Thursday, April 30, 2009


On this, the last day of National Poetry Month, the least I can do is offer a verse of my own.


treppenwitz is a word that means
“a clever remark that comes to mind
when it is too late to utter it”
(of course, you have to be speaking
German for it to make sense)

In New Guinea when they want
to speak of “the truth everybody
knows but nobody speaks”
they say mokita

tonight in America I wished
for a word in any language
that captures what it means
for old friends to share a meal
and feed each other with love
and laughter, relishing the
fragrance and fortitude of
what it means to be together

the best I can do (in two words)
is, “thank you”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

muffins as metaphor

I made English muffins today for the first time since last summer.

Since classes are over at Duke, my work schedule and location has changed, putting me back on the lunch shift at the Durham restaurant, and making the muffins, which are our hamburger buns. The recipe has several steps that require some attention. First, I mix warm water, honey, and yeast, add some flour and then some more flour, then eggs, oil, and salt. I let it rest for twenty minutes and add more flour and let it rest again, this time until it doubles. Then I roll out the dough, cut the muffins, and let them rest another twenty minutes before I brown them on the flat top and finish cooking them in the oven.

At least that’s how I did it today.

We have a handwritten recipe that goes back to the opening of the restaurant and the guy who taught everyone to make the muffins. His notes provide the basic framework, but we have made changes – adjustments – as we’ve gone along, tweaking the recipe to make it work better. For instance, when I first learned to make them last summer I was told to let the dough rest thirty minutes. Today the guy who is the main lunch guy told me he had learned twenty minutes made for a better muffin. At least that’s what works for now. It will change. Trust me.

As I was dusting my little corner of the kitchen with flour (I’m a joyously messy cook) and trying to adjust my baking ritual to adapt to the new things I had learned, I thought about a passage I read last night in Eat, Pray, Love that talked about the role ritual and metaphor play in faith. Gilbert began by telling the story of a Yogic saint who had a cat that wandered around and disturbed meditation so he tied it to a pole during the practice. His habit of controlling the cat became an expectation of his followers such that when the cat died (after the Yogi did) they didn’t know how to meditate because the cat wasn’t in place. She continues:

Be very careful, warns the tale, not to get too obsessed with the repetition of religious ritual for its own sake . . . it may be useful to remember that it is not the tying of the cat to the pole that has ever brought anyone to transcendence, but only the constant desire of the individual seeker to experience the eternal compassion of the divine. Flexibility is just as essential for divinity as discipline.

Your job, then, should you choose to accept it, is to keep searching for the metaphors, rituals, and teachers that will help you move ever closer to divinity. (206)
Whether a kitchen or a congregation – or any other organization, when we gather ourselves in groups we move toward codifying the way we do things, creating rituals and recipes to make sure we do things right. Often, I think, the things that become written in stone or scripture or on recipe cards began as metaphors of discovery and imagination – statements of faith – but, once passed down, become statements of the status quo because perpetuating the institution rises higher and higher on the agenda. I’m not sure there’s any way around it.

But we don’t have to succumb to it.

The basic movements I made this morning matched those I made a year ago, but I had to pay attention to how I did the familiar steps to make them work. There, in the baking of the bread, I learned again that life are faith are mixtures of all that changes and all that stays the same. I don’t allow either to remain vibrant if I hold to close to the letter of the recipe, not allowing for anything new to come into the mix.

It’s the breaking of the bread that is the vital ritual for me in worship – our most enduring ritual of faith. Tonight we sat with a group of folks from church over coffee and the conversation turned to some of the different ways we celebrated the Lord’s Supper during Lent and the way different people responded to the varying modes. On our walk home, as Ginger and I continued the conversation, it struck me that Communion also needs to be tweaked, if you will, to stay alive. Or perhaps it’s better said that I need my heart tweaked when I come to the Table, since the point is not for the congregation to adjust to me but for me to take my place in the recipe that is my community of faith and adjust to the mix that we might make of ourselves a joyful offering to our God.

At least that’s what the muffins told me.


Monday, April 27, 2009

a quick plug

I'm excited because this coming weekend I'm headed to Jackson, Mississippi to help lead "A Writer's Conference" at Calvary Baptist Church, along with Tim Sean Youmans and Justin McRoberts. If you are anywhere in the area, the conference is free and runs all day Saturday and Sunday morning. I even get to preach while I'm there. I'm sure I will come back with good memories and good stories.


Friday, April 24, 2009


It’s one of my favorite English words. I like the way it sounds, the way my mouth has to shape itself to say it, and what it means once it’s let loose from my lips.

Harbinger: an indicator of what’s coming.

When I was living in Texas, I remember some of the old ranchers telling me you could tell a storm was coming when the cattle laid down in the field. Of course, Texas is so flat you could see the storm coming for a couple hundred miles with or without any bovine bedding down, but it was still a fun fact to know and tell. The other ominous Texas tip I remember from grade school was the weird gray-green silence of the sky that served as a tornado warning and sent us out into the hallway of Hubbard Heights Elementary School to crouch headfirst against the thick stone walls.

Not all harbingers are hints of harm. I’ve watched over the past weeks as the tiny little dogwood we planted last fall burst with pink blooms and the giant, century old pin oak that towers over it began to sprout leaves again, both foreshadowing spring. Each day of life, it seems, holds some sort of harbinger of what the days to follow might hold, though many of the hints – on a more existential level, anyway – are not much more than, “Things are going to change.” Life’s directions are seldom any more specific than these seasonally recurring statements of the obvious. What makes it worth stepping into, I suppose, it taking time to look back and see where the other directional signals have taken us, through both the crunchy and the sweet, giving us the eyes and ears to look and listen and then move on. Because, even if we stay in the same place for years, we are always moving.

I’m off work today and have taken time to read and write, since both have eluded me most of the week. I’m deep into Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (which is knocking me out) and her account of her time living in Italy, going through changes of her own. In one passage, she writes about the Augusteum, a structure built by Ocatavian to be an elaborate mausoleum for his remains, but then spent the following centuries as a ruin, a fortress, a vineyard, a Renaissance garden, a bullring, a fireworks depository, a concert hall, and now an empty place waiting to be occupied again. She writes:

I find the endurance of the Augusteum so reassuring, that this structure has had such an erratic career, yet always adjusted to the particular wildness of the times. To me, the Augusteum is like a person who’s led a totally crazy life . . . yet who has managed to hold an intact sense of herself throughout every upheaval.

I look at the Augusteum, and I think that perhaps my life has not actually been so chaotic, after all. It is merely this world that is chaotic, bringing changes to us al that nobody could have anticipated. The Augusteum warns me not to get too attached to any obsolete ideas about who I am, what I represent, whom I belong to, or what function I may once have intended to serve. Yesterday, I might have been a glorious monument to somebody, true enough – but tomorrow I could be a fireworks depository. Even in the Eternal City, says the silent Augusteum, one must always be prepared for riotous and endless waves of transformation. (75)
Durham is a city that knows a thing or two about transformation. I’m sitting in Parker and Otis, a wonderful café/grocery store/wine shop/coffee shop that inhabits a building that was once a tobacco warehouse of some sort, going back to the days when Durham was Tobacco Central. Now the room fills with people eating awesome pimento cheese sandwiches in a room where no one can smoke. Our whole neighborhood is filled with buildings that used to be something else – tobacco warehouses, cotton mills, ice houses – now thriving in an incarnation no one could have forseen, yet the town has worked hard to ride into a new sense of itself. Like the Augusteum, some of the warehouses spent years as empty eyesores, yet the city found a way to do something with what once was besides letting it be an epitaph. Chances are, in another fifty years (twenty-five?), no one will be sitting in this room drinking coffee or perusing pinot noirs, but, then again, who knows?

The room and my reading are both metaphor for what I feel storming up in me these days. The cows of my mind and heart are starting to lay down (actually, I think I have a herd of hippos in my mind, but they are laying down, too), not for the kind of storm that wrecks and destroys as much as one of those great Dixie storms that blows up in the afternoon and clears the air of the dust and pollen that keep us all cloggled up. Maybe it’s that, almost eighteen months into our new life here, I’m beginning to see possibilities. Maybe it’s that, in the same time period, my depression has lost its foot hold (choke hold?) on me. Maybe it’s just another wave of life crashing in. Whatever it is, what I feel most is me figuring out how to become more, well, me. And that feels like good news: a harbinger of hope.


P. S. -- After far too long an absence, there's a new recipe.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

tune my heart

“Sometimes a light surprises the Christian when he sings,” wrote William Cowper. And sometimes the surprise is in the listening. I sat down in church this morning, feeling renewed after a wonderful weekend (Friday and Saturday are my weekend), one day in Chicago with our nephew and the other wandering through downtown Durham for the Art Walk with Ginger and Cherry, our old friend and new housemate. Both days were filled with sunshine and laughter and food and, well, all good things and I brought them all to church with me this morning. And then the choir began the prelude:

come, thou fount of every blessing
tune my heart to sing thy praise
If I were picking a list of favorite hymns, this one would be at the top, so any Sunday anyone sings it is a good day to me, but this morning I was lightly surprised, to go along with Mr. Cowper, by words and melody I know by heart, and I’ve spent the day thinking about how a heart gets tuned.

You see, I’ve been a guitar player since high school, so I know about tuning something – making sure the strings are tuned to their assigned notes and also to one another. But where my mind went today is something I know more about as metaphor than actually being able to do it with my guitar and that is what is called open tuning. Many guitar players (Joni Mitchell would be the queen) tune the strings so they play a chord without putting any fingers down – open G, open D, open C – so that the solo guitar player can do more with the instrument than just play the chords. One could play the basic rhythm, for example, and add a lead part without needing more than one guitar. (I can’t, but one could.) Emmylou Harris even has a song called Prayer in Open D.

How then do I tune my heart to be open to God?

We celebrated Earth Day in our worship today, so as I was thinking about tunings we were talking about our stewardship of our planet. Ginger and Carla had several quotes printed in the worship guide to help us along. One of them in particular helped me in my tuning.
My profession is always to be alert, to find God in nature, to know God’s lurking places, to attend all the oratorios and the operas in nature. (Henry David Thoreau)
When we lived in Boston we used to go and walk around Walden Pond and we saw some of the remnants of Thoreau’s cabin. When I read the book in high school, I remember thinking he was out in the wilderness, but the pond is not that far from the town of Concord. It was, however, far enough for him to tune his heart to both play and hear new things. And, though, I have never cultivated an appreciation for or understanding of opera, his point is very clear: I begin to tune my heart when I pay attention to what is going on around me, or, should I say, who is going on around me.

I love the idea of knowing God’s “lurking places.” It makes Thoreau’s walks in the woods sound like a friendly game of hide and seek. What little reading I’ve done about open tunings talks about how it opens up the instrument to new things and teaches the guitar player how to think of chords in new shapes since the strings are now set on different notes. How a D chord looks and feels on the fret board is, well, nothing like the D I’ve always played. To learn to play in that tuning means learning to teach myself how to see and move differently and opens the door for me to learn another tuning, or come up with one on my own.

As I was walking home from a busy night at the restaurant, it struck me that I tune my heart everyday to play something. I have a kitchen tuning, a home tuning, a Schnauzer tuning, a church tuning, a Ginger tuning. Most are so familiar I don’t even realize when I retune my heart to move from one song to another. In my best moments, I am intentional about the tuning I have chosen and the intentionality with which I tweak the strings. The melody of today requires of me to go back and fill in the lyric a bit more, I think. Here is the complete first verse of Cowper’s hymn:
sometimes a light surprises the christian while he sings;
it is the Lord, who rises with healing in his wings:
when comforts are declining, he grants the soul again
a season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain
and the first of Robert Robinson’s hymn
come thou fount of every blessing
tune my heart to sing thy praise
streams of mercy never ceasing
call for songs of loudest praise
teach me some melodious sonnet
sung by flaming tounges above
praise the mount I’m fixed upon it
mount of thy redeeming love
Tune my heart to hope and healing, to shine and surprise, to grace and gratitude. Please. Amen.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

eat, play, love

Ginger and I spent the day in Chicago on Friday.

We’ve been planning it for some time. April 21st will mark our nineteenth wedding anniversary and the 23rd the twenty-first birthday of Scott, our nephew who is in school just outside of Chicago, so a joint celebration seemed appropriate. Add to the mix that we had some frequent flyer miles to get us to the Windy City, we had never been to Wrigley Field, and the Cubs had an afternoon game and everything seemed to come together.

We were out of the house about six thirty yesterday morning, and in the air by eight. At nine o’clock Central Daylight Time, we were on the ground in Chicago; soon afterwards, we were in the car and headed downtown. After a stop lakeside to get a wonderful view of the city, we went to the Art Institute of Chicago and wandered through everything from amazing photographs, Impressionists, and a good helping of the Hudson River School before we found our way out on to Michigan Avenue and lunch at the Hard Rock Café (a tradition because Ginger and I were engaged at the Hard Rock in Dallas). After lunch, Scott drove us to Wrigleyville and the three of us found our way into the ballpark. I wanted to go to Wrigley because it, like Fenway, is one of the great old parks in baseball and I wanted to see the Cubs play because they, like the Red Sox, know a great deal about hope and heartbreak. The Cubbies came from behind in the bottom of the eighth and then hung on to beat the Cardinals 8-7 and make everybody’s day.

My favorite moment was after the final out. Scott, Ginger, and I knew we had to leave the park at four o’clock to give ourselves time to eat and get to the airport; the Cubs were kind enough to get the game-ending double play at 3:58. We started to move to the aisles and no one else budged. They were all standing and cheering, but they weren’t going anywhere. Music began playing and people still stayed in their places like they were waiting until the postlude ended after worship. Then they began singing along. It took me a minute to get what they were singing:

Go, Cubs, go
Go, Cubs, go
Hey, Chicago, what do you say?
The Cubs are going to win today
When I got home last night, I looked up the song (to find the video at the end of this post) and recognized the voice as Steve Goodman, the man who wrote “The City of New Orleans” and “You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” among other things. Goodman died of leukemia in this thirties (1984) and the song has lived on, alongside of the Cubs’ hopes to one day win the World Series. In the fading light of a magnificent spring day in Chicago, we got to brush up against the history and hope that drives the team and the city, and they got to be a part of an indelible family memory for Ginger, Scott, and me.

On the plane ride home, I began reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. (Great read, by the way.) The first section of the book takes place in Italy, where she went, as she says, to do things: to eat and learn to speak Italian. In one of her conversations – with a guy named Luca Spaghetti – he told her about two Italian expressions:
  • il bel far niente – the beauty of doing nothing
  • l’arte d’arrangiarsi – the art of making something out of nothing
Of the second expression she continues the definition:
The art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, or a few gathered friends into a festival. Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this, not only the rich. (62)
I don’t know if plane tickets and Cubs tickets and the chance to see this painting count as simple ingredients, but I do know the chance to eat and play and love with our nephew and with one another made for one of the best days of my life. For many, many years to come we will say to one another, “Remember our day in Chicago?”

And we will remember what it was like to walk together, to see the paintings together, to eat together, all of it adding up to help us remember what it means to be family in the best sense of the word.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

time pieces

After walking through Lent to Easter, a journey in which time stretches out like a path leading us somewhere, I came across an interesting list yesterday of things that all happened on April 14, making time feel more like a totem or a sculpture where the different blocks are stacked one on top of the other. The list is courtesy of The Writer’s Almanac:

I’ve been turning the list over in my mind for these couple of days, intrigued by the date they share in common, these two tragedies and two births, if you will. As one who shares a birthday with Gustav Flaubert, Edvard Munch, Frank Sinatra, Dionne Warwick, Jennifer Connelly, and Yuvraj Singh, I realize grouping by a date on the calendar is rather arbitrary and I’ve stayed intrigued by what the assassination, the sinking, the birth, and the novel might have to say together.

For someone of my generation (and perhaps others, too), all four things are larger than life. So much has been written and said about Lincoln, particularly our politicians trying to claim some sort of connection, that the man we think of now when we hear his name is probably not the same man shot in the theater that night. The tragedy of the Titanic has been romanticized and retold into an epic metaphor of disaster. Anne Sullivan is the one who was able to help Helen Keller, well, become Helen Keller. And Steinbeck’s book, which is sure to see a resurgence thanks to our current economic times, gave us Tom Joad, one of the great characters of American literature (and, by the way, you can watch the whole movie here for free), and his immortal words:
I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be ever'-where - wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad - I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.
Here in the story of a day we see those who dreamed big, worked hard, failed enormously, died unnecessarily, and simply survived. None of the principals involved in the events I mentioned knew how the day would go. Lincoln was going to a play. Those on the Titanic were on the maiden voyage of the best ship anyone could imagine. As Anne’s parents held her, they had no idea who she would grow up to be. Steinbeck warned his publisher that the book wouldn’t be popular.

And I wonder how the rest of the days might have been different had Lincoln seen the end of the play, the Titanic finished its voyage, had Anne Sullivan not been born blind, or Steinbeck given in to his skepticism about his novel. Would Lincoln have handled Reconstruction differently? What metaphor would we use for futility instead of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”? What might have happened to Helen Keller? What else would be on high school reading lists?

But they did happen. All of them. On April 14th. And they helped to make the world what it is. And on April 15th, during the last half hour of a quieter than usual night at the restaurant, Ginger and Cherry came to dinner and Abel and I came out from the kitchen and sat with them, along with a couple of the servers, and we talked and laughed and learned a little more about each other. Our little gathering will never make The Writer’s Almanac list, but it will take its place, adding to the metaphor of time as a mosaic, each small glistening moment essential to the bigger picture.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

lenten journal: getting started

Yesterday, Ginger, Cherry, and I took part in an “urban hike” through our neighborhood of Old West Durham to learn our way around a bit more and to learn some of the history of our neighborhood. John Schelp, the president of our neighborhood association, led the hike and dispersed the information. He did an amazing job of mixing old stories and facts with architectural notes about some of the houses and discussing current issues for our neighborhood. I learned, for instance, that John Loudermilk, who wrote “Tobacco Road,” was born in a house that stood at the end of our block, that Duke Tobacco was the only tobacco company in America before the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the dry cleaning industry grew out of the demise of icehouses. The tour led me back to the OWNDA website, where I found this quote:

For each home ground we need new maps, living maps, stories and poems, photographs and paintings, essays and songs. We need to know where we are, so that we may dwell in our place with a full heart.
-- Scott Russell Sanders
Some years ago (OK, many years ago), Skip Waterbury, the senior pastor at the church in Winchester, preached a sermon on the first sentence of the Gospel of Mark: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Actually, the point of his sermon was that those words were not the first sentence but more like a title for the whole document. Jesus’ life was the beginning of his gospel and we continue it. Or not.

In the middle of a wonderful Easter service today, both Scott and Skip joined me in worship as we sang the second verse to Charles Wesley’s wonderful Resurrection hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”
Love’s redeeming work is done, alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, alleluia!
Ginger will be the first to tell you I am not a fan of altering hymn lyrics, even though it is quite fashionable for hymnal committees to do so (and most of the changes read like poetry written by committee). Still, as we sang those words I wanted to change them because, even as much as Jesus’ Resurrection cosmically changes things, Love’s redeeming work was not done that first Easter morning. Even Jesus wasn’t finished yet. And I thought of Skip’s take on Mark and then rewrote the line in my head:
Love’s redeeming work’s begun, alleluia!
Of course, my lyric shows the danger of playing with hymn texts because Love’s redeeming work began long before Jesus, going back to, well, “In the beginning, God . . .” I will, however, leave that tangent for another post. Tonight, I’m sticking with my words and how they call me to see myself – to see all of us – as participants in Love’s redeeming work on both sides of the equation. Like Russell said, we need new maps and stories, new art and action, that “we may dwell in our place with a full heart.”

At our sunrise service this morning, we sang:
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me
If Love’s redeeming work were done, there would be no need for such a prayer. But Jesus started it and then left us here in the ‘hood to draw new maps, build new homes, write new hymns (!), and redeem one another, even as we are redeemed. Celebrating the Resurrection is not merely celebrating a done deal but opening our hearts to brought back to life everyday. In the face of all there is in the world that says death is the final word and violence is what humans instinctively do to one another, we are called to bring God’s redeeming word of Love.

Love is the last word, not death.

Yet we are far from the last word and need to remember that from now until then Love is the word. We are called to love the world right down to those people we look in the eye everyday. Christ the Lord is risen today, which means we must commit ourselves to beginning Love’s redeeming work once again.



P.S. – Thus endeth this year’s Lenten Journal. I’m taking tomorrow off.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

letnen journal: what's in a name?

I was one of the first to the farmer’s market
this morning, determined to buy tomato
plants before my day caught up with me.

I was looking for heirlooms – seeds passed
down from grower to grower, generation
to generation, like stories worth repeating.

Most have names like Mortgage Lifter or Dad’s
Orange, but between the Black Cherry and
the Cherokee Purple, I found someone

I was not expecting to find: Paul Robeson.
Last I heard he was an opera singer and activist
who went to Russia and talked about equality,

and they (not the Russians) watched
his every move until his health gave way
and he fell under the weight of the surveillance.

I set my plant to stand in broad daylight
while I wait for it to offer a hint of how
a simple fruit carries such a complicated name


Friday, April 10, 2009

lenten journal: good friday

We have a fair number of pieces of furniture in our house that have come from those stores that provide the experience of allowing me to assemble the furniture once we get the box home. The furniture is usually made in Indonesia or Thailand, comes with instructions that are illustration than illumination, and involve the use of an Allen wrench. Today, it was a chest of drawers, which meant I put together each of the six drawers and then the frame that would hold them. When I got through, the chest was sturdy, looked like it was supposed to look, and I had a handful of screws, washers, and tiny wooden dowels left over. Though I knew I had put the thing together well and that they probably sent extra stuff just in case, I couldn’t help but second guess myself and wonder what I missed because there is a certain level of precision necessary for the chest to be usable. Then I imagined some underpaid assembly line worker in Indonesia smiling to himself (more probably herself) at the thought of my bewilderment.

I smiled, too and decided what mattered was we had a chest of drawers that worked.

Tonight, I started reading Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work by Gary Alan Fine, a book I picked up simply because I’ve never seen a sociological study of my workplace and it looked interesting. It is. He begins by talking about the pace of the kitchen line during service and the necessity for good preparation

The challenge of cooking (and much work) is less what is done than the relationship among acts . . . The nearly impossible is routine because cooks are experienced enough to adjust their speed and sequencing to meet demands of the arc of work – the totality of tasks . . . Cooking under pressure demands attention to an internal agenda. (21-22)
He went on to define three ways that cooks get the job done under pressure: approximations (techniques that “defy the primacy of formal rules”), shortcuts (“improper” that bend or break the rules), and tricks of the trade (contained within the boundaries of the occupation as “subcultural knowledge”). As he continued describing approximations, Fine talked about the idiosyncratic changes in a recipe from one batch to the next is not discernable to most customers.
The evanescent character of cooking, distinguishing it from most other arts that are either material or can be captured in written, auditory, or visual record, allows for imprecision that is not possible elsewhere. Memory is a capricious judge.
That I spend my days in the kitchen rather than the woodshop makes it no surprise that cooking is a more accessible metaphor than carpentry, so I’ve been intrigued with the thought of approximations, shortcuts, and tricks of the trade being part of the way we put our lives together. I understand Fine’s distinctions between the three in this way:
  • approximation: what we have to change when we don’t have everything we need to accomplish what we need to do;
  • short cut: what we do when we allow ourselves to believe the end justifies the means;
  • tricks of the trade: the things we’ve handed down about how to get through this thing we call life
I find it interesting that he lists all three as if equal (or at least I read it that way) and yet only two of them feel legitimate to me. Life lived well relies on intentionality more than precision, so there is room for approximating and knowledge passed along, but there’s not room for shortcuts because they undermine our integrity. Some things you just have to do.

One of the most intriguing details around Jesus’ death is what happens to the disciples. They were, understandably, grief stricken and scared. They didn’t know Easter Sunday was only a couple of days away. So they went back to their old jobs: they went fishing. In the face of their despair, they leaned into their muscle memory, to the things their bodies could do without thinking, got in their boats and went back to their old jobs. They were not prepared for the change of circumstance and had little, if anything at all, to lean into as far as precedent. They had hung their lives on Jesus’ words and actions and he was dead. They were left with handfuls of pieces that didn’t fit anywhere and, as far as anything they had built, they only had each other.

As we mark these days when Jesus lay dead, it seems we, like the disciples and the cooks Fine describes, have to come to terms with “the relationship among acts” and how we move from the shadow of the Cross to being Resurrection People. In faith, too, we are faced with the prospects of accommodations, short cuts, and tricks of the trade, with much the same consequences I described earlier. There are no shortcuts from Friday to Sunday that are worthy of making. Our faith has been handed down to us in the sharing of Communion and the singing of hymns, in the smiles and hugs and words exchanged in parish halls and parking lots. We live lives of accommodation because we live our faith out in relationship to God and to one another. That we gather together in these days to await the Resurrection in the face of a world that knows mostly of death, well, sometimes it causes me to tremble.


Thursday, April 09, 2009

lenten journal: dishwashing service

I’ve never really gotten foot washing.

When I was a youth minister in Texas, we had a foot washing service one Maundy Thursday and it was solemn and thoughtful and meaningful and, well, what I can say is I got more out of washing than being washed. Then again, I’m not one for having my feet handled. But the experience has stuck with me beyond my bewilderment because of the way our pastor introduced the ritual, quoting John 3: 3-5 –

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
The trajectory of Jesus’ resolve and compassion is what grabs me: knowing that he had come from God and was going to God, he washed the feet of his disciples, who lived in a world with dirt roads and open-toed sandals: a world of filthy feet. Jesus’ action was not quaint or ceremonial; he wasn’t going for brownie points here. He was doing something few people would do as a way to show his love because he knew from whom he had come and to whom he was going, which gave him all the time and presence he needed to incarnate his love to his loved ones in the most practical way possible, even on the night before his death.

And the practicality of his incarnation of love is what grabs me. It’s not the foot washing for foot washing’s sake; it’s remembering where we’ve been (with God) and where we’re going (to God) with such tenacity as to make us aware and able to love so viscerally, so practically, that what we do to show our love meets that kind of basic-barefoot-in-the-dirt kind of need.

I mostly stumble into those moments.

Tony, our dishwasher, is very new to the US and speaks very limited English. He works hard and he wants to learn because, if we’re talking trajectories, the way out of the dish room is to learn to cook. Abel, who is Guatemalan and can speak well to both Tony and me, has been teaching Tony on the nights they work together and Tony can now cook all the sauté dishes, and cook them well. Last week on a busy night when Abel was not working and Tony was left on the line with two English speakers, he had four or five pans of rosemary pasta going and we were running out of pasta bowls because he was up on the line cooking (where we desperately needed him to be) and not washing the dishes. I didn’t have tickets on my station at that point, so, rather than take over for Tony so he could wash dishes, I went and washed them myself – about three loads, which was enough pasta bowls to keep us going. I was busy washing and didn’t realize they had caught up on the line and Tony was back with me. When I looked up, he was grinning from ear to ear and he said, “Tank you, Miton. Tank you.”

Only then did I realize what I had done. For Tony, it was washing dishes rather than feet that let him know I was with him, that I cared, that I understood how hard he was working, that I knew he, too, had come from God and was going to God. But I can learn. I am intentionally going back to wash when I can. He smiles and “tanks” me every time. Maybe you can teach an old dog new grace.

If we come from God and are going to God, then we began this journey with the very same boundless love and grace that we well find at the end, and that walked with us the whole way. There’s no race to run, nothing to earn or prove. As I’ve said before (mostly so I will hear it again):
we are loved, we are loved, we are really loved
If we are going to end up with the One who begat us all, then this life is not about progress, but about passion and compassion, about loving one another at street level where the roads are dirt and we’re all sockless. And it’s about opening our eyes and hearts that we might do more than stumble into sacredness, but we might, as Jesus did, do what we do on purpose.

I’m grateful I have a dish machine to remind me of the lesson I need to learn and relearn. And a smiling dishwasher who could use a hand.

Oh – and this song from Victoria Williams, passed on to me long ago from a friend with whom I’ve been traveling this circle for a long time.


Wednesday, April 08, 2009

lenten journal: holy week

I realize my posts have leaned heavily towards the poetic, over the past several days in particular. Yes, it is National Poetry Month, but that’s not the reason. Part of the reason is it’s easily eleven-thirty before I even begin to write at night and I am finding it increasingly challenging to stay up long enough for a thousand coherent words to show up. Part of it is I’m being fed by reading and writing poetry these days. So here, in the dregs of my day, is tonight’s offering.

holy week

is slipping by
while I’m at work
(so are a lot of things)
and I wonder how it felt
the first time around
looking for donkeys
and upper rooms
holy errands, yes but
still things to do
by the time they sat
down for dinner
thursday evening
I wonder how much
they spent talking shop
until Jesus took the bread
and broke the whole
thing wide open

or perhaps it’s just
what I hope will
happen to me

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

lenten journal: credits

sit long enough in the dark
of the theater, and the credits will
roll down far enough to name

man on corner

who was only on camera for a
moment, or perhaps a line,
moving the tale from here to there

there was one in my story today

he stood in the dark on ninth street
waiting for the light to change;
I drove past and we waved

OK – it was the guy head bob thing

and I came home to find
my wife and stereo schnauzers
and promises to keep

and he walked out of my story

and on into the night,
and the darkness that tells his
story, of which one credit reads

man in jeep.


Monday, April 06, 2009

lenten journal: palm sunday

We stood in a circle
in the sunshine on the
patio where we had waved
palm fronds barely an hour
before; now we were sharing
bread and wine, basking
in the brilliant spring shine,
our solemn ritual exposed,
on purpose, made public,
taken outdoors, alive;
our ministers in stoles
and sunglasses.

The future’s so sacred,
we gotta wear shades.


lenten journal: opening day

Time like an ever-rolling stream
bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten as a dream
dies at the opening day.
(Isaac Watts)

Let's go Red Sox!


P. S. -- and of course, Opening Day has been postponed due to inclement weather; after all, it is April in Boston.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

lenten journal: two tables over

I have great news: my friend, Nathan Brown, won the 2009 Oklahoma Book Award for Poetry with his latest book, Two Tables Over. I know. The sentence begs a couple of questions:

  • They have poets in Oklahoma?
  • They give them awards?
The answer to both questions is yes. Poetry does come out of Oklahoma, and it’s good. Nathan is a determined and gifted person who works hard at his craft and has a great deal to say. I quoted one of his poems a couple of days ago. Here’s another of my favorites from his new book.
Taking it Back

They stand there flash shocked
in a black and white photograph
right beneath the caption:
55 Years Perfect Attendance.

Turns out to be for Sunday School.

His hand barely touches the back
of her arm. They’re both
uncomfortable with the contact.

Tiny, frightened eyes panic
behind big bifocal lenses.
They’re thinkin’ about the drive home
in front of a dirt road dust cloud
that will eventually settle somewhere
far to the east on the grassy plain.

And, you know?

I was going to wind this down
to a great, sarcastic finish . . .
something to do with religion.

But, honestly, I’m touched by such
commitment. People like this actually
still exist. And there’s something
I know I should be grateful for
in the way they balance out
a world gone mostly mad.
Treat yourself to a volume of Nathan’s poetry (he has five). You will find something to feed your heart and you will help him pay some bills. Turns out, though the Oklahoma Book Award is a great honor, it doesn’t come with much of a cash prize.


Saturday, April 04, 2009

lenten journal: life on the edge

I dug a grave today.

It was a first for me. The call came early this morning from church friends Tracy and Robin saying their beloved beagle, Violet, was going to be put to sleep. Ginger was up and out of the house in minutes. About a half hour later she called and asked me to meet her at their house to bury their pet. I put my shovel in the back of my Cherokee and drove over to share in what was a very sacred time. They brought Violet down from the house, beautifully swaddled in a sheet, and laid her in the place we had dug at the bottom of the yard, next to the fence that backs up on the wooded land behind them. Nellie, their beagle puppy, ran around us as I dug and they grieved, a visible sign of hope beyond the loss. As we were putting the grass back on top of the grave, Robin threw a piece of a root over the fence into the woods and said, “It’s good to be on the edge of the wilderness.”

Yes, and meaningful.

The physical act of digging the grave and placing the body of the dear little dog down in the dirt had a visceral effect on me. There was a time when people were more accustomed to living with death, and dealing with it. The old row houses in Boston have “coffin corners” – small indentions in the wall of the stairway so the coffin could make the turns when the body was brought into the house for the wake. People dug graves together, waked the body together, buried their loved ones and threw dirt on the coffin together. They got to say goodbye with body, mind, and heart in a way we do not these days. Our funeral rituals are quiet and solemn and do their best to keep us from seeing anything but flowers. I felt honored today to get to share so practically and poignantly in the grief of our friends. It is good to be on the edge of the wilderness – together.

My afternoon was an exhumation of sorts, and unintentional at that.

We finally got to some boxes of books that have been in the shed since we moved into the house. We’ve been staining bookshelves and are ready to fill them, so today we started bringing in the books and helping them find their places on our shelves. (We also set some aside to find new lives on other people’s shelves.) I opened one box to find binders of poetry and lyrics going back seventeen or eighteen years, words I had allowed to get buried under the passing of time. Some of them would do well to stay underground, but some deserve to be resurrected, if you will, to find a new life in these new days. I have no idea what I will do with them, but I know I’ve got to dig back in and see what is there, find what I had to offer.

On October 26, 1992 I wrote:

sacred rituals
she can’t fall asleep till her daddy sings songs
the porch light stays on until everyone’s home
there’s a note in his lunch box to find everyday
and she plants every year as the snow melts away

he doesn’t get up till he’s hit the snooze twice
if it’s Tuesday night then it’s chicken and rice
each time they meet they exchange and embrace
before she eats dinner she bows to say grace

the meaning of lifeagain and again
as oft as you eat
as oft as you drink
remember me
remember me and you
Our church is continuing our Lenten practice of celebrating Communion a different way each Sunday even as we participate in the long tradition of Palm Sunday. I love walking in with the palm branches and singing together because it brings the same kind of physicality to worship I found in working the shovel to make a place for Violet. When it comes time for Communion, we are all going to process out of the sanctuary, rather than up to the altar, and celebrate the meal outside on the front patio as a way of physically reminding ourselves we are carrying Christ with us as we go into our daily routines.

The Body of Christ – to go.

My notebooks full of words and ideas got lost because they never got attached to anyone. If they find life now, it will be because I find a way to flesh them out into a poem or a song to share, to make them something more than an idea dreamed up in the comfort of my own home. The rituals that matter – whether in shovel or song or sacrament – are the ones that bind us together, here on the edge of the wilderness.


Friday, April 03, 2009

lenten journal: recipe for living

Ginger and I have spent the day around the house getting it ready for our new housemate and dear friend, Cherry, who has packed up the plans in her car and is leaving Boston to come and live with us here in the Bull City. In the process of our cleaning, I came across Congregational Chow, a cookbook I helped put together with the youth group at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas when I was youth minister there – in 1986.

My favorite section of the book came about at the suggestion of someone else in the church, and that was to ask the children in our preschool Sunday School classes to give us their favorite recipes and then to add them to the cookbook verbatim, which we did. Here are a couple of them:

Take one Irish potato and put it in the microwave. Cook for 50 minutes. It’s done because the bell rings. Put butter and cheese on it. Eat it. (Alison, age 5)

Green corn with butter. add pepper and salt, stir. Put it in the oven at 68 degrees. Cook for 20 minutes, then put lettuce on it. It’s ready to eat. (Wesley, age 4)

Put turkey sauce on the turkey and put salt on top. Cook it on top of the stove for 25 mintues or so. It’s done when it gets real dark. Mix up some popcorn and a drink to go with it. (Margie, age 5)

Take oatmeal and put it in a big bowl. Then put it in another bowl. Add pepper and milk. Stir and stir. Bake it in a hot oven at one degree for just forty weeks. (Ethel Mae, age 3)

Take out a pan, scrub it out if it’s dirty. Now that you have a clean pan, take some dough and roll it out and then cook it. After you cook it, you put different color dots on it. Put about four glasses of cooked pumpkin in it. Then you put orange icing and black for the eyes and mouth. Then it’s done. (Margie, age 5)
What I love about the recipes is the perspective. The kids were telling how they saw those things being made, remembering details that made the most impression, or perhaps repeating things they heard in the kitchen (“Now that you have a clean pan . . .). An pastor friend of mine asked his four year old son what he thought his dad did for a job and the boy thought for a minute and said, “You talk on the phone a lot.” That’s what it looked like from where he stood. Though our perspective may widen as we age, we still make up our own recipes.

The events of the past few days (sorry, can’t go into more detail) have reminded me that, though we are all trying to make a life, we can come up with very different recipes for what that life looks like. In a series of interactions this week I saw how one person’s primary ingredient was power. It’s how she evaluates relationships and responds to them. She wants the power and doesn’t want to share it. For the most part, that ingredient doesn’t much show up in my recipe, so I had to work hard to figure out what was happening between us because what I was saying was not what was being heard.

When we start to talk about faith we have the same issues. Growing up Southern Baptist, I was brought up with a lot of battle imagery. Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war. We talked about fighting Satan and being prayer warriors. The overarching images of Christianity were ones of conflict and conquest, and we were in it to win it. The difficulty with that recipe, for me, is wars require enemies. Once one is defeated, another must take its place or the recipe falls apart. The circle gets smaller and smaller until we are left shooting at each other.

The recipe of faith I have been working on for most of my adult life is less about conflict than it is about community. It’s less about measuring up than making room, less about who is right than who is here, less about wars than welcomes. I’m pointing out the differences to point to the difficulty of understanding just how the other recipe works. Some who see themselves fighting for truth might look at my recipe and think it ranks right up there with Margie’s pumpkin pie – well-intentioned, but lacking a complete understanding. When I have written about responding to violence with violence being neither a successful nor Christian response, I’ve gotten comments trying to help me out of my naiveté. I’m not naïve, I just don’t think violence is a solution. I think it’s safe to say most of history will bear me out.

At the risk of stretching my metaphor farther than it is prepared to go, and going back to my experiences this week, the challenge for me is how do I learn to share the table with those whose recipes for living are so different than mine. The situations this week were more than passing glances. I have to deal with this person on pretty much a daily basis, both of us trying to make something of the situation, and both coming at it from very different perspectives and seeking very different outcomes. The best way for me is to start with an ingredient Ginger added to my recipe years ago with a quote she passed along: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” I can follow that by remembering I’m responsible for the life I’m making – for my recipe – and not for the other person’s. I need to stick to what I trust is true regardless of how she chooses to respond.

This is advanced cooking – and hard to do.

Then again, I knew it couldn’t be as easy as Margie made it sound.


Thursday, April 02, 2009

lenten journal: when they ask

Somewhere in the middle of the afternoon today, I found what I thought would be the opening lines to a poem for my post:

when they ask how you’re doing
say something other than tired
The line came to me because of how tired I felt and I wished for the wherewithal to say something beyond the obvious when someone asked how I was doing. Answering, “I’m tired” is akin to saying, “I’m busy.” Both may be true, but they lie at the base of the hierarchy of meaning, when it comes to feelings. (Oh, are you reading this? That last paragraph was mostly talking to myself.)

Tonight, after a long day of work – long for reasons other than being tired, I met Ginger and some friends at Six Plates Wine Bar to listen to my friend, Terry, who is an amazing harmonica player and who plays once a month with a wonderful jazz trio who do an awesome cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”

There are nights when you gather with friends, and then there are nights when friends gather around you. Tonight, for me, was the latter. I had the opening lines early in the day; I needed my friends to show me where the poem wanted to go.
when they ask how you’re doing

say something other than tired
say something other than busy
look for something to say

beyond the shadow of circumstance,
past the pugilism of pettiness,
through the façade of failure

and say that thing; say it again

say it the way you sing that song
that bored deep into your heart
long ago, before you were tired

before you knew about busy,
when you could remember the truth
without having to be reminded

when they ask how you’re doing
answer a different question
tell them you know what it’s like

to be gathered around by friends
and harmonica music
you never get tired of that

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

lenten journal: on nights like tonight

On nights like tonight
when I come home tired
and try to write, only
to have my little dog

begin bouncing her ball
on my feet, begging me
to choose her over words,
I think about monks

and those who cloister
themselves to meditate,
yes, and to write, to get
closer to God, seeing

isolation as the way to
make meaning of life.
I write in traffic, feeling
like the street performer

who juggled three things
chosen by the crowd –
a bowling ball, an apple,
and a working chain saw –

and kept them all in the air.

That’s contemplation --
and it’s a public act. (Now
I sound like I’m polarizing.)

Those cloistered clerics may
have had about as much
choice in the pace of life
as I, a juggler, myself,

who wishes for a couple
more hours of sleep,
and wonders how one
who unfamiliar with the

unabashed ambush of
canine affection finds
anything to say at all
on nights like tonight.