little things.

Or it’s the little things that build a life together, whatever the relationship. We find our joy in the journey when we travel together, whatever the destination. Ginger and I had lunch today with a friend from Massachusetts. We were talking about a mutual acquaintance and Ginger made the comment that it was hard for her when the woman demeaned her husband in public. I realized when she said it that she had never done that to me in our twenty years together.

It’s the little things.

Ginger and I met this afternoon with Keith from Bountiful Backyards, a company here in Durham that describes themselves as “edible landscapers,” working to get folks to do more with their yards than plant grass and flowers, but to think more in terms of food productions, soil nutrition, and water conservation. Last fall, we had to regrade our front yard, so there is nothing but dirt and stepping stones (underneath our giant pin oak); we needed help seeing what could be. Keith had tons of ideas and we talked about several possibilities. One of the most helpful things he said was to think in terms of it being a work in progress; it didn’t all have to happen right now. Gardening is a journey of its own. We will make some plans, dig in the dirt, plant some stuff, on our journey to make this house more and more our home – with a yard we can eat!

Years ago, my friend Billy and I wrote a song called “Traveling Mercies,” part of which said:
take bread for the journey
and strength for the fight
comfort to sleep through the night
wisdom to choose at the fork in the road
and a heart that knows the way home

go in peace live in grace
trust in the arms that will hold you
go in peace live in grace
trust God’s love
Yes. It’s the little things.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

lenten journal: learning breakfast

I had a few moments to check my blog reader before heading to work and found two quotes from two very different people, Beth and Maggi, both quoting others. I read them in this order. First:

Everybody wants to be a rock star, but no one wants to learn the chords.
and then:
Seeing the other person as gift, striving to see God within them, does not make people less irritating. It does help me grow up . . . .
My first restaurant cooking job was in a restaurant that was open for all three meals. After my first breakfast shift, I asked the chef the best way to learn how to flip eggs in the pan with a flip of the wrist, rather than having to use a spatula. He went to the refrigerator and pulled out a flat of eggs (which is thirty of them) and said, “That flat costs me about three dollars. By the time you go through those eggs, you’ll be able to flip the eggs with ease. Pretty cheap lesson, if you ask me.”
learning breakfast

there are several secrets to good eggs
open secrets, I guess – I can tell you
the pan needs to be good and hot –
(non stick helps, too)
with a swirl of clarified butter
and then the egg, broken
(shell, that is) into the pan –
and the white sticks like paint
(try again.) (and again.)
lower the heat so the egg
doesn’t cook too fast – (try again.)
and then rock the pan in
a gentle circle till the egg moves
and then, well, you flip it.
(try again.) the yolk splatters like
a paint ball. (try again.)
(and again.) (And again.)
they asked for over easy. (again.)
these are too runny. (again.)
the pan is cold. the butter is too hot.
before you decide to scramble
everything, try again and again.
you will learn, if you try. again.
Not every lesson in life comes as easily or as inexpensively.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

lenten journal: a taste for the mundane

When we opened the restaurant at Duke last fall, we averaged about thirty customers a night; fifty was busy. Over the course of the semester, the number grew to where fifty was the average. This semester, we’ve seen our customer base expand to where sixty-five is a slow night. Tonight we served ninety and topped our highest sales amount to date. Getting busier takes some adjustment, because we have to rethink what “normal” is. When the number of covers we do every night (that’s restaurant lingo for the number of dinners we serve; why, I do not know) increases without the kitchen staff growing, what has to be done in a normal day of work changes, too.

When we first moved to Boston, I had a part time job at the Blockbuster Video in our Charlestown neighborhood. Arlene, the assistant manager, was married to a Boston cop. What I knew of the life of a police officer came from Hill Street Blues. I was surprised at how mundane the daily life of a cop really was. There just weren’t that many shootouts to be attended to.

Thanks to Top Chef and Iron Chef and the Food Network in general, my profession gets its share of play, making it look glamorous and interesting, when much of the day is fairly routine and mundane: chopping and cleaning and slicing and cleaning. Though I get to make cool stuff and wear a white jacket, what I do is manual labor, and somewhat repetitive. Not a day goes by that I don’t chop my share of onions and celery and carrots for the two soups I have to make. I bake the bread for dinner each night. At least twice a week I have to make desserts (the same ones). Ii cut steaks and fish and roast chickens. And then, as I said, there’s the cleaning: sanitizing the stainless steel countertops, sweeping and mopping the floors. Once a week, I take inventory for the coming week’s food order.

I also come home most nights and try to write, which is its own mix of mystery and mundaneness (mudanity?). Tonight, in my Writer’s Almanac moment, I followed the link to author of today’s poem (a jewel of its own), Mark Strand, to find one that had been featured a year or so ago:

The Continuous Life

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? O parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost—a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don't really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.
Man. What he said.

For all of the frontiers that still may be, for all the places I want to go where I have not yet been, for all that appears to be undiscovered by me (though most of it already found by someone else), my daily life holds new things when I am willing to develop “a taste” for the mundane, and cultivate a sense of wonder in ordinary things.

Some time back, I got a note from someone who reads my blog and shared a connection to Coryell County, Texas, where I used to pastor, wondering how someone who used to pastor a part-time Southern Baptist Church outside Gatesville, Texas ended up as a chef and married to a minister in the United Church of Christ. Though there were a couple of amazing experiences that became altars along the way, for the most part it happened as Strand describes: the one thing leads to another, that leads to another. I followed my heart (and the woman I love) in big things and in small things, the daily gestures – not unlike the making of the mirepoix – that build a life out of the bricks we call days. I understand the fear of having nothing accomplished, though that speaks more to my own sense of not being enough than it does to what my life adds up to. In my best moments, brought upon by things like Strand’s poem, I know showing up for life everyday and doing what I can to be kind and open adds up in the midst of the cooking and cleaning. and the coming home each night to the one who loves me best, in all sorts of ordinary ways.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

lenten journal: only human

Last fall, when we were just getting the restaurant at Duke going, serving fifty people felt like a busy night. We wanted to be busier than that, but when we were averaging about thirty-five, fifty felt like a lot. Last Wednesday night, we served one hundred and eight people in a little over one hundred and eighty minutes. It was the third time in three weeks we had gone over the century mark. Needless to say, I came home tired. Our slow nights now are in the sixties; average closer to seventy-five. Tonight we served over ninety but the new thing was it didn’t feel hectic and busy like the other nights when got close to a hundred covers. I knew we had sold a lot of food, but my body didn’t feel tired like it did last week.

I suppose it has to do with what we have gotten used to, or what we have come to expect.

Roger Bannister was the first person to run a mile in under four minutes, which he did in 1954. No one had ever done that before. Within a year of his breaking the barrier, sixteen other runners had done the same thing, as if he had found some sort of gate in the fabric of time and left it open. The current world record for the mile is 3:43.13, set by Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999. In that record race, the person who came in fifteenth ran the mile in 3:53.64. So much for four minutes. Another couple of years and people will start talking about breaking the 3:40 barrier. And someone will.

We all those that’s-as-far-as-I-can-go lines in our lives; probably more than one. We see the horizon as a limit, rather than an invitation. It’s as far or fast as we can go, as good as we get.

When I was in seminary, I took voice lessons because I wanted to learn to sing better. I was not a music major, but one of the professors was willing to take me on. After a couple of semesters with him, I continued taking private lessons from one of the doctoral students. One of the lessons that stuck with me was how she helped me visualize a way to sing higher. Rather than talking about reaching the note, she experimented with other metaphors until she found one that let me relax and blow through my own barriers. When I began to think of myself sinking into the earth, grounding myself, and letting the note rise up out of me, I relaxed and hit the notes without strain or struggle.

It still works.

One of the most helpful ways I think about Jesus is to see him as the ultimate human being. For me, to take his humanity seriously is to see him as the most human that has walked the planet. We’ve let the word human mean faulty or broken, like the old Human League song: “I’m only human, born to make mistakes.” (Man – I can’t believe I actually made that reference.) Jesus’ self-awareness, integrity, compassion, intentionality, focus, open-heartedness, kindness, forthrightness, and grace were human traits. They are in us as well, much like the sub-four minute mile is in every runner who has ever broken the barrier.

Being truly human is being whole, not broken.

Tonight was easy, not because we were somehow exceptional this evening, but because we managed to catch a glimpse of what we are capable of doing. And we prepped hard. And we’ve worked on how to set up the kitchen and talk to each other and plate the meals. What we did to make the evening easier was to be cooks. Good cooks. We did what cooks ought to do and found we could do even more.

While I was in seminary taking voice lessons, a book came out called The Seven Last Words of the Church, which were, “We’ve never done it that way before.” In all the church-world blogging that goes on – emergent, mainline, and otherwise – there are a lot of good ideas, yet I’m often troubled by the tone. We somehow feel we need to castigate who we are as the church (or what someone else is doing) in order to think about who we are becoming. We come up with new labels, new buildings, new models, new slogans – all of them with historical antecedents. The discussions are good and interesting and, sometimes, even hopeful. Yet I hear the same mistake as the song I quoted (dare I label it Human League Syndrome?), because we keep talking about how flawed the church is because it’s made up of human beings.

What if we chose to look at our congregations of people as the reason for hope, rather than that which has to be overcome, or corrected, or fixed. What if we chose to be as human as Jesus in our dealings with one another? We might find love and trust are way more original that sin has ever been.

Should you be tempted to write me off as an idealist, let me say this: I can think of nineteen places I would rather go than a church committee meeting. Part of the reason I am no longer in vocational ministry is my own impatience with the pace of change in most churches. And I believe in the church, that same church, when I’m most in touch with my true humanity.

You see, I got from the kitchen to the congregation because, on this night when things went so well and we were at our best, I was working on the line with Chef #2, whom I have had to learn how to humanize, as (I think) he has also had to learn to do with me. We have both worked hard and we now work well together, even enjoy working together. My attitude changed when I began to see him as a person, rather than a problem. Writing him off was the easy unoriginal act; finding him and letting him find me has been full of creative, human things, changing both our cooking and our connection. We’re a sub-four minute kitchen, if you will, and still gaining speed.

Who knows where we’ll go – after all, we’re only human.


Monday, March 23, 2009

lenten journal: the imagination of language

I was catching up on my Writer’s Almanac tonight and found yesterday was the shared birthday of Billy Collins and Edith Grossman. Billy Collins was the US Poet Laureate from 2001-2003 and holds the distinction of being a poet who actually sells books. Edith Grossman is a book translator, known best for her translations of Gabriel Garcia Marques’ books and what is for many the definitive translation of Don Quixote. Born five years apart, they share this day, as well as the ability to make language come alive for us, the readers.

Grossman describes her vocation in this way:

Thinking up characters and plot is not a problem translators have to face, but the imagination of language and how one says what one needs to say in the best way possible—the most effective way possible—that’s a problem that translators have to deal with constantly.
Collins demonstrates the imagination of language brilliantly also, in his own way. Here is his poem, “Litany,” which he said came about because he "stole," as he said, the opening two lines from another poem that needed to be improved. (He also said it with a rather wry smile on his face.)
You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine . . .
Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley,
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I am not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.
One of my favorite books on preaching is Walter Brueggemann’s Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation. Just the title kills me: poetry as a daring use of words. Perhaps he could write a sequel called Finally Comes the Translator, since both are working to find the mot juste, the right word to say it best.

Spending most of my day in a bilingual kitchen where most of us know only a few words of the others’ language, I have a growing appreciation for what it would feel like to hear Abel or Tony speak and then actually to be able to know the right English words to choose to articulate what they said in Spanish. In real life, I’m the culinary equivalent of a hunt-and-peck typist, hitting a word here or there, but having no sense of how I might actually put a sentence together, much less a coherent thought.

In that same kitchen, to make the shift from the prosaic actions of prep work to the poetry of putting a plate together to send out to a diner (at least I hope that’s what’s happening) makes the metaphor even more alive for me. Should we choose to live imaginatively, we are both translators and poets of this life of ours, seeking how we might say what needs to be said in the best way possible. To borrow words from King Lear:
the weight of these sad times we must obey
speak what we feel and not what we ought to say
Those words still translate.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

lenten journal: snakes on a plain

We had been with Julia and Larry for a couple of hours Friday evening before the conversation turned to snakes, mostly because both Ginger and Larry were going to preach about them following the lectionary passage from John 3 where Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness . . .”

“Everybody has a snake story,” Larry said. And then we all began telling ours.

My seminary pastorate was near the little town of Oglesby, Texas, which was “famous” Rattlesnake Roundup every February. (They held the event when it was cold so the snakes weren’t moving too much.) Those who wanted to hunt the snake combed the land around the town, bringing in every rattler they could find, their goal being to lessen the snake population in their area. The rest of us just showed up for the festival where we saw rattlesnakes, touched rattlesnakes, and even ate rattlesnakes. One demonstration that sticks in my mind was watching a guy named Snuffy or Spunky lay down on an open sleeping bag. Once he was still, they began placing live rattlesnakes around him – twenty snakes or so – and then they closed the sleeping bag and zipped it up. Over the next twenty minutes or so, Spanky moved slowly – inched – to work his way out of the bag without any of the snakes biting him. When he was far enough out of the bag that we could see his chest, we could also see one of the snakes had coiled up on his chest and gone to sleep. Once his feet cleared the bag, Slappy moved his hands on either side of the sleeping snake and threw it across the pen he was in and ran off.

When the Israelites were besieged by snakes, Moses didn’t organize a snake hunt. Instead he fashioned a snake out of bronze and put it up on a pole. The people were told to look up at the snake if they were bitten and they would be saved. As Larry pointed out in our discussion, Moses didn’t chase the snakes away but gave the people a way to learn to live with the snakes instead.

During Lent, some folks have been meeting before church at coffee houses around the city to discuss different subjects. Ginger and Carla chose alliterative titles:

Ten or twelve of us gathered with our coffee and pastries and a page of quotes to spur our discussion. The opening words were from Henri Nouwen:
Gratitude . . . goes beyond the “mine” and “thine” and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.
Gratitude as discipline: the practice of giving thanks.

Yesterday was a perfect spring afternoon. The air was cool, but I could still feel the sun on my skin. The sky was cloudless, save a white whisp or two, and felt expansive even from my backyard. Standing there with our pups prancing around at my feet, it was easy to connect with something beyond me, with all that is transcendent and hopeful and promising. How could I not be thankful? It came bubbling out of me. Though I am deeply grateful in those moments, I’m not sure that’s the same discipline Nouwen was describing. As the idea hung with me through the afternoon and my turn on the line for the dinner shift at the restaurant, I kept wondering how gratitude grows from response to intention, and I remembered a poem by W. S. Merwin that is one of my favorites:

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you

in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.
We are called to say thank you not because everything is wonderful or there are no more snakes on the plain or we hit the lottery. We are called to practice gratitude because thanksgiving is healing, both for those we thank and for our wounded hearts. “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice,” said Meister Eckhart. The way through the snakes and the dark and whatever else might foment fear or feed our anger is to give thanks, to practice gratitude, to train our hearts to sing a thankful song.

Even the hissing of summer lawns can’t drown out such a melody.


Saturday, March 21, 2009

lenten journal: for a dancer

First, I have a favor to ask. Our church is participating in the Durham CROP Walk tomorrow, which raises money for Church World Services hunger relief both locally and around the world. If you are able, I invite you to support us in our walk. You can donate here.


I getting close to the end of one of the books I’ve been reading this season, Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, and it continues to be full of good things. Yesterday afternoon, I sat out on our front porch and read while I waited for Ginger and our friend Lori to come back from walking Ella and followed Flinn as she came to the end of her Superior Cuisine class with a dinner at Le Doyen, which she says is one of Paris’ best.

The meal began with an amuse-bouche – something to entertain the palate: a small chunk of fish that tasted of smoky bacon topped with a beet sorbet. When the chef came to see how they liked the meal, he asked her which dish was her favorite and she picked that one.
That’s it. By dumb luck, I’ve hit some nerve and named his favorite dish, one that he’s been working on for months. He kneels down, and for twenty minutes we talk. Well, mostly he talks and I try to figure out what he’s saying. Lately, he’s been thinking about the idea of masculine and feminine foods. Do I agree that some foods are masculine or feminine? Before I answer, he tells me how he things about making them “dance” together. Sometimes, at night, after the kitchen has closed, he takes ingredients that he thinks will not work together and figures out how they could. Beets alone didn’t work with fish, but beet sorbet was sweet enough to offset the salt of the fish, for instance. He has many thoughts about sauce, which I miss entirely when he begins talking too fast for me to follow.
Dance works best for me as metaphor. I have good rhythm, I love music, I can feel the beat, but if you’re looking for someone who can really cut a rug, I’m not the guy. I appreciate dance. I even married a dancer, but I am not one. I do understand how, as John Michael Montgomery once sang, “life’s a dance you learn as you go.” Cooking is, too; I may not be much on the dance floor, but I’m a pretty good culinary choreographer.
1638, "of the kitchen," from L. culinarius, from culina "kitchen." Meaning "of cookery" is from 1651.

c.1789, from Fr. chorégraphie, coined from Gk. khoreia "dance" + graphein "to write." Choreograph (v.) is from 1943.

We changed our menu a bit at Duke last week, following spring break, to keep with the season and to spark some interest. As we talked about what we might change, Abel asked if he could make the pasta sauce.

“I have a good idea,” he said.

We had a chipotle alfredo on our last menu, but he had different ideas. I watched him write his dance last Monday. He diced onions, celery, and garlic and sautéed them in butter until they had cooked down and then added Marsala wine and let that reduce.

“I need rosemary,” he said. And I got him bunches of it, which he chopped and added to the mix. He was cooking and tasting and thinking at the same time. “Now a little tomato paste.” He finished each sentence with something less than a period, leaving a sense of expectation hanging over the pot. He stirred in the tomato paste and then added chicken stock, some cream, salt, pepper, and a couple of other seasonings, and then let it all simmer – dance together – until he was ready to say, “Taste this.”

I dipped my tasting spoon into the pot and touched it too my lips. To call it a rosemary sauce is to sell it short. I could taste layers of flavor -- movements, if you will: a beginning, a middle, and an end, all in balance and harmony. It’s awesome. It’s selling like crazy. And he choreographed the whole thing with the stuff we had on hand, creating a new thing out of all that was familiar and available.

Whether walking or dancing or skipping, there are only so many motions our bodies can make. Some come naturally; some take training and practice and skill. What makes the difference between how I look moving to music and a dance is how the movements fit together – the conversation between body and heart and mind that makes the simple movement of arm or leg become something transcendent.

Maya Angelou’s poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration is one of my favorites because of its simplicity. I was teaching English in an inner city Boston high school at the time. I took the poem to my students and showed them she hardly used any words that had more than three syllables, or that were not just ordinary words.

A rock. A river. A tree.

People used those words everyday, but she put them together and they became a work of art, they became something that spoke for and to everyone.

I love the detail Flinn gives about the chef staying late to work with flavors he thought would work together and staying with them until he figured out how they did – to rehearse, to create his rough drafts – so he could choreograph a dish for his customers that would inspire them. He danced with his food the same way Abel worked on his sauce, or I love working on my soups, cooking and stirring and adding and tasting, over and over.

Why Jackson Browne has my soundtrack this particular week, I’m not sure, but “For a Dancer” popped up in my play list as I was writing tonight, moving me from the kitchen to the dance of daily life that calls us to choreograph and collaborate at every turn.
keep a fire for the human race
let your prayers go drifting into space
you never know what will be coming down
perhaps a better world is drawing near
and just as easily it could all disappear
along with whatever meaning you might have found
dont let the uncertainty turn you around
(the world keeps turning around and around)
go on and make a joyful sound

into a dancer you have grown
from a seed somebody else has thrown
go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
and somewhere between the time you arrive
and the time you go
may lie a reason you were alive
but you'll never know
Hey, look at me. I’m dancing.


Friday, March 20, 2009

lenten journal: looking through some photographs

For many of the years we lived in New England, we shared our Charlestown neighborhood with the USS Constitution, which was docked in the Charlestown Navy Yard. I even got to ride on it one Bunker Hill Day (that’s June 17 to those not from Boston) on its turn around cruise in Boston harbor. It is still the oldest commissioned vessel in the Navy. One of the things that means is the Navy can continue to repair it. Once a ship is decommissioned it loses its historical authenticity if anything is altered, but a commissioned vessel can be changed and kept up. The Constitution, as it is today, is only about ten percent original material, even though it is still recognizable and considered to be the ship it has always been.

Tonight, at the end of a day that included working an extra catering shift to serve lunch to 330 people in the halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium to sharing another round of oysters with my friend Terry to wine and cheese with new friends, Ginger started thumbing through old photo albums getting ready for some cleaning and arranging we have to do tomorrow. As she turned pages, I saw myself as I have not seen myself in years; I, too, it seems, am about ten percent original material.

And still in commission.

About the time this picture was taken, Jackson Browne released what is still my favorite record of his – and it was a record: Late for the Sky. The second track, “Fountain of Sorrow,” begins

looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
there were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
but they didnt show your spirit quite as true

you were turning round to see who was behind you
and I took your childish laughter by surprise
and at the moment that my camera happened to find you
there was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes

fountain of sorrow, fountain of light
youve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight
youve had to hide sometimes, but now youre all right
and its good to see your smiling face tonight
Some of the pictures brought back very specific memories. I could remember when it was taken, what was going on, even details down to smells and sounds and feelings. Others were harder to place. Then there were inadvertent series: Ginger and Milton hugging each other over the years; Milton in the kitchen; Schnauzerfest. Since organization is not our strong suit, some albums had pictures from different years sitting next to each other, making me wonder how I got from one to the other.

And how I got from there to here.

I’m the liturgist for worship this Sunday. The gospel passage is from John 3 – the last half of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. Though the reading doesn’t begin until Jesus starts talking about snakes on a stick, I can’t help but notice Nicodemus’ bewilderment at having to be born again. Perhaps he had a hard time because he knew nothing of photographs (or Jackson Browne, for that matter). He had no albums to thumb through, calling him to remember his wonder years or what life was like in Pharisee School. As I turned pages, I saw myself born again and again, the photographs morphing from mounds of memories into gatherings of gratitude.

It has been good to see my smiling face tonight.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

lenten journal: dear aig

I know what it’s like to be
caught up in your own world --
I go to work in a windowless
kitchen and stay there all day
(there’s a lot to do)
my world quickly becomes
about my world unless
someone bursts in or I break out

is that what happened to you?

is that how you decided you
deserved the bonuses even
though your company was broke
and you needed money from
the rest of us just to have
a company? did you convince
yourself that being rich and
being smart were the same thing?

I have an idea:

come spend the day in my world.
watch Tony, the dishwasher
who speaks very little English
and understands only the words
that give him work to do
and he smiles the whole shift
and gets the occasional bonus
of food to take home.

but you won’t come.

they say you’re too big to fail.
I dropped a whole pan of potatoes
au gratin -- twenty four servings
that took two hours to make --
ten minutes before service began;
and so we did without them
because I, big as I am, failed.
and that was just today

that was just today.

being not rich and smart are
not necessarily the same thing,
so I won’t claim to understand
credit default swaps, but I do
understand this: you may be
too big to fail but your not
too big to be wrong, or deceitful.
Come clean. Quit stealing.

(That’s what it is.)

you’re not too big
to be forgiven.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

lenten journal: quotidian quixote

In my search for a writing prompt after a long, busy, and good day at the restaurant (we served more people than we ever have: 108 – in 180 minutes) I stopped by The Writer’s Almanac and learned today would have been John Updike’s seventy-seventh birthday had he lived only a few weeks longer. In the description of him and of his writing, he was quoted as saying, “My only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me — to give the mundane its beautiful due."

I looked up mundane just to see what I might find. We use the word to mean the boring, routine stuff, yet the roots of the word go back centuries and find their first meaning as “belonging to the world.” Mundane things are the stuff every day is made of. Related words include everyday, routine, unremarkable, workaday, quotidian.

I love that word: quotidian. For reasons that have nothing to do with etymology, quotidian always makes me think of quixotic, which derives its meaning from Don Quixote, one of the great characters of literature and an extravagant romantic.

A quotidian Quixote, then, would be an everyday romantic, I suppose.

Wait – I have a picture of one:

And now he must rest; tomorrow holds the promise of another everyday.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

lenten journal: heart worm

I must begin with an update on James, our music director, who was in a car accident a week ago last Saturday in which he escaped from a burning car and sustained smoke inhalation injuries. The doctors kept him heavily sedated and intubated for much of the week while they, for lack of a better term, vacuumed out his lungs. They called it a bronchoscopy. They were able to clean out his lungs and they began regenerating quickly. He was released over the weekend and is spending time with both his family and his in-laws. We are relieved and thankful.


On Sunday nights I work at the Durham restaurant my chef owns, rather than at Duke. From time to time, the house manager and I pass the evening by trading ear worms – those songs (usually bad ones) that get inside your head and won’t go away. You know what I mean:
we had joy we had fun
we had seasons in the sun
but the stars we could reach
were just starfish on the beach
Sorry about that. Really.

This morning, I was reading email and blog posts and came across what turned out to be a heart worm for me, if you will, because it has stuck with me all day. And that has been a good thing. The poem came from a post at Maggi Dawn’s blog and was written by Hafiz, a 14th century Sufi mystic.
Even after all this time
the sun never says
to the earth,
"you owe me."
Look what happens
to a love like that,
it lights up the whole
Here’s why the poem bored in and stayed with me.

On three very specific occasions over the last week and a half I have had the same choice to make, a choice that is not easy for me. I’ve been standing in line – once at Petco (where the pets go), once at Food Lion, and once in Old Navy – and the line, from my perspective, was longer than it needed to be. The reasons were different in each case, yet some of the circumstances were similar: there were registers not open, other employees around. It ‘s the kind of needless inefficiency and inconvenience that drives me nuts. No – it makes me mad. I don’t understand why people whose businesses depend on customers don’t pay much heed to customer service. In most cases I can work myself into quite a state in the time it takes – usually a long time, it seems – for me to finally get my turn at the register.

To get what I’m owed.

I went into Petco to get a new harness for Ella, who chewed through hers – for the second or third time. She’s also chewed through five leashes, but they have a lifetime guarantee and the store keeps replacing them. Not so with the $30 harness. When I got to the front of the store, six people were already in line and the employee at the register was paging the manager. I was not close enough to hear what was going on, but we stood there about five minutes before anyone came to open another register. The rest of us moved to the other line and things were going along swimmingly until the guy in front of me pulled out a coupon the computer didn’t recognize. Seven minutes later, it was my turn.

At some point in the first line, I could feel myself begin to get, shall we say, edgy. I had some other errands to run. I didn’t like them wasting my time. (As if it were mine to begin with.) On this particular day, however, I had the wherewithal to hear another voice. I decided I had time to wait. I wasn’t going to let it get to me. Maybe it was the guy in front of me (that’s right: the guy with the coupons) who began grumbling and gave me some sense of myself. Maybe Hafiz’ poem was already working its way to me somehow. But I relaxed and the time passed quickly. When I finally got to the register, the man behind apologized for my having to wait.

“That’s alright,” I said. “It’s not like the last ten minutes were going to change my life.” He laughed; I did, too.

Then he handed me my receipt and said, “I gave you twenty percent off because you were kind to me. I wish there were more people like you.”

“You have no idea,” I wanted to say. I thanked him instead and wished him well, and I went on my way thinking I wish I was more like the me I saw in that moment, or at least more consistently me in the incidental interactions of life where I am most capable of feeling I am owed something. I have found myself in the other two interactions I mentioned. I haven’t gotten any more discounts, but the woman at the Food Lion did call me, “Honey.” Then again, I think she did that to everyone in the store.

“Look what happens to a love like that,” Hafiz wrote. “It lights up the whole sky.”

His words stick in my heart because when I allow love like that to break through me in the billiard ball moments of life, where we bump into one another and go our separate ways, I’ve seen how kindness can illuminate. I’ve also seen how hard darkness can fall when I choose to demand what I think is due me. Trust me, I know how to bring down a room. Tonight, with the poem close at hand, I found an old song by an old friend, Bob Bennett,
I’ve no need to be reminded
of all my failures and my sins
for I can write my own indictment
of who I am and who I’ve been
I know that grace by definition
is something I can never earn
but for all the things that I may have missed
there’s a lesson I believe that I have learned

there’s a hand of kindness holding me
holding on to me
I am not owed; I am the debtor. Here’s hoping my heart worm doesn’t go away.


Monday, March 16, 2009

lenten journal: still in the temple

When I first started writing my blog a little over three years ago, one of the nicest surprises was the comment window. I am by nature a collaborator. I love the give and take of working with somebody, so the responses to my posts fed me and kept me writing. Over the past year or so, even as my readership has grown, I’ve noticed fewer people commenting. I’ve also read other bloggers talking about the same dynamic; perhaps there is some sort of shift in how all of this works. All of that is to say last night’s post was fun for me because I got comments – thoughtful, conversational comments – that have given me more to think about. Here’s a sample:

I can't read John without remembering its purpose, as we understand it: to differentiate between Jewish Christians and the other Jewish people of a later era. Right from the beginning then, or from Chapter 2 verse, anyway, Jesus sets himself into opposition with the Way Things Are Done. (Martha)
What a scene it must have been: whip cracking, tables upended, money on the ground, doves circling, animals panicked, men cursing and screaming and scrambling for safety while the onlookers wondered what in the name of God was going on. And to think it was all set in motion by the anger of our precious Lord, blessed Jesus of Nazareth. Sweet Jesus. Righteous anger, brothers and sisters. Anger in the service of what it means to have a God who is bloody well determined to save us from sin and death. (Ray, from his sermon)

Preached from this passage yesterday. I've discovered something interesting recently. Nowhere does the text say that the people involved were cheating the poor. In fact, their law required the changing of currency so the Temple Tax could be paid. And if every family in Jerusalem for Passover is to sacrifice an animal, they have to buy them somewhere.

The text seems to indicate that Jesus drove the animals out with the whip. But he did overturn the tables of the moneychangers. My take this year: This is where a spirituality based on laws brought them. To the inevitable place where the complexity of their rules has turned their worship into something ridiculous. I think the key for me is Jesus' response. If this is where our temple worship has brought us, then maybe it is time for a new temple. (Gordon)

Yesterday at church, our pastor ended his sermon on this passage, which he wrestled with much as you are, by saying that Jesus wants to drive out of us all those things like greed and self-focus and hard-heartedness toward the poor that get in the way of our relationship with others and with God. “But,” he said as he ended the sermon, “if you look into Jesus’ eyes as he is doing this, what you will see is love.” (Todd)

Also, when we think of peacemakers, we unfortunately think of folks who are meek and mild. Perhaps this is a case for strong-armed peace, a peace that lives off the yin-yang of creation and destruction rather than mediation. (David)
No, I don’t plan to respond here to everything that comes to mind and heart reading their thoughts and feelings. (I suppose I could and take care of my Lenten Journal for several more days . . .) The creative tension in the comments reminds me of The Mission, one of my all-time favorite movies. Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro play priests trying to figure out how to take a stand against Spanish aggression and colonization, which was brutal and violent. One chose to turn the other cheek, as it were, and the other chose to organize the villagers to fight for their freedom. Both made compelling emotional and theological arguments for their stance. Both also ended up dying for the stand they took.

Neither stopped the Spanish.

It’s interesting where our minds take us. David’s words about peacemakers made me realize I don’t think of peacemakers as meek and mild; I think of them as strong, though not particularly strong armed: Gandhi, King, Romero – to name a few. I’m not so sure, however, Jesus is playing the role of peacemaker in this story. I think he intended to disrupt, disquiet, and disturb. The other quote that came to mind, though I have no idea where I first heard it, was, “Responding to violence with violence is not a solution.” One note I saw somewhere (not in my comments) pointed out Jesus wasn’t responding to violence (unless we read it metaphorically), he was instigating it. So violence is a solution if you start the fight?

Though I’ve spent most of this post talking about the passage again, what moves me most tonight is the conversation that has swirled around it. Some of the commenters are people I count as friends; others are those I only know in cyberspace by screen names and blogs. The exchange between us gives me hope.

And fills me with gratitude.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

lenten journal: jesus goes postal

I’ve been struggling with a story today.

“Jesus cleansing the Temple” is the way it usually gets titled for those of us who know the story. It shows up in all four gospels and I’ve heard it over and over; it’s not new to me. Jesus was going into the Temple in Jerusalem during Passover and saw the mall-like atmosphere that had grown up in the outer court where people could exchange money for Temple currency (to the profit of the money changers) and buy animals for sacrifice (also at a serious markup, I’m sure). He made a whip out of some cords and sent the money changers and merchants running for their collective lives, leaving tables turned and everyone wondering what the hell happened.

We read John’s version this morning, being good lectionary followers, which comes early in his gospel – Chapter Two, to be exact. The first chapter is full of the poetry I dearly love – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – and the second begins with Jesus at the wedding at Cana, which is a story I love because of the interaction between Jesus and his mother.

On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come." 5His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
First, who gets away with calling his mother, “Woman”? Second and speaking of performance criticism, wouldn’t you love to be able to hear the tone in the voices of both Jesus and Mary? Third, we get a picture of a pretty cool Messiah in this opening miracle. Drinks are on him.

A sentence later – that’s right one sentence, however much time actually passed --he’s in the Temple going off on the moneychangers like Chuck Norris on a drug dealer. Two sentences after that, before the dust can even clear or anyone straighten the tables, Jesus is quietly talking to Nicodemus about being born again.

One of the ways I was taught to look at Bible passages was to begin by noticing what came before and after the story of interest. How do I make sense of stories that show Jesus going from wedding to warrior to welcomer? More than that, and regardless of what comes before and after, what do I do with a story where Jesus responds with violence? He made a whip out of cords, which I’m assuming was intended to be more than symbolic, and he stormed the Temple, turning over tables and chasing everyone from the sellers to the sheep out of the room. Whatever his motivation, whatever prophecy he fulfilled, he was violent and he did damage. The blessed-are-the-peacemakers-turn-the-other-cheek guy was whipping people to get his point across.

As I said, I’ve been struggling with the story.

I went back to the beginning of John and looked at the order of things once again:
  • the Prologue
  • John the Baptist points him out
  • Jesus chooses his disciples
  • the wedding at Cana
  • Jesus clears the Temple
  • Nicodemus comes to see Jesus
  • some more John the Baptist stuff
Chapter Four opens with Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman, which is one of my favorite stories. At the end of their conversation, he told her he was the Messiah. Could it be John was giving us an account of how Jesus grew into his identity? Could he be showing us how Jesus got started and found his way to a true sense of his calling?

(By the way, these questions are not rhetorical. And, yes, I understand the are problematic since the other gospels place the story late in Jesus’ ministry because they only record one Passover where John records three. And I’m not trying to get into a theological debate here; I’m trying to figure out what to do with a violent Messiah. This blows my mind.)

To say Jesus lost his temper doesn’t satisfy me because I don’t think he is out of control in his actions. We don’t need to retitle the section, “Jesus Goes Postal.” The recent church shooting is too fresh in my mind to think that Jesus was just freaking out. He knew what he was doing. He seemed full of righteous indignation, as Ginger says. The main victims of the merchants and moneychangers would have been the poor because of the price gouging. Jesus came to liberate the poor, to turn the world upside down; we see that over and over. Yet, only this once does his defense of the poor come in the shape of a fist.

Years ago, I heard Tony Campolo speak and he said, “Everyday, over and over, we have to make a choice of how we are going to respond to the world around us, and we are always choosing between whether we will respond with love or with power.” Here is a story of the One who incarnated Love responding to a situation with power, not love. Jesus took the strong hand and slapped me silly.

Part of my struggle is with myself. I have heard this story my whole life in church and never let myself see what troubles me about it until today. I allowed myself to be blinded by familiarity; I wasn’t looking for anything new. Jesus chased the bad guys out of the Temple, which is what good guys do. But he did it violently. This can’t be one of the go-and-do-likewise kind of stories. Had Jesus made it a pattern, he never would have gone through the Cross to the Resurrection.

I suppose this would be the paragraph where I tie it all together and tell you have I’ve come to terms with the story in some new and insightful way. It’s not. And I think that’s OK. My struggle is not a crisis of faith, as though I somehow think Jesus is not who he said he was. My struggle is to have the wherewithal to think and feel through my new understanding of the story (new to me, anyway) and see what it has to say about my faith and my growth as a human being.

As we say in the UCC, there is more light yet to break forth.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

lenten journal: march fourteenth

The tale of my day is less
story than scrapbook:
a stop at the supermarket,
the tire store, Chik-fil-a.
Here’s the smile I brought
home from the young
woman who surprised
me with the joy she found
serving my sandwich:
“My pleasure,” she said
I still have a piece of
conversation, I found
worth keeping, with the
young man at Sears who
sold me two new tires
and called me “Buddy.”
But it was in the line
at Old Navy, where
I had gone to return
two pairs of pants, that
I realized my place on
the page that is today;
the line was ten deep
and there were only two
(too few) cashiers;
I chose patience over
pugnacity and waited
my turn to turn in my
merchandise. The man,
not so young this time,
apologized for the wait.
“That’s OK,” I said, “Buddy.”


Friday, March 13, 2009

lenten journal: show me a story

I guess because I grew up hearing sermons in church, I spent a large part of my life thinking of a sermon as primarily an oral presentation, rather than a written document first. When I began to preach with some regularity that perspective changed. I found I was a better preacher once I learned a sermon was a written document first – I needed to have worked out what I was going to say – and then an oral presentation.

When I was teaching high school in Boston to classes with seventy percent or more nonnative English speakers, I was daunted by the fact that Shakespeare was part of the curriculum. Most of the kids had trouble with modern English; how were they going to understand what Will wrote? I went to a workshop on teaching Shakespeare and was reminded that, though we were handing the play to the kids in book form, a play is intended to be performed, not read. Over the years, I taught the kids how to choreograph a swordfight on stage, how to figure out what was happening in a scene. From the opening line, we acted the play out in class and the language came alive. They got it. I did, too.

This morning, Ginger and I drove to Greensboro for a meeting of Baptist professors of religion who were gathering prior to a larger convention. Dalen Jackson, president of the group, had invited Ginger to do the devotion for the group at the beginning of their session. I went along for the ride. After the devotion, we hung around to hear Dalen’s paper, “’Clumsy Mark’ Again? Mark’s Gospel as the Transcription of Peter’s Public Performance of the Gospel Story.” It has been awhile since I got to be in on an academic discussion, and I learned something.

At the heart of Dalen’s paper was a discussion of performance criticism, which was new to me. He used a quote to describe the idea:

A performance was an integral part of every early Christian experience of the compositions that now comprise the writings of the New Testament. The New Testament writings were either written “transcriptions” of oral narratives composed in performance or they were composed in writing (perhaps orally by dictation) for use in oral performance.
I’ve always thought of the Bible as a book (more of an anthology, I guess). My experience with it is primarily in print. What Dalen taught me today was the gospels, along with most of the rest of it, were just the opposite of my sermons: oral before they were written. They were more like Shakespeare’s plays: intended to be performed, because that is how they were created.

Reading the gospels, for me, is sometimes like reading email messages in that tone is often hard to convey. Here’s one of the passages from Mark that I wonder about, for instance, Mark 3:31-35:
Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you."
"Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."
How did Jesus ask who his family was? It’s not an easy answer – by that I mean this doesn’t feel much like a Hallmark card moment to me. The tone we infuse into the words makes a difference in how they can be interpreted. If the words stay in the two dimensional world of the page, tone stays out of reach, because it needs the three dimensional world of performance to have room to move. In a time before books, that’s how the stories got told. If we want to get to the heart of the stories, then we have to let them live off of the page; we have to incarnate them, if you will – perform them.

My favorite liturgist at church is a person named Suzanne. When she reads scripture she does It from memory. She tells us the story. She is a part of the Network of Biblical Storytellers who already know what Dalen is talking about, though they get to it down a different path. Rather than connecting back with long ago, they are looking at present trends. They describe themselves by saying, “We bring God’s stories to life for a post-literate, digital age.” Whatever the age, they are on to something: the gospel story is a living, breathing thing, not something static trapped between book covers. These are stories to be read (aloud) and wrestled with, to be talked about and talked through, to be performed and remembered.

My friend Beth is an actor in California. She wrote me the other day about a character she is going to play in an upcoming performance because there were some theological issues in her character’s background that were more akin to mine as a Christian than to Beth’s, who is Jewish. Our discussion was both fun and meaningful to me, in part, because I got to learn something about how Beth, as an actor, goes through the process of becoming a character, learning about her and then climbing inside her skin for the two hours she is on stage. It reminds me of one of the earliest and still most meaningful explanations of the Incarnation given to me along the way: Jesus was God with skin on. Jesus stepped into the human story as one of us.

Dalen’s invitation, as I heard it today, was for us to step into Jesus’ story by climbing inside its skin, if you will. The dictionary says the word perform comes from old words that mean to alter and to accomplish. When we tell the story – when we perform it – we alter it by breathing life into it again and we accomplish the task of letting it come alive in us.

I had fun learning today.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

lenten journal: don't just do something

The music director at our church, James, was in a car accident and severely injured last weekend. He has an old Cadillac that he was driving to see some friends in another state. Unknown to him, the car had some sort of carbon monoxide leak and he passed out at the wheel. The car crossed the median and dove into a cornfield, setting the corn and the car on fire. He was able, somehow, to get out of the car, get to the road, and flag down help that got him to a hospital. He did not have skin burns, but inhaled a great deal of soot and smoke that burned his lungs. Since Sunday he has been in the hospital in another city, intubated and heavily sedated while they daily go in and try to clean out his lungs. The news today is they have made good progress and the lungs are becoming clear and appear to be healing themselves. There are other questions still to be answered, but we are grateful for the hopeful words.

But being far away, waiting for the next word sucks.

The question bouncing around in my mind and also within our congregation is, “What should we do for him?” It’s an honest question with an answer that is hard to hear: right now all we can do is let him and his wife, Amanda, know we are with them. The feeling reminds me of advice I got from my Director when I began my Clinical Pastoral Education internship. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to live be words from Alice in Wonderland: ‘Don’t just do something; stand there.’”

I understand and I struggle with trusting a “ministry of presence” is enough.

No, that’s not it. I know from experience that having someone who stays through tough times without doing anything other than not leaving is more than enough. It’s just damn hard work. And it doesn’t feel like enough.

I need to do something tangible to make me feel like I’m helping. To make me feel not helpless. The hard reality I must face is doing something so I feel less helpless is not necessarily doing something that truly ministers to them. Our congregation has done a good job finding things that do help. The choir, for example, has come together to pay to board the couple’s pup while they are away. That’s good work. We have some family connections in the other city that have brought meals and support. But, as Ginger said in her email note to our congregation today, what we can best do is pray and support one another in “this difficult waiting room of life.”

And so we wait. And pray. Together.

Please join us.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

lenten journal: routine

Duke is on spring break this week, which means my restaurant has been closed and I’ve been a day worker at our catering shop, getting food ready for various catering gigs and also doing some other prep, or background, work. The shop is quiet, too, so our crew there has been small: our pastry chef, Tony the dishwasher, me, and one additional cook each day. The pace is deliberate, but doesn’t carry the same sense of deadline that getting ready for dinner service and working the kitchen line carries. I have a list of stuff to do, I do it, and I come home.

The hardest part has been trying to reorient my sleep schedule. My normal schedule – or what passes for normal at our house – is I work from 11 am to about 9 pm, then I come home and see Ginger and the pups, and then I write, and then I go to bed in the one or two range. I haven’t been able to break that habit, even though I’ve been getting up at 6:30 to get to work by 7:30. I’ve ended up sleeping a split shift: four hours at night and two or three when I get home from work. I ought to be able to get my days and night straight about the time I have to go back to Duke on Monday. Duke only has about five more weeks of classes, so about April 20 I will have to reorient my schedule again.

As tired as I am, I’m grateful that my routine changes because I’m quite capable of becoming tied to a routine. I’m a creature of habit. Hannah, our beloved Schnauzer who has been gone many, many years, always had to walk on Ginger’s right side when we were out strolling. Though the little dog is no longer walking with us, I still walk on Ginger’s right. It is far to easy for life to become an exercise in muscle memory.

Since we’ve been at Pilgrim I’ve done something I’ve not done in any church I’ve ever been a part of. I make a point of sitting somewhere different in the sanctuary from one week to the next. It wasn’t my idea. Ginger suggested it in a sermon, so I decided to take her suggestion. What I have learned is there are parts of the room where I can hear much better than others. I’ve also learned different parts of the sanctuary have a different feel. Sitting up close to the front helps me hear, but it also puts me in front of everyone, so I can’t see who else is in worship very well. Sitting in the back gives me the panoramic view, but makes me feel distant from the altar. I’ve found a couple of dark spots in the sanctuary that make it difficult to read; I’ve also learned we have boxes of tissues at the end of several rows.

The best part of the moving has been getting to sit with different people. I don’t just pick a pew, I pick a pew I can share with someone. I’ve gotten better acquainted with some folks and gotten to greet people I had not seen before when we pass the Peace since I was on the other side of the room. It is a small gesture that has had large implications. It has helped me think less about a particular pew and more about those with whom I am worshipping.

When we lived in Marshfield, I used to go walking down the beach looking for sea glass. When the tide was out, the beach was wide; there was no way to cover all of it. I had to choose a path and work my way across the sand. I learned that if I were more precise in my path I looked more closely and found more glass. If I tried to cover too much ground, my gaze was not focused enough to be productive. I also realized that when I chose a path that particular I was leaving most of the beach unexamined. Over the years I found a lot of sea glass; I missed more, I’m sure.

We follow the routines that shape our days because there’s a payoff. We get stuff done, we know where we’re going, we get a good night’s rest. But our little path through life does not afford a view of the whole beach. I need to make changes – little, one step to the left kind of changes – to help myself see a bigger picture of the world.

Sit in a new pew.
Drive home a different way.
Go to a different grocery store.
Walk on the left side.

I see new things, even with tired eyes.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

lenten journal: improvisational faith

Thanks to a gift certificate I’ve kept since Christmas, I added to my cookbook library this week. I bought The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider. To call it a cookbook is to sell it short because the author is really asking the reader to think about how he or she cooks as much as giving instruction about particular dishes. Even the recipes she does give are intended as jumping off places – cooking prompts, if you will:

Improvisational cooking demands that you shift your thinking, or at least temporarily put rigid notions and fears aside. This is true learning: gaining information and, more than not, successes from being willing to make mistakes and a mess or two . . . . Asking yourself What would happen if? and the attendant Why not? can challenge the fiercest inhibition: fear of listening to your own senses and of expressing your unique sensibility or “voice.” . . . Creativity involves relinquishing total control and allowing an idea to develop organically. Often this means that you start out with one thing in mind but, as you cook, the idea shifts and evolves until you find yourself on a different path than the one you started on. (9)
Richard Thompson was on stage by himself last night at the Arts Center in Carrboro. The venue was small and intimate; he was conversational and interactive with an audience full of devoted and long-time followers. We were not too many songs into his set when people began to call out the names of songs they wanted to hear. More than once, I could tell he changed his mind about what he was going to sing based on the requests that came his way. His willingness to improvise – starting with one thing and letting the evening shift – made the concert even better. As many concerts as he has done, he was able to look at the unique ingredients offered him by those of us gathered in that particular room on that particular night and make something new out of familiar ingredients.

Schneider talks about inspiration for improvisation from “a mostly uncharitable confluence of associations, hungers, and memories, a mysterious process that is open to us all.” As I read the sentence it struck me that I could say the same of what it means to walk through Lent, a season of preparation handed down across the centuries that pulls from all of those influences. The same could also be said of church beyond just this one season. There’s not just one recipe for what it means to be a community of faith, but we have common ingredients, hungers, memories, and we all are born of the same Mystery.

Improvisation is also central to the world of acting, which is quite akin to cooking, I think. A couple of years ago, I came across the five common principles of improvisational theater, which seem worth repeating tonight:
  • yes and
  • make everyone else look good
  • be changed by what is said and what happens
  • shared agenda and shared focus
  • serve the good of the whole
We are walking a well worn path through these days and we are walking a new path at the very same time with the very same steps. We share the ingredients of humanity with all those who have come before us and we have to see what we can make of today, which will not be the same as any day that has come before it. How we combine the flavors of our lives will determine what we make of them.


Monday, March 09, 2009

lenten journal: beatitude

I had a chance to see Richard Thompson in concert tonight in a solo acoustic performance. His songs were well crafted and beautiful, his stage presence was engaging, and his guitar playing was magnificent, evidence of someone who has spent his life determined to be a great guitar player. He has accomplished his goal. Watching him brought two statements to mind, one a Beatitude of Jesus and the other a book title:

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” – Jesus

“Purity in heart is to will one thing.” – Soren Kierkegaard
I remember reading Kierkegaard in seminary and contemplating the book title as an explanation of Jesus’ words. Both statements are problematic for me because I am not a person of singular interest or effort. I play guitar, but I play like someone who also likes to cook and write and, well, do just about anything I come across, including writing poetry. This one’s for Richard.

you played me a blues song
and brought down the house
I sat in the dark with my heart
torn open by your hands
on the strings, making music
I could not even imagine

can I afford for my response
to such beauty be to fret –
I am not one to will one thing
still, I could see the divine
in the way your hands moved

practiced hands at home
with the frets and strings –
and you’ve been home there
for a long, long time
while I have wandered

and wondered with dreams
of my own, less practiced
perhaps, less familiar
with focus, but still
hoping to see God.


Sunday, March 08, 2009

lenten journal: the view from here

What crossed my mind this morning was a scene from a movie. Probably several movies. The scene is from Home Alone and comes at the end of the movie (I think) as Kevin is reuniting with his family he sees the scary old man that ended up being not so scary when he met him at church. Kevin looks out his window and across the street to see the old guy reuniting with his family, from whom he had been estranged. The camera follows Kevin’s gaze across the snow covered yards and through the window, where the light inside and the warmth of the people gathering around the table spilled out on to the snow below. Kevin was in the throes of reuniting and reconciling with his family, but it was something different to look across the street and see the same feelings of family manifested around someone else’s table, as if to say, “This is real; see, it’s happening there, too.”

Yes, I probably am giving the movie credit for more insight that it deserves, and that’s what I thought of this morning as we were sharing Communion together. Actually, today was one of those days when it was more like the Lord’s Supper. During Lent, we are observing Communion a different way each Sunday as a way of looking at what it means to us as a community of Christians. Last Sunday we began with intinction. Today, we walked into a sanctuary that had two tables set in front of the altar, each one with bread and a chalice. Ginger and Carla explained we would come up in groups of twelve or so at each table and share the Supper together, passing the elements to one another.

We started with the back rows. They walked down the aisle and circled the two tables. I watched as they listened to the instructions and then began to move as the bread was passed one to another. I could read their lips: “The body of Christ for you.” They smiled at one another, held the chalice for each other to dip the bread. Some looked tentative, not knowing exactly when to eat. There were smiles, tears, quiet looks. And I felt like Kevin, looking across the street and through the window to see what a family looks like coming together, as Neal, our pianist, played

my faith has found a resting place
not in device nor creed
I trust the ever living One
his wounds for me to plead
Our service began with a shock. We gathered to news that James, our music director, was in a car accident in Nebraska, where he was visiting friends, and is now in an ICU at a hospital in Lincoln. No one knew more than that. We only know tonight that the car caught on fire and he ingested both the fire and some smoke. Before we did anything else, we prayed for him and his wife and family, who were all headed to Nebraska to be with him. And he stayed close to our hearts the rest of the service, all the way to the Table.

It has been probably since my days of leading youth camps that I have gotten to watch others share Communion. I’ve stood in line to kneel at the altar and receive the Supper, watching those go before me, but to sit and watch as I waited my turn, to watch them do what I was going to do, was a fresh perspective.

Perhaps I would do better to say a fragile perspective, because that was the overarching image for me: we looked fragile as we stood around the table, passing the bread and the cup. I could hear a hymn of another kind:
on and on the rain will fall
like tears from a star
like tears from a star
on and on the rain will say
how fragile we are
how fragile we are
And from the center of that vulnerability, I watched those who stood around the table together move through the pain and the uncertainty that life holds to feed one another in Jesus’ name: “This is the body of Christ, broken for you.” I saw what faith looks like in those who both led and followed me to the Table.

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase,” Dr. King said. He was one who knew of both faith and fragile, and who knew what a circle of friends committed to God and to one another could do. Sometimes it is nothing more than coming together to eat and to pray.

“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness,” says John Vanier. “Community is made of the gentle concern that people show each other everyday. It is made up of the small gestures, of services and sacrifices which say ‘I love you’ and ‘I am happy to be with you.’ It is letting the other go in front of you, not trying to prove you are right in a discussion; it is taking the small burdens from one another” (78). It is deciding that every gesture we make, from passing the bread to passing one another in the hall, will be one that says, “We are in this together.”

Every time we come to the Table, there are more stories to tell. Sharing Communion together is how we mark time, and how we tell time. And what are we telling time? What I saw today tells of those who are walking wounded, who are acquainted with grief, who don’t know what is coming next, and who commune with one another and with God, full of the joy and hope that comes from knowing we are not alone.

I can believe my eyes.