Tuesday, February 28, 2006

the bridge is love

Monday mornings are down time for me.

After two full days at the restaurant and one at church, I lay pretty low here at the house. Ginger was gone on a clergy retreat, so I stopped at Blockbuster on my way home from youth group to pick up a movie for breakfast. The one that caught my eye was The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I love the novel both for the quality of the story and because I feel a strong connection to Thornton Wilder. The movie was watchable because the story is so incredible; the casting choices make the film fall short of what it might have been.

Ten years ago, I enrolled in the summer workshop of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. I came to a place in my life where I decided it was time to quit talking about wanting to write and do some damn writing. At the workshop, I had a chance to work with Timothy Findley, a wonderful Canadian writer. The workshop led me to sign up for the year-long correspondence course, and Findley mentored me as I wrote a novel in the year that followed. As he shared his insights on writing, he also shared his story. Tiff, as his friends called him, started out as an actor. He was working with Wilder and Ruth Gordon in a production when he wrote his first short story; they both encouraged him to write, thank God, just as Tiff encouraged me. He died in his sleep in 2002.

The ways in which the circumstances of life connected me to these amazing people is not unlike the idea behind the story. Five people were crossing the Bridge of San Luis Rey when it gave way and they fell to their deaths in the ravine below. A priest who was about to cross saw the event as a chance to ask one of the ultimate questions: "Do we live by plan and die by plan or do we live by accident and die by accident?"

Separate of the story, Wilder said, "Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God."

The novel is a beautiful tapestry showing both the individual lives and the ways in which they were woven together and connected with the lives around them. The one person who knew all five who died was a nun. She closes the story with these words: "There is a land between the living and the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival. The only meaning."

The bridge is love -- the one bridge, ultimately, that doesn't give way.

One of those who commented on my "open and affirming" post did so with a great deal of vitriol and violence. His language spoke of God striking me down, of my words bringing God's judgment such that God would kill "children, mothers' and grandmothers" because I was willing to participate in equal marriage. As people tried to respond to him, the volume of hatred only ratcheted up.

When the disciples saw a blind man, they asked Jesus, "Whose sin made this guy blind?"

"Nobody's sin," Jesus answered. "Look at it a different way: what can the love of God accomplish in this circumstance?" And he healed him.

When judgment is the paradigm, we all end up dead in the ravine.

The bridge is Love. The only survival. The only meaning.


PS -- Starting tomorrow, this blog will take a bit of a different shape. About fifteen years ago I began, as my Lenten practice, writing everyday. Before email, I picked one friend and wrote a journal the them. Over the years, my daily entry has been to a growing email list; this year it will happen here. My commitment is to write a thousand words a night chronicling my journey through the Lenten season. This year, our youth ski trip falls such that I will miss writing this Saturday, but other than that there will be an entry everyday. Peace -- MB-C

Monday, February 27, 2006

hey to barney

Don Knotts died last Friday.

I heard about it on my way to work at the restaurant on Saturday morning and I began to chuckle and feel sad at the same time. Barney Fife (whose middle name was Milton) is one of the TV characters who has left a deep impression on me. I’m grateful for the life of Don Knotts.

Since I grew up in Africa, I first saw The Andy Griffith Show in reruns, particularly in college. One of the stations played several episodes in a row every afternoon and there were a bunch of us who would watch together almost everyday. We memorized most of the dialogue and it became our way of communicating much of the time. I still carry some of the lines in my muscle memory that talk about sin, heartache, physical ability, and, of course, nippin’ it in the bud.

Marrying into a family from Birmingham, Alabama meant moving to Mayberry in some ways. My mother-in-law is the champion of Andy Griffith trivia, bar none. She could of easily been one of the characters on the show just by being herself: honest, welcoming, hopeful, and hilarious. I’m not sure many days go by without Ginger and I making some sort of Barney reference. The relationship in my life most marked by Barney is my friendship with Burt, who now pastors a church in Waco, Texas.

Burt and I met in the fall of 1976, when he started to Baylor. We have remained fast friends since, and were roommates in seminary. He does the best Barney impersonation I’ve ever seen. On more than one occasion, we’ve gotten on to elevators in office buildings and each moved to a different corner. When the car filled up, we began to sing the Mayberry Union High Fight Song (watch Part One to hear the song), or hum “The Church in the Wildwood” in harmony the way Andy and Barney did sitting on Andy’s front porch in the cool of the evening. No one else really understood, but we cracked ourselves up.

Burt was the first person I heard draw the parallel between Andy and Barney’s friendship and that between Jesus and Peter. Peter, he would say, was the Barney Fife of the gospels: quick to speak, slow to think, running into any situation with his one bullet in his pocket believing he could take care of things, and always getting in over his head. Jesus responded with grace and forgiveness, over and over – as did Andy – sometimes chiding, but never humiliating or belittling his friend. Though Burt does a hell of a Barney impersonation, he has been an Andy kind of friend to me, for I’ve had my share of Barney moments.

Thanks to reruns and DVDs (and even a site that lets you watch online), Barney will live on for a long time, despite Don Knott’s passing. He left a wonderful legacy. I heard an interview clip where Knotts talked about the danger of playing one character too long was you became typecast. You couldn’t get other parts because directors believed the audience could never see you as someone other than that character. Knotts went on to say, even if that were somewhat true, he was glad to be remembered as Barney Fife.

Would we could all find the grace to be such a character: unabashedly ourselves, and full of confidence and hope because we trusted the companionship of a true friend.

Here’s to you, Barn. Give us one last word.

Peace, Milton

Saturday, February 25, 2006

open and affirming

I didn't write yesterday because I used what time I had reading This Is How It Happened on Real Live Preacher. Gordon does a great job describing his pilgrimage to inclusiveness. Then came the comments, which -- if you've spent anytime on RLP -- you know are many. I threw in my two cents and went to work.

As I sat down this morning, I checked in again to find fifty new comments since yesterday. I read them all. As I said there, by the time I finished I was exhausted, encouraged (by some), and deeply saddened by some of the things people will say in Jesus' name. Comments on a blog do not communicate tone effectively in every case, so I won't assume to know people's feelings or motivations, but their words made me sad because they said, on one way or another, gay and lesbian people should not be welcomed unconditionally into the church.

I don't believe that.

I also don't believe homosexuality is a sin. It is an orientation -- a way of being -- not a choice. If I say someone chose to be gay, then I have to articulate when I chose to be heterosexual; I didn't choose it. I was born this way, as were my gay and lesbian friends. We miss the mark when we let the discussion be about sex. All of us are more than just sexual beings. My parents talk about "the gay lifestyle," which translated means sexual promiscuity, which is certainly not limited to gays and lesbians. Sex for the sake of sex without regard for the other human being and without the necessary relationship is sinful and damaging, regardless of who is involved; being gay or lesbian, however, is not a sin. I understand there are different ways to interpret the passages, and I'm not claiming everyone has to read it my way. Good scholars are deeply divided on this issue. I am saying I'm not going against the Bible to take the stand I'm taking.

One other thing I believe: rarely does anyone change his or her mind in these discussions. We've already decided where we stand and we like to make our points. I'm not trying to pick a fight here, I just want to go on record -- again -- for who I think God is calling the church to be.

As a minister in the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts, I have the wonderful opportunity to be a part of a denomination who has chosen to welcome everyone, has ordained gay and lesbian ministers since the late seventies (when the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as mental illness), and -- based on each congregation's decision -- can perform marriages between two adults who have committed their lives to one another under God. When same gender marriage became legal in our state, opponents ranted about the threat to "traditional" marriage. I wondered what they meant: anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night? threatening letters? gangs of gay couples intimidating husbands and wives at the mall?

I would like to report, two years on, that Ginger and I have not been threatened in any way. Just the opposite. We have had the chance to attend the weddings of dear friends who have finally been able to feel completely welcome in the church and the faith to which they have committed their lives. One couple got married on their thirtieth anniversary. It was amazing.

The UCC designation for churches who want to be publicly intentional about welcoming everyone is open and affirming. You would think those two adjectives would fit any church. Too often, however, the public face the church puts forward is one of exclusion. Fred Phelps drove from Kansas to stand across the street from a wedding here in our state so he could scream,"God hates fags."

That's what Christians do?

I know he's the lunatic fringe, and I know he's also part of the "everyone" I think needs to be welcomed, and I know he's sometimes the only person labeled "Christian" that some people encounter. I'm not trying to beat him up. My point is I can't find a place where Jesus acted that way, or called us to do so.

When same gender marriage became the law here, our governor leaned into an old law to keep people from out of state from getting married here. The law, passed early in the twentieth century, was written to curb interracial marriage, which in its time was seen as a threat to "real marriage." In terms of civil rights, his move brought the issue to clarity. The law was wrong then and it is wrong now. This is a matter of treating everyone equally, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes some of us.

Faith, however, is not about civil rights; it's more than that. We are called to love the world -- everyone not because it's the legal thing, or even the moral thing, but because it is the truest thing we can do. There is a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea, says the hymn. From the beach at the end of my street, the sea is endless.

When it comes right down to it, all I know to say is this: when I stand before God to account for my life, if God says, "Why did you let so many people in?" I'll take the hit. I can live with that. If God were to say, "Why did you keep closing the door when I intended there to be room for everyone?" I couldn't take it.

And I can't, for a minute, imagine God would ever say that.


Thursday, February 23, 2006

reasons to blog

Ginger and I had time to meet for a cup of coffee in the middle of the day -- unusual for a Thursday. When we sat down at Dunkin' Donuts she asked, "So what do you get out of writing your blog?"

She's never one for superficial questions, even during coffee break.

A couple of things came to mind.

First, I'm writing at least five days a week. This blog will be two months old on Monday and I will be sneaking up on fifty posts by then. I love to write, I want to write, I feel called to write and, for many years, I have let other things take the time I dreamed of using to put words together in a way that was meaningful to me. I feel like I'm making a good offering of my gifts. Writing regularly has also had a diminishing effect on my depression. This blog has made for an easier winter.

Second, I'm making significant connections. Some writers are loners: they go off by themselves, never sharing ideas, and stay alone until they give birth to whatever they are trying to get out of themselves. Not me. I do my best writing in the context of interactions: I throw out an idea, see what gets tossed back, and then make something new out of all of it. I'm deeply fed as a writer and a person by a sense of belonging. This blog has led me to some old friends and several new ones. Each week, my list of "stuff I like to read" grows because someone leaves a comment that leads me back to their blog and I try to pass what they are doing along to others.

I realize that either one of those answers is not unique to me as one of millions out here in the blogosphere, but they both bring me back here day after day to see what will flow from my fingers to the screen.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

boats against the current

I’m sitting at my desk looking at the sunset over the marsh through the window in my office, which is unusual for me on a Wednesday afternoon. I’m usually at the restaurant. Life for me, right now, divides into three nights at church and three nights at the Red Lion Inn, and some of all seven days doing one or the other. I’m home tonight because this cold has gotten the best of me and I’m out of gas. I’ve been sick more this winter than I have in several years, which I take as a signal that something in this schedule I’m keeping needs to change. Knowing that it is most important to make a move toward something rather than just away from something, I’m waiting and praying about what comes next. But, for these days, this is what life looks like.

When I got to the restaurant on Friday, Robert, the chef, told me to come up with a new soup since we sold out of the chili. Still in a bit of a southwestern vibe, I found some black beans in the storeroom and decided to see what I could do with them. What I came up with was a Tequila and Lime Black Bean Soup; I wish I thought then to call it Soup From Stock, but then again puns are mostly lost on pubsters. It turned out to taste pretty good. I thought it was a little bitter at first, thanks to the lime, so I added some chopped chorizo and the meat balanced it out nicely.

It strikes me, as I try to figure out what happens next in my life, that I’m working on much the same kind of recipe. I’ve got to figure out what to make of what I have.

For some reason – and I think it’s the sunset tonight – my mind went to the last page of The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite novels:

And I I sat there brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come along way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. . . . And one fine morning ----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
I was reading Gatsby with my tenth graders at Winchester High the June we moved into our house here in Marshfield, which would qualify as part of the vast obscurity beyond the city. After a day of unpacking boxes, Ginger and I walked the 600 feet to the end of our street to stand on the beach and look eastward across Cape Cod Bay. As we stood there, I saw a blinking light – a green light –out in the ocean.

“Look,” I said, “it’s Daisy’s house.”

We moved to Marshfield chasing dreams: Ginger wanted to be a senior pastor; I wanted to write. By September, I was sinking deep into my depression and couldn’t do much of anything but walk down the beach. I started picking up pieces of sea glass – broken glass, smoothed and polished by the water that washes up with the tide. “Tiny bits of nevermind” I called them in a poem I wrote. As the pile of colored pieces grew, I taught myself how to make earrings out of them and made jewelry for Ginger.

One of my persistent ideas as I walked down the beach was what I saw as I walked was determined by the line I chose to follow. If I stayed up close to the sea wall, I would see certain rocks and shells; if I walked closer to the water, I would see other things. When I decided where I was going to walk, I was also deciding where I was not going to walk. There was no way to see it all. Being a person who has never liked to feel as though I was missing something, that realization was quite humbling.

I realize, sitting here at the window, that many nights have passed since I last saw the green light. I haven’t even looked for sea glass in a long time; my walks on the beach have been spent watching schnauzers bounce like bunnies as they run believing they really can catch the sea gulls. The line I’ve taken in my life has left me more aware of feeling beaten by the currents than captured by the possibilities. It’s not so much needing new ingredients as it is having the imagination to come up with a different recipe.

It’s getting dark now, at least at street level. The sky above is azure blue, a sheltering sky that will soon give way to starlight, as Orion and his friends begin their nighty sojourn over our house. And soon, the green light will start shining on the bay.

I know, even though I can’t see it from here.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

what's the point?

I'm hanging out at the house today because I have a cold and I feel terrible. I have a couple of committee meetings to go to at church tonight, so I'm saving my strength. Our church is a part of something called The Timothy Project, a visioning emphasis of the Mass. Conference of the UCC to help thriving churches do even better, and our Timothy Team is gathering to talk about what happens next. My other meeting is our Stewardship Committee. Other Tuesdays of the month I meet with the Youth Team, the Diaconate, and the Christian Education Committee -- and that's not all of them. As I'm getting ready for those meetings, I can't get the gathering I saw in the ice cream parlor Sunday afternoon. I've stumped myself trying to think of the last committee meeting I went to at church that was focused on something other than perpetuating the institution or taking care of our own.

I can't remember one.

My friend Gordon, over at Real Live Preacher, just posted a great article on church marketing where he talks about the words we choose to describe ourselves. He starts by talking about church signs. When I was in high school in Houston, the church where my dad pastored had one of those signs where the slogan changed every week. I never knew who put the slogans up, but they were all cutesy and full of bad puns. The week it said, "It is no sin to cheat the devil" I came home and told my father I was going to change churches if he didn't make the sign guy get a grip. I've never met anyone who said, "I joined this church because I love the little sayings on the sign outside."

Jesus doesn't fit in a sound bite.

I'm struggling to see how Jesus fits in a committee meeting where we only talk about ourselves. I don't want to come across too judgmental because the folks in these meetings mean well and we have some important work to do, I just don't think we are ever allowed the luxury of working on only one side of the equation of faith. When we talk about how we are going to challenge one another to give more to meet our budget deficit, we need to talk about how we are going to give away more at the same time. How could any church gather in the next day or two and not spend time talking and praying about the miners in Mexico and the victims of the mudslides in the Philippines?

I don't understand enough about prayer to grasp how praying for faraway people in pain helps them, but I do know it changes me. If we make a point of having those kind of prayerful conversations each time we gather, it will change us as a church as well.

We have two slogans that show up in words, both printed and spoken:

"A growing church for a growing community."
"No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here."
I think we put them out there with good intentions and we work to mean what we say. The challenge comes when life calls us to parse the phrases more closely than we had anticipated. We, like many churches, mostly think about how to get you through our doors, not so much how to knock on yours.

If you've read this blog much at all, you'll understand when I say my problem is how to go into these meetings and not sound like Johnny-One-Note. I come loaded with thoughts on chocolate, free trade, being Open and Affirming, mission trips -- and I'm grow quickly weary of the ease with which we spend money on windows and pew cushions. I struggle to find the balance between speaking a prophetic word and sounding like a pompous ass. I'm not the only one in the world -- or in my church -- who is worried about the people trapped in the mines and the mud. I'm nowhere close to having the corner on compassion. I'm afraid I get so busy looking around the world I don't always notice the people in the room, people who have spent their lives in our church with great faith, love, and intention.

More than one time in my life I've been called back to the movie Mass Appeal, a story about a young seminarian working in a church with an older priest who has allowed himself to settle for comfort over faith. The seminarian is determined to change the congregation, but tries to do so with a flamethrower, rather than a pastoral word. He learns the folks in the pew, which he sees only as rich and clueless, are hurting and searching as much as he is -- they just talk about it differently and have found different ways to cope with the pain.

You'd think, twenty-five years out of seminary, I would have finally learned that lesson.

The church needs my voice, but as part of the chorus of voices, not as the paid soloist. And I will only sing well if I'm listening hard to those around me. Then we have the chance for harmony. Without taking the choir analogy too far, one more thing: every choir that sings well rehearses a great deal, working on both the big picture and how things go measure by measure.

(The last paragraph was aimed mostly at me; take what you need.)


Monday, February 20, 2006

soar, run, walk

First, once again, I want to pass along the places where passion lives:

IMOM.org, which helps pay veterinary bills for folks who can't and its community bulletin board. Thanks again to all who continue to share what matters most to you.

Yesterday afternoon we took my in-laws and friends into Boston. We ended up at JP Licks, the world's best ice cream place in Jamaica Plain, a very eclectic neighborhood of the city. As we were settling into our table, I couldn't help but notice the seven or eight folks at the table next to us who were engrossed in a very intentional discussion. At one end sat a woman with her laptop computer open; the title on the screen read, "Fostering Hope." About twenty minutes later, as their meeting began to break up, I stopped one of the people and explained what I had seen on the screen and asked if would mind telling me about their discussion. He was happy to oblige.

It seems the group was from Hope Church in Jamaica Plain, a UCC church start that is doing wonderful things. The woman with the computer was a South African national who was dreaming out loud about trying to do something to speak to the tragic plight of AIDS orphans in her home country -- as many as a million of them -- and believing that a few people could get together over coffee and make a difference somehow.

The lectionary passage Ginger preached from yesterday was Mark 2:1-12, the story of the four friends who lowered their paralyzed friend through the roof so Jesus could heal him. Part of what she talked about was the initiative and the imagination of the friends: they had to come up with a plan beyond their good intentions. Next thing you know, the house had a new skylight and their friend was in front of Jesus. He couldn't have gotten there on his own.

The story works as metaphor whether we are talking about helping our friends next door or the orphans in South Africa. I wonder how many nights they had sat with their friend saying things like, "Man, I wish there was something I could do," as they helped him do his daily tasks. Their commitment to their friend helped create the opportunity. They didn't give up.

I preached yesterday as well. My sermon was a week delayed, thanks to the blizzard; my passage was Isaiah 40:21-31: "They that wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint." I stayed with the sermon because I felt our congregation needed a strong pastoral word. When I got to church yesterday, I found out it was the anniversary of the death of one of our most beloved church members who died with cancer a year ago. Another member had planned a solo I didn't know about. Turns out she sang "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

When it came my turn, here is part of what I said:

Those who wait on the Lord -- interesting choice of words.

We don't wait on God like we wait for a bus, or even like a kid waits for Christmas. Isaiah is talking about patience that grows with trust, with faith, who look to the stars and all of creation for reminders that the Creator of Everything knows us by name also and does not leave us alone. When we wait on the Lord,

sometimes we soar over;
sometimes we run through;
sometimes we walk in.

Among the folks who will sit in this room today are those who had friends and family members die and the wounds of grief are still fresh; some have loved ones overseas fighting in wars; some are dealing with cancer and other diseases which offer an uncertain future; some lived in fractured families; some carry bitterness towards one another and find it hard to forgive, or ask for forgiveness; some have been through painful court cases; some are struggling to keep their marriages; some would be here but are no longer able to leave their homes; some are dealing with aging parents; some are dealing with struggling teenagers; some don't know what to do with their lives; some are dealing with overwhelming debt; some are unemployed and desperately in need of work; some wake up and go to jobs they hate everyday because they feel trapped; some are tired and cannot find rest; some are depressed and doing well to even get out of bed; some are lonely; some are sad; some feel broken.

Sometimes we soar over;
sometimes we run through;
sometimes we walk in.

Sometimes we crawl.

The hymn on the insert is one of my favorites, particularly for the first verse:

Come, ye disconsolate, where'er ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish --
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Do we not know? Have we not heard? The everlasting God -- our God -- does not grow weary or tired. God gives strength to the weary and increases power to those who lack. Those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not faint.

Sometimes we soar over;
sometimes we run through;
sometimes we walk in.

In all things, we are together in Jesus' name and in God's hands.
The connection between the two passages, for me, centers around persistence. I am overwhelmed by the neneighborhoodigborhood, much less the world. I can't even carry the people who live around me to Jesus, much less the AIDS orphans. And so I have to learn to wait on God, to trust that somehow I will find new strength -- we all will -- to soar, run, or walk and be changed in the process. On "The Writer's Almanac," Garrison Keillor quoted Robert Altman, who said, "To play it safe is not to play." The four friends tore up someone's roof without thinking about paying for it; they just knew that was how to get their friend some help. All five of them were healed in the encounter with Jesus.

And so may it happen to me.


Friday, February 17, 2006

our little tub o' love

Lola is our oldest schnauzer. She's five.

We got her from a breeder/groomer in New Hampshire who raised show dogs. Lola's parents were champions; Lola was going to be one, too, except she never got tall enough. She is beautiful and, as they say, she's a short standing schnauzer. (She's also quite round. Our groomer calls her a little Ewok.) Since Westminster was not in her future, she came to live with us.

We learned quickly that she loved us dearly and has very little room for others in her life. To us, Lola is our little "tub o' love," but that affection is not so easily apparent to others. Our friend Jay lived with us for about a year and it took eight months before Lola would stay in the same room with him. Now, all we have to do is say Jay's name and she gets all excited; they are best friends. Lola's circle has grown slightly over time; there are now seven or eight folks who can enter our house without being verbally accosted. The rest of you have some work to do.

Over the years we've learned some things about how show dogs are socialized. For one, show schnauzers are plucked rather than cut (sounds painful). For two, they are raised to respond only to the trainer, so they don't get distracted at the show. Lola comes by her social reticence honestly; it's how she was brought up. What her trainers were trying to teach her was to focus; she learned, instead, how to fear.

Lola is scared, so she acts tough, angry -- you get the picture. She's just incarnating what we all do at times, except for her it's a lifestyle. We've tried all sorts of things, from natural remedies to medication to intense training, and -- though she improves -- we can't get to the root of the fear. The best we can do is to hold her, walk up to whomever the dreaded stranger happens to be and say, "Friend."

My in-laws brought some friends with them, so Lola is adjusting to a house filled with people this morning. Her world has been seriously disturbed and she will tell anyone who will listen. Ginger and her folks just took Lola and Gracie, her little sister, to the beach to get a walk in ahead of the impending cold front. It's low tide and the beach will be vacant; they can run all they want. That always makes things better.

At least it works for me.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

family matters

First thing: here are a few of sites passed along to me that I pass along to you. I will eventually add them in the left hand column as permanent links as well.

Public Health International
Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS)
Marshfield Food Pantry
Interfaith Hospitality Network
Community Homeless Alliance Ministries (CHAM)
"Rainstoppers": First Christian Church of San Jose

As you will see, some are local, some are national, some are worldwide. All of them are doing hands-on good stuff.

And now for something completely different: my in-laws are coming, which means we have been in a cleaning frenzy for the last forty-eight hours (we had a lot to clean up). They live in Birmingham, Alabama and rarely get the chance to see snow, so this year they planned their visit in the dead of winter. Some of the snow from the storm still survives, despite the last few days being unseasonably warm; the weekend promises to be frigid, which sends me thinking about what to cook while they're here.

I've got a couple of things in mind -- they're here for several days, but the two I'm going to leave with you are of the "comfort food" variety: Uncle Milty's Guinness and Chocolate Chili (you read it right) and Banana Pudding (for my father-in-law).

When Ginger and I began dating, it didn't take me long to realize different families had both different attitudes and traditions towards food. I'm a cook because my mother made the kitchen the warmest room in the house. Every meal was an event. If she was making sandwiches, the mayo and mustard were put in bowls on the table; she would never think of just plunking down the jar. We all sat down for a meal. I described the difference to Ginger this way: my family thought meal time was an event; her family ate so they didn't die.

Over the years, part of the tradition that has grown up as I have become a part of the Brasher clan is I cook when we are together. The fun part for me is they think I'm some sort of magician in the kitchen. My mother-in-law, who loves to learn more than anyone I know, sits at the counter and asks great questions. If I ever lack for affirmation, all I have to do is sit down at the table with them and they make me feel like the greatest chef in the world.

As you can see, I'm glad they're coming.

Growing up overseas, I missed out on knowing what it felt like to be a part of an extended family and to feel like you were a part of something beyond the people that lived in your house. The Brashers are thick with cousins and kin and they welcomed me as if I had been a part of the mostly crazy bunch from the beginning, which is truly a gift. When Ginger and I married, we both took each other's last names (thus the Brasher-Cunningham). Now, nearly sixteen years into our marriage, I feel as much Brasher as I do Cunningham; I have grown into my name much like Jacob wrestled with becoming Israel, or Abram learned to become Abraham.

My family is coming. What better place to meet them than around the table.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

something to believe in

"Commit to something you believe in," was the title of one of the twenty-two email messages that greeted me when I signed on this morning.

I considered it a bit of a sign, or at least a nudge.

I opened the letter from Sojourners Magazine (I'm on their sojomail list) to find they were asking for donations and subscriptions to their organization. Their logic was I get their stuff and I share some of their passion; I should pony up. I can't fault their logic, but the title of the email had already sent my mind spinning in other directions.

I'm still wrestling with this chocolate thing. My posts last week generated some ongoing conversations between several folks, not the least of which is at church. Some of us have started talking about how we can become a "free trade congregation." I like the sound of that. But there's more. I went back to the Millions website because I'm thinking about showing the movie to my high school youth group in a couple of weeks, and found a link to WaterAid, who says their vision "is of a world where everyone has access to safe water and effective sanitation." They are doing amazing stuff. I was humbled to see what the five bucks I plunk down for a case of Poland Springs half liter bottles will do in Mali or Burkina Faso.

But there's more. When I searched to find the Sojourners site, I first typed in sojourners.org and that led me to Sojourner's Place, an organization in Wilmington, Delaware that helps homeless people get off the street. (Part of the reason I was intrigued is I've never actually met anyone from Delaware; I was almost convinced it was a fictitious land, sort of like Narnia or Middle Earth.) Thanks to Bono and others, the "Make Poverty History" campaign is getting necessary and deserved attention. I can go on: Habitat for Humanity, Amnesty International, Compassion, Human Rights Campaign, and the Pine Street Inn (a Boston homeless shelter) are some that get my attention.

The world is bleeding with need and there are a lot of folks trying to do something about it, which is both comforting and overwhelming. Every issue brings a rush of resolve, guilt, hope, and helplessness in me; I want to do something even as I feel incredibly inadequate to do so.

Commit to something you believe in.

I can't do it all. I can do something. The creative tension that lies between those two statements holds the power to change the world. Years ago, Compassion had a poster filled with cartoon images of people, each one thinking, "What can one person do?" The poster didn't need a caption. Which leads me, finally, to my point.

Almost two months into this blogging thing, I'm amazed by the sense of community that can develop online. I check in everyday, hoping for comments, recognizing names of people I've never seen, yet to whom I somehow feel connected. I want to know what you're committed to doing. I want to know what you believe in. So I'm asking for links and stories, for connections to the things that matter, for suggestions about how we get off our butts and do as well as talk about what is important.

I'll be happy to work as a clearing house of sorts, creating a links list so folks can follow up on what we share with each other. I'm hoping for ideas and encouragement for all of us to not feel alone or insignificant in the face of a world so desperately in need of people to believe it doesn't have to be this way.

I'm looking for a conversion experience here. I want to be changed by what happens here. I want to be called to a life different than the one I'm leading. I want to claim for my own the phrase I see plastered all over the Olympics: "passion lives here."

Conversion is not a solo sport; neither is life.

All together now . . .


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

baby pygmy goat day

My friend Patty drives from Higgins Lake to Ann Arbor, Michigan regularly. She calls when she's on the road. Just south of St. John's, the highway flattens out into farm country, which is usually when my phone rings because I think the landscape gets boring, or at least hypnotizing.

One day last year she called laughing because she had seen a sign for "baby pygmy goats." Neither one of us knew what they were, but we both had fun saying the words. She noticed it was early spring and said, "Next year I will watch for the first day the sign is out and that will be Baby Pygmy Goat Day: the first sign of spring."

She called yesterday afternoon to say February 13 was Baby Pygmy Goat Day. The sign was out; five babies were available. Since I had already blogged yesterday, I did not get a chance to tell you, but a few Baby Pygmy Goat festivities added to Valentine's Day have to be a plus, don't you think?

As far as the little goats go, I found a bunch of information here and even an audio clip of a goat bleat. The goats are cute and evidently a bunch of folks are really into them, but I'm celebrating Baby Pygmy Goat Day because of my friend. We've known each other for almost twenty-five years and have seen each other through a lot of stuff. She stood up with me at my wedding. She and Ginger are also good friends. I will mark February 13 on my calendar as An Important Day because I'm friends with Patty.

Which brings me to February 14.

Tuesday night is committee meeting night at my church, every week a different committee. Christian Education meets the second week of the month. When we got to the end of our January meeting, the chairperson said, "Our next meeting will be February 14."

"I can't meet then;" I said, "it's Valentine's Day." So they moved the meeting a week earlier.

A former teaching colleague chided me one year because I was making plans for Valentine's. "It's nothing but a Hallmark holiday," he said. Several others around the lunch table agreed.

"Maybe so," I replied, "but I figure any excuse to tell Ginger I love her is worth enjoying, regardless of who came up with the idea." And so I'm off to pick up roses (peach) and chocolate (free trade) and then we will make our annual pilgrimage to the Hard Rock Cafe.

Valentine's Day 1989 was early in our relationship. I took her to the Hard Rock in Dallas because she loved the place. They had a band that night. The restaurant gave everyone a glass of champagne. The night was full of energy and electricity for us; we both knew something was happening we didn't quite comprehend. About half way through the set, the lead singer called his girlfriend up on stage and proposed. Ginger and I both knocked over our champagne glasses. When we got to the car after dinner, I moved to unlock her door and surprised her with a kiss that rivaled the one between Wesley and Buttercup at the end of The Princess Bride. It was a great night.

Life does enough to pull as apart, whether we are friends or lovers. The people who stay connected are the people who are determined to stay connected, who work at it, who find ways to build reminders of the bonds that matter into the daily routines of existence. When we get our cell phone bill every month, Ginger and I laugh because most of our minutes are spent talking to each other, and most of those calls are just to say hello.

I don't really care about pygmy goats, but Baby Pygmy Goat Day matters because it connects me to my friend Patty.

Hallmark or not, I'm going to celebrate the hell out of Valentine's Day because Ginger -- the woman I love more than anyone else in the world -- is going to dinner with me.

And when we get to the car, I'm planning on the Best Kiss Ever.

Peace (and Love),

Monday, February 13, 2006

every last one

I got home from the restaurant about 10:30 Saturday night, put on my pajamas and Ginger and I hunkered down for the storm. It’s now Monday morning and neither of us have left the house or changed out of our pajamas. Both our congregations cancelled services. We watched a couple of movies – Millions (highly recommended) and The Polar Express – and we kept checking back with the various weather people to see how the storm was progressing. We knew it was snowing (we could see) and we knew it was windy (it blows through our house like water through a sieve), but we wanted to know what was happening around us.

Most of the forecasters were downright elated by the storm. Their jobs have been fairly boring this winter, I guess, since we haven’t had much snow. I was amused by how jazzed they got every time they were on camera. When the storm met the criteria for a blizzard they were beside themselves. Then they moved on to talking about how this ranked as an all-time storm. We got a fair amount of snow – twelve to twenty inches across eastern Massachusetts, but the storm only ranked as Number Eleven on the all-time list. We didn’t even break the top ten.

They seemed a little disappointed.

Last night, we kept checking in on the Olympics. Two events caught my eye: snowboarding and short track speed skating. The snowboarders capture me with their free spirits and reckless-but-purposeful abandon. The sport is packed full of creative tension and whimsy. They are non-conformists and precision performers at the same time: bungee-jumping ballerinas. When they soar up about the edge of the half-pipe doing flips and turns, they make it look as though any of us could do it. Even though we all know better, for a moment we get to go along for the ride.

The speed skaters are another matter. Short track means they are going as fast as they can on a course that is too slick and two short for the kind of speed they achieve. As Ginger noted, it’s human NASCAR, which means, of course, we’re all waiting for the crash.

Two Americans ended up center stage in the two events: one won and one didn’t. Shaun White, the Flying Tomato, won the gold medal in Snowboarding. Apolo Anton Ohno, who was supposed to win, didn’t make the finals because he slipped in the final turn. He was in second place, which would have qualified him, but he pressed to win the heat and it cost him.

Both White and Ohno gave it their best shot. Both do things most of us can only dream of doing. Yet, in a world where even our weather competes against itself, one will be remembered and one will not. Such is the logic of competition, particularly in America.

A couple of things to clear up: one, I’m an amazing average athlete. As the perennial last-picked-why-don’t-you-play-right-field-kid, it’s no wonder I’m a cook and a writer. Two, I’m not without my competitive streak; I’m just questioning why we only remember the winners.

(Quick, name three fourth place finishers in any event at any time.)

One of the biblical metaphors that gets lost in our go-for-the-gold mentality is the idea of life as a race. “Let us run the race that is set before us,” says the writer of Hebrews, “fixing our eyes on Jesus. The point of the race is to finish, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, everyone encouraging one another. I’m afraid the American translation would challenge us to get across the finish line first so we could shout, “Jesus love you, but I’m his favorite!”

In 1968, a young African was sent by his country to run the marathon in Mexico City. His name was John Steven Okwari . (I heard his story years ago, but I’m afraid I don’t remember the county or how to spell his name.) He finished dead last. Four hours after the winner crossed the finish lines, Okwari entered the Olympic stadium. He was so far behind that the closing ceremonies were over. When word reached the stadium that one person was still on the course, about thirty thousand people stayed in the stands to wait for him. After the race he was asked why he bothered to keep going.

“My country sent me to finish the race,” he said.

He was last -- even Google can’t find him now – and he did his best.

Shawn White was the best in the world at what he does yesterday. He deserved the gold medal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t congratulate or reward him. I am saying life is not a competition. Our churches and classrooms are packed full of folks who are not Number One. They’re not even Number Four. While we often talk of the courage it takes to play through the pain to win, we fail to notice the courage it takes to live day to day feeling unnoticed or even invisible.

I see it in the eyes of the “fringe kids” who come to youth group because they know they belong. I hear it in the voice of the Brazilian woman who sings while she washes dishes for nine bucks an hour. We matter not because we are all winners, but because we are breathing – because we are God’s creation, every last one of us.

Every last one.

Peace, Milton

PS -- Thanks to Gwen, one of the readers of this blog, I can clear up the details on the marathon runner I mentioned:

John Stephen Akhwari (b. 1938?, Mbulu, Tanganyika) was an Olympic athlete at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He representated Tanzania in the marathon but he fell during the race badly cutting his knee and dislocating the joint. Rather than quitting, he continued running. He finished last among the 74 competitors. When asked why he ran he said simply, "My country did not send me 7000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 7000 miles to finish it."

Akhwari has lent his name to the John Stephen Akhwari Athletic Foundation which supports Tanzanian athletes training for the Olympic Games. (from wikipedia)
Thanks, Gwen

Friday, February 10, 2006

ready for the storm

We've not had our usual winter here in New England: very little cold or snow. Seems that's about to change. A Nor'easter is blowing in tomorrow. By Sunday afternoon we could have about a foot and a half of snow on the ground and I will be out shoveling the driveway.

Though the mild days have been nice, there's an air of disappointment, too. Surviving the long winter is part of what distinguishes us as New Englanders. We were ready and have not been put to the test. I feel like I worked hard to get ready for the big game and have done nothing but sit on the bench. We need cold and snow -- piles of it -- so we can name the storm and tell the stories and call out to each other as we clear our driveways and then go into warm fires.

As Dougie MacLean says, I am ready for the storm.

Part of being ready is having what I need to make the food that warms us as well.

So here's a recipe for "Open-faced Chicken Pot Pie."

The great thing about the recipe is -- though I have given you a specific list of ingredients -- you can add or take away whatever you want. Ginger is not much for carrots, so, when I don't feel like watching her pick them out, I leave them out. Broccoli works well in the mix also. Try sweet potatoes instead of the white ones. You get the idea.

Since our house sits in a wind tunnel between the beach and the marsh, the storm will swirl around us, making the house whistle. Since our house is a converted summer home, the windows do a little whistling of their own as they let in some of the cold air. We wrap up in our quilts, the schnauzers turn into little donuts that smell like corn chips, and -- despite all of the inconvenience -- we are still captured by the magic and wonder of the white stuff stacking up in the yard.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

us vs. us

A couple of weeks ago, my brother left a message on my cell phone:

"I just finished a book you have to read. You'll love it. It's called Blue Like Jazz."

Since recommending reading is not one of his usual things, I went and bought the book. He's right. It's good. I'm reading it slowly because I want time to think about what Donald Miller, the author, has to say. After wrestling with this chocolate stuff, I came back to his retelling of one conversation in particular. He and his friend Tony were discussing the genocide in the Congo.

"It's terrible," I told him. "Two and a half million people dead. In one village they interviewed about fifty or so women. All of them had been raped, most of them numerous times."

Tony shook his head. "That is amazing. It is so difficult to even process how things like that can happen."

"I know. I can't get my mind around it. I keep wondering how people could do things like that."

"Do you think you could do something like that, Don?" Tony looked at me pretty seriously. I honestly couldn't believe he was asking the question.

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

"Are you capable of murder or rape or any of the stuff that is taking place over there?"


"So you are not capable of any of those things?" he asked again. He packed his pipe and looked at me to confirm my answer.

"No, I couldn't," I told him. "What are you getting at?"

"I just want to know what makes those guys over there any different from you and me. They are human. We are human. Why are we any better than them, you know?"

Reading through the comments on yesterday's post, all full of great thoughts and feelings, I've been trying to come to terms with my own. No, I'm not going to give up chocolate. I don't want to and it doesn't solve anything. I am going to have to come up with an alternative for Valentine's other than Reese's Hearts, but there are alternatives. Thanks to Newman's Own, I can find fair trade chocolate even in our biggest supermarket. It's tucked away with the Kashi cereal, Terra chips, and flax seed oil. Meanwhile, the "candy aisle" stretches from the front end of the store to the back, and none of it fair trade.

We've got work to do. Miller's words remind me the conversation has to be about "we" -- about us. The coporate executives at Nestle and M&M/Mars who answer protests with form letters and dodge the real issues, the buyers and sellers of cocoa futures, those who abuse the children on the cocoa farms, the stock traders and stockholders who demand profits at all costs from their companies, the media who make one-day-emergencies out of chronic problems, the children who are forced into slavery: they are all part of us.

I'm no better than they are. I'm connected to them, if by nothing else than our common humanity. The only way things will really change is if we -- WE -- work on it.

Part of us are already out there. Check out the folks at Global Exchange. They have everything from information to educational resources to a fair trade on-line store. I'm challenged and encouraged by their approach because it offers me a way to respond beyond being angry, guilty, or resigned to this just being the way things are. They really believe we can change things.

I want to believe that, too.

When I named my blog, I was playing on the Buddha quote at the top of the sidebar: "There is no joy in eating alone." Yesterday, one of the comments posted said, "The grocery store certainly is overwhelming when you start to consider the origins of what you eat, and justice. We really never do eat alone, do we?"

No, we don't.

As I have said before, one of the things I love about coming to the Communion Table is I am coming to the table with all of those who have come before me and all who will come after me. I am not alone.

I'm learning that is true about any table, or any food for that matter. When I pick up a chocolate bar, or a cup of coffee, or a ham sandwich, I'm at the table with those who helped get the food to my table, those who have benefited from my purchases, and those who are harmed by my choices. I don't ever eat alone.

The task, then, is for us to live and eat so none of us goes hungry.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

we are what we eat

It’s hard to write when you feel stupid.

I’ve run up against something I didn’t know about that should have been on my radar. I’m deeply disturbed, convicted, and dumb.

It’s also hard to write when you have too strong an agenda.

I'm pissed. I want to preach, to rant, to tell everyone what they should do – not particularly compelling reading.

About thirty minutes after I heard the symphony of trucks on Monday, I heard a report on Marketplace that disturbed me, to say the least. The story had to do with a lawsuit filed against Nestle, Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland for their connection to child slavery on the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. The suit is being brought on behalf of three boys who escaped the horror, with hopes that it will become a class action lawsuit to move these corporations beyond “studying the problem,” which they have been doing for years, to moving to a fair trade model that would not allow for slavery in any form.

I had no idea.

Some of the specifics I heard in the story and found in some other material are:
70% of the cocoa used in America comes from Ivory Coast;
90% of the cocoa grown in Ivory Coast is connected to child slavery;
though new to me, it’s not a new problem.

I’ve spent the last hour chasing down links, trying to learn more. I’m overwhelmed by what I’ve found. Rather than repeat it all, I offer these links so you can read for yourself.
"Why slavery still exists: those along the 'chocolate chain' put blame on someone else"
"Chocolate and Slavery"
"Fair Trade Chocolate"

I’m just trying to figure out what to do with the fact that I’m killing children when I buy M&M’s.

Unfortunately, there’s no hyperbole in that statement. Tim Bergquist, president of International Chocolate Company, said it this way: "Every time one closes his eyes and buys a product made by children, then he is also responsible. He becomes an accomplice."

Ginger, my wife, put it more succinctly: “No more chocolate.”

And Valentine’s Day is next week. This year we’ll be skipping the Reese’s Hearts.

Every trip to the supermarket, it seems, is a test of faith. Globalization means that my picking up grapes from Chile in the dead of winter means some poor farmer is taking it in the face. I have more fresh produce available to me in the dead of a New England winter than the people who live in the countries that grow the stuff ever get to see themselves. So I’ve joined the growing band of folks who are working hard to figure out how to eat more locally and challenge the big corporations.

But this chocolate thing goes to a whole different level.

Children are being sold as slaves, being beaten and killed for not working fast enough, just so I have ninety-seven inexpensive candy options when I step up to the register at CVS. Kids are dying for candy.

What in hell are we doing?

I know I’m late to the game in adding my voice to the chorus of concerned folks demanding change. But now I know and I can’t keep quiet.

When I lived in Dallas, my roommate and I decided to make a concerted effort to quit adding salt to our food, since both of us came from families with heart issues. We decided the best way to do it was to quit calling it salt; we called it “White Death.” If we wanted to salt our food, we had to say, “Please pass the White Death.” We soon cured ourselves of the desire to use the stuff.

Maybe it’s time to say, “You want a Child Killer?” instead of “You want a candy bar?”

I know this is raw. It’s how I feel.


Tuesday, February 07, 2006

appropos of nothing

I heard this story on All Things Considered last night. You gotta hear the symphony of truck horns.


Monday, February 06, 2006

once upon a time

In the early nineties, Robert Olen Butler wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning short story collection called A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain. I read it for a Fiction Writing course I took while working on my MA in English. My favorite story was “Fairy Tale,” mostly because of the first paragraph:

I like the way fairy tales start in America. When I learn English for real, I buy books for children and I read, “Once upon a time.” I recognize this word “upon” from some GI who buys me Saigon teas and spends some time with me and he is a cowboy from the great state of Texas. He tells me he gets up on the back of a bull and he rides it. I tell him he is joking with Miss Noi (that’s my Vietnam name), but he says no, he really gets up on a bull. I make him explain that “up on” so I know I am hearing right. I want to know for true so I can tell this story to all my friends so that they understand, no lie, what this man who stays with me can do. After that, a few years later, I come to America and I read some fairy tales to help me learn more English and I see this world and I ask a man in the place I work on Bourbon Street in New Orleans if this the same. Up on and upon. He is a nice man who comes late in the evening to clean up after the men who see the show. He says this is a good question and he thinks about it and he says that yes, they are the same. I think this is very nice, how you get up on the back of time and ride and you don’t know where it will go or how it will try to throw you off.

Yesterday was the anniversary of when I climbed upon a time: Ginger and I had our first date on February 5, 1989. I was living in Fort Worth and she in Arlington. I had tickets to go see a new singer, Lyle Lovett, who was performing at Caravan of Dreams in downtown Fort Worth. I had planned to take my best friend, Billy, but after I met Ginger I called and told him I would get him something else – I had met a girl. In 1989, February 5 fell on a Sunday night as well. Since I was working in a church that had a Sunday night service, my original plan was to cut out during the last hymn, shoot over to Arlington and pick her up, and then come back for the show. An ice and snowstorm hit and church was called off, so I called her and made plans to pick her up for dinner. I slid across town in my front wheel drive Toyota Tercel and we ate at Good Eats, a kind of comfort food place, and then went on to see Lyle.

The show was amazing. He had a cello player with him and they moved from country to alternative to blues to improvisational jazz seamlessly. The room was intimate and charged. As we reflected on the evening later, we both had a sense of awe and mystery that night.

We climbed upon a time and have been riding ever since.

The next day I sent her a card, using Lyle’s words:

if ford is to chevrolet
what dodge is to chrysler
what corn flakes are to post toasties
what the clear blue sky is to the deep blue sea
what hank williams is to neil armstrong
can you doubt that we were made for each other?

I don’t think we ever have. In April we will have been married sixteen years. Together we have moved across country, made our home here in New England. She has stayed with me through my seemingly endless vocational crisis and the ride down the wormhole that is Living With Depression. I was there as she got her doctorate, among other things. The ride has had its moments when we felt as if we had been thrown. But the best parts have been the meals and the movies, the walks on the beach or around our old Charlestown neighborhood, the memories we keep packing into our hearts.

I searched hard to find a Good Eats Café of some sort in the Boston area, but all I found was a cheap college pizza joint, so I opted for familiar food. We went to Bob’s Southern Bistro, based on reviews I found, and stumbled into another memory together. They were having a Super Bowl party (that’s what Feb. 5 meant to everyone else). When we got there, they were handing out shots of Crown Royal; after dinner they gave us homemade carrot cake. In between, we chased down fried catfish and chicken, some meatloaf, and all kinds of good southern side dishes.

And we told anyone who would listen why we were celebrating.

One of the last lyrics I wrote when I was writing songs is one that never made it to any sort of recording, but remains one of my favorites. It’s called “Well Worn Love.” The image I had was of Ginger and I after forty or fifty years. I kept playing with the image of a love well-worn, like the library steps worn from good use.

he pours her coffee like every morning
she kisses his nose as she passes
his hair is much thinner than back when they started
and she did not always wear glasses

she smiles with her eyes as he butters his bread
they talk about what’s in the news
he heads for the garden she gathers the laundry
and life feels familiar and true

and this is the story of two common hearts
who started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love

he takes her hand coming out of the movie
they stop at a sidewalk café
he finds her a chair that is next to the window
‘cause he knows she likes it that way

she smiles with her eyes at the things he remembers
she touches the side of his face
the moments they share in the balance of time
are the heart of redemption and grace

and this is the story of two common hearts
who started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love

she wears the ring that he put on her hand
some forty five years ago
and time is defined by the lines of the love they know

winter comes early with how shadows and snowfall
who knows how long it will stay
so he pours her coffee like every morning
‘cause he knows she likes it that way

and this is the story of two common hearts
who started out young and grew old
they have practiced a lifetime the waltz of a well-worn love

Sometimes Ginger asks me where I think I would be if we had never met. My answer is always the same: “I don’t think I would be alive.” I am upon a time, rather than crushed below it, because Love found me when I looked in her eyes some seventeen years ago.

However bumpy the ride has been, Love has never let go.


Friday, February 03, 2006

how do we appreciate?

Any time we have a discussion about a meal at church and the discussion turns to how we are going to pay for it before we talk about why we are having the meal or what we are going to have, I'm afraid the folks in the room know what I'm going to say because, at least on this point, I'm rather predictable. I have a rather well-rehearsed rant that goes something like:

If we're going to fix a meal, then let's do it right. We don't have to spend a lot of money to prepare nice food, and to make people feel as though we mean what we are doing. If we don't intend to do the best we can, why do it? Do we want people to think church dinners are always substandard meals?
OK -- that's the abbreviated version, but you get the idea.

I got to make the speech again a couple of weeks ago as we planned for our annual Teacher appreciation Dinner. The quality of the meal speaks to the quality of our gratitude. For a number of years, the church paid for everyone to go to a local Chinese restaurant, which meant we had a nice meal and no one was stuck with the dishes. A couple of years ago, we convinced ourselves that kind of gratitude was too extravagant and decided the Christian Education Committee would prepare the meal in our Parish Hall. (Insert the above speech here.) Yesterday afternoon, committee members met to prepare the food and set up the room.

The woman who decorated the hall did a great job. Undecorated, the room looks a lot like an unfinished roller rink. By pulling the room dividers and using some red-checkered tablecloths and candles stuck in wine bottles, she turned it into a cozy little cafe. Our cooking team went to work as well. We served Open Chicken Marsala Ravioli and Oreo Ice Cream Pie (not my recipe, but I'll get it). The whole event cost about a hundred dollars and we served thirty people. After dinner, people sat at the tables and talked for almost an hour. Some of us still had to do dishes, but it was worth it. We did a good job saying thank you.

Up until my grandmother died, she had a framed thank you note I wrote her when I was ten or eleven, which said, "I'm writing to say thanks for the Christmas present because Mom said if I didn't write a thank you note I wouldn't get any more presents." Cute for a kid, maybe, but a lousy thank you. And yet, I'm afraid it is the kind of appreciation we too often offer one another. Acting as though a thrown-together Ragu Reward is going to make someone feel appreciated is fooling ourselves but not fooling them. True thanks ought to cost us something. When we come across as though we a just throwing a bone so we can check it off our list, the alleged gratitude is hollow and condescending.

I love to cook, so good food is a good way for me to say thanks, but it's not the only way. Good gratitude starts by asking, "What do I have most to give and what do they most need to receive?"

It doesn't have to be open ravioli, but it does need to be open-hearted.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

food and poetry: part two

Today I'm cooking for a Teacher Appreciation Dinner at church and I'm making fresh pasta (report and recipes tomorrow), which brings me to pass on another poem shared with me by another friend. She found it through the Writer's Almanac. The poet is Kate Scott, from her book Stitches.


In the yellow kitchen her pink hands
play with creamy dough. Squares of sun frame
things that shine; spoons, cups, hair.

She sits the fat belly on the table.
She pokes it with one finger, it dimples.

Stroked with flour, her rolling pin
works roundness to flatness,
teases out a thin cream sheet.

She picks up the sheet with a nimble pinch,
feeds it into the teeth of the steel machine.

She turns the handle, smiling at me
Though I know she is tired, not very happy.
She hangs the frail strips on chairs, on doors.

As the dampness lifts they start to flutter.
She hangs them lightly over her arm, padding to the stove.

She boils water, opens wine, puts vegetable in pots.
Lights click. Smells blossom.
Everything feels suddenly invited.
Dinner is at 7:00 in the Parish Hall. We'll save you a seat.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

food and poetry

This poem was passed along by a friend from long ago: Sarah McManus Bickle. Her first email did not say who wrote it. When I inquired, i found out she did! Sarah is an ESL teacher at Jasper High School in Dallas, Texas.

Great work, Sarah!

How Black Bean Tacos Saved My Life

In the beginning there was Seven Meat Gumbo,
a thick mess of something my cousins had brought home
-my big cousins with their guns, Coors hats, and waders –
I don’t remember how it tasted, but it was the pageantry,
the story-telling men and the bread-baking women
all laughing in the kitchen,
the delicious chaos that impressed me the most.

Next, I guess, was Christmas fudge,
a more orderly endeavor wherein Grandma was commandant.
Glasses perched low, she directed us:
Grandpa and Dad cracked (and ate) the pecans,
Mom kept the baby, and I studiously stirred and licked my fingers.

Then came the nineties, and the suburbs,
and it was grilled chicken and rice for the entire decade,
punctuation coming in form of canned green beans, peas,
perhaps a green salad.
It was a sad time.

In college, I wasted away on a diet of
soft serve ice cream and tuna fish sandwiches
until I could bear it no longer.
I ventured into our low-rent neighborhood’s corner grocery store,
where women with long black braids carried fat babies from aisle to aisle.
I followed them, watching their actions like Columbus’s men
must have watched the Tainos, incredulous that the Indians
survived the suspicious tomato.

I went home with cilantro, jalapenos, cumin, black beans, limes,
and a dollar fifty dozen of fresh tortillas.
My kitchen sang. Ancient aunts, country cousins, and my grandmother
rose up in the steam from my skillet, though their accents had changed a bit.

So in this way a talent came to me like sourdough starter or live coals,
the gift of nourishment. Fat roots reached up from the kitchen floor to claim me.

Here's to being claimed in the kitchen.