Thursday, July 31, 2008

the cost of togetherness

I had just settled in at my table at Mad Hatter’s Bake Shop when Ginger and the news that Manny Ramirez had been traded by the Red Sox to the Dodgers (Manny’s playing for Joe Torre!) arrived at the same time. Over the past few days, Manny has made it clear he wanted out of Boston – more emphatically than his past yearly outbursts – and he got his wish. As he prepared to fly from coast to coast, Ginger was driving a homeless family from the day shelter to the church where they will eat dinner and sleep. On cots. Until someone comes back to drive them to the day shelter again in the morning.

The family was made up of a single mother, who is expecting, and her two-year-old daughter, whom Ginger wanted to bring home. Together, they live a life over which they have little control. The woman said the folks at the shelter offered to give her a weekend pass and she answered, “Where would I go?” She has no means of transportation, nowhere to stay, very little money, and a two year old. The life she’s living may offer her a way out of homelessness eventually, but right now it’s a hard and lonely road.

Part of the reason Manny wanted to be traded was he thought he could make more money as a free agent next year rather than letting the Red Sox pick up the option to extend his contract for two more years. For twenty million dollars. A year.

Ginger and I are both unabashed Manny fans. We’re sad to see him go. I love watching him play because he truly loves playing the game. And he plays hard, even including the “Manny being Manny” moments. Who else will ever climb the outfield wall, catch the fly ball, high five the fan on the front row of the bleachers, come down grinning, and throw the runner out at second to make the double play?

When it comes to the money, Ginger says she cuts him some slack because he grew up in poverty in the Dominican Republic and then joined his parents in New York City (still in poverty, I presume) until he was drafted out of high school by the Cleveland Indians. According to the biography on his website, all Manny ever wanted to do was play baseball. His dad used to take his dinner to the ballpark to make sure he ate. His talent and tenacity offered him a way out of poverty. Even though he has made almost $150 million cumulatively in his career, it appears he isn’t sure it’s enough at some level.

I suppose the obvious connection to make is Manny could build a lot of homes for people like the woman in the shelter, but that ought to be a conclusion Manny comes to on his own, not one I offer here. If all I did with my blog was to tell other folks how to live their lives better, I would change the name to something like “Sit Up Straight and Finish Your Spinach,” rather than “Don’t Eat Alone.”

The connection, for me, is about community. For those of us who consider themselves citizens of Red Sox Nation, Manny was one of the ties that bound us. His enthusiasm for the game gave us reason to cheer. The way he dropped his bat and followed the ball when he hit a home run had less to do with being cocky than it did with his love of the game. You could see it in his eyes: a child like sense of wonder. He had fun playing ball and we had fun watching him. The reality of the business side of baseball, which hits home in the terse transition of his departure, makes that sense of togetherness very tenuous.

And togetherness is tenuous, whatever the game.

As many people as it takes to provide the day shelter and the transportation and the meals and the place to sleep, the woman Ginger drove tonight feels alone. When offered the chance to get away for the weekend, she didn’t say, “Great. I can go stay with my friend.” She doesn’t get to feel together; she is only reminded that life is out to get her.

Strange how a couple of spaces can change what the letters can mean.

Manny’s gone because of money. The woman Ginger met is sleeping on a cot in a church parish hall because of money, or lack of it. When Manny’s contract expires, one of the questions that will show up on the sports shows will be, “Is Manny worth $20 million?”

The answer is, “No.” No one is worth twenty million dollars, whatever they do.

The question, slightly altered, that needs to be asked as we gather in our communities of faith, or wherever we meaningfully come together is: what are the people around us worth?

Let me ask it this way: aren’t they worth more than cots and soup kitchen lines and food stamps and humiliating anonymity? Aren’t they worth our figuring out how to pay whatever bills need to be paid to let them be a part of our togetherness?

The questions sound rhetorical until I look at the way our lives get lived out. As I listened to Ginger talk about her conversation with the woman this afternoon, I realized much of what I do, when it comes to reaching out to those folks who are being trampled by life for any number of reasons is because I want to help, but I don’t necessarily do what I do in a way that lets them know I want to include them. When Ginger finished her conversation, the woman said, “I think I would like to come to your church,” and Ginger offered to help her figure out transportation.

Togetherness is not a myth, nor is it a given. In Jesus’ parable of the Great Banquet (one of my personal favorites), the king tells the servants to go out and compel people to come in until the hall was filled. When the disciples questioned if the five loaves and two fishes would be enough to feed everyone, Jesus told them to just start feeding people and trust they would have enough. The way I’ve always imagined the scene is, as the boy’s lunch was passed and the unabashed sharing became obvious, others who had food of their own thought, “Well, I could share my lunch,” and the next thing they knew they had leftovers. When I watch how inclined we are to hang on to what’s ours, I have no doubt that meal was a miracle.

The stories I’ve heard today have reminded me of the value of togetherness.

And the cost, which is whatever we have to share – which is everything.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

happy birthday, stanley

I'm not a big fan of quoting things in a post without making comments of my own. Anything I might post I probably found somewhere else online and is easily available to anyone. But I saw at the Writer's Alamanac that today is Stanley Kunitz' birthday. He would have been 103. He lived to be 100; he hasn't been gone long. I met him several years ago at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (which I wish I could get to again this year). His most popular poem, I suppose, is called "The Layers." I have come back to it again and again because it has much to say to me. Tonight, I offer it without further comment as my birthday gift to a great poet.

The Layers

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written,
I am not done with my changes.

Monday, July 28, 2008

fearful or faithful

As I listened to the news today, I realized our church has a choice to make.

What caught my ear was the story about the man who walked into a church in Knoxville, Tennessee and opened fire on the congregation. He left a four page note in his truck, part of which said he thought he had lost his job because of “liberals and gays.” The Knoxville Police Chief said:

It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that, and his stated hatred of the liberal movement.
My first emotion was one of deep sadness for the dear people in that congregation. As I drove on, I began to think of the similarities between the Knoxville Church and our congregation here is Durham:
  • college town
  • Southern city
  • small congregation in a somewhat secluded setting
  • liberal congregation
and I thought, “We have a choice to make as to whether we will be led, in the coming days, to act on our calling or play to our fears since, if the zip code had been different, that church could have easily been ours.

I was teaching at Winchester High School when the shootings at Columbine took place. In that instance, similarly, we were the same high school in a different zip code. One of the things I loved about the school was the corner on the second floor where all the kids threw their book bags when they got to school. To me, it signified the comfort and safety level of the students. They didn’t expect anyone to steal stuff and, for the most part, no one did. The first day of school after Columbine, the edict came that glorious stack of bags had to be removed because it was a security threat. In their fear, the administration removed the best monument to safety and community on the campus. It didn’t help and it didn’t go unnoticed.

About a week later, one of the other English teachers handed me an essay from one of her students. He was a senior who, for as many days as he had walked into the high school, always wore a long black coat. For that matter, all of his clothes were black. He was reclusive, cynical, intelligent, and often hard to reach. He admitted to all of those things as he described himself in the essay. He also went on to say as he watched the stories on the two boys who did the shootings in Colorado, he was struck by how the descriptions the reporters gave of the boys could very easily have been said of him. And he wondered out loud why he didn’t want to come to school and shoot everyone. He then went on to talk about the teachers who pushed him to be a better writer, about the art and drama classes, about the school community that made him feel safe.

He didn’t say anything about getting rid of the book bags.

Our little church is a wonderful and wounded collection of people who are deeply committed to our God and our city. We are a liberal congregation – on purpose. Many of our community have ended up there because it is a fellowship that feels safe and welcoming. We need to choose to understand our congregation is to be relished rather than defended. If we start posting deacons at the door to keep an eye out for threatening looking people, we will not be taking precautions, but we will be losing part of ourselves. Every Sunday morning, Ginger says, “As we say here at Pilgrim and in the UCC, ‘Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.’”

Whoever you are. Those words are our stack of book bags. We can’t afford to scare ourselves out of that invitation.

One of the stories that sticks with me is of a missionary to Lebanon who was in the States and preparing to return to Beirut. After a speaking engagement, someone said to her, “We will pray for you to be safe.”

“Oh, no,” answered the missionary. “If you pray for our safety, we might never get back to Lebanon. It is not safe. Pray that we will be faithful.”

This Sunday, and the ones to follow, we have a choice to make: be fearful or be faithful. Let us all pray for one another.


Friday, July 25, 2008

with god on our side

I read a thought-provoking post this morning over at The Other Jesus. Greg Garrett, the author, is an acquaintance from years past and a good writer and thinker. His words have kept me thinking all day:
At the risk of beating a dead horse, faith is not really faith if it’s easy. What the Christian tradition teaches us about faith is that we are called to exercise it, that we are called to try to believe in worthy stories—like the story of America, for one.
I appreciate his call for us to be diligently hopeful and faithful and I don’t think my faith in Christ compels me to pledge allegiance to the United States of America. Faith and patriotism are unrelated. And I’m talking about more than the usual discussion of separation of church and state, which mostly revolves around institutional hot button issues. On a personal level, which – for me – includes our local church communities, the call to discipleship – to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God – means to be unaffiliated, ultimately, because it’s too easy for us to make excuses and allowances for “our” side. If, for example, another country was holding hundreds of Americans in the same manner as we are keeping those at Guantánamo imprisoned would we say, “It’s just how they have to act in a post-9/11 world?” Would we sit as quietly as we have for the last seven years?

The answer to both questions is, “No.”

The kind of strange thing is Greg and I kind of end up in the same place, even traveling different roads. Hear him again:
This year, I want to challenge people of faith, whatever their political affiliations, to ask themselves whether Jesus, a victim of political imprisonment, torture, and execution, would be for or against political imprisonment, torture, and execution. I want to ask people of faith to be a people of hope as well. I want to ask us to love, to serve, to witness to the best that is in us, and not the worst.
I agree and I would add that the best in us will not be found in our government and political structure. Hear me clearly: I plan to vote and I hope Barack Obama is our next president for a number of reasons and how we love and serve and witness as people of faith does not swing on who moves into the White House. God is not on our side. The last best example of Christianity in action, on a national scale, was the Civil Rights Movement. Things changed in this country because people of faith, mostly coming from the poor and marginalized in American society, marched with King and others in God’s name, sitting at lunch counters until they were beaten down, choosing not to answer violence with violence, and bringing an unjust nation to a new realization of itself. The legislation and cultural changes that have come since would never have come about had our government and the rich and powerful who influence it most had been left to their own devices.

It seems to me that the church has been most effective down through history when it has been farthest from the halls of wealth and influence. Sure, the institutional church rose to power once Constantine baptized everyone in his army and made Christianity the state religion, but power and effectiveness, in terms of the Community of God we are called to build, are not the same thing. To follow Jesus’ call to discipleship is, in part, to come to the understanding that “Christian nation” is an oxymoron. We are called to be the church -- not the country -- of Jesus Christ. If we want to know where the hope for the next generation is gestating, we would do well to turn our gaze from Washington, or from the pristine suburbs that house many of our most beautiful (and expensive) religious buildings, and start looking for faith in the places Martin looked for those who pledged their allegiance to God: among the homeless, the undocumented, the displaced, the marginalized, the wounded. You know – the people Jesus healed and loved.

In Jesus’ parable of the final scene when nations stand before God, some were affirmed for the way they had lived out God’s call:
I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.'

"Then those 'sheep' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.' (The Message)
The second part of the parable reverses the story and chastises those who didn’t take time or resources to care for those in need. Perhaps in a country – our country – where, for example, 47 million people live without health insurance, we would do well to look across oceans and borders to learn from the rest of the world. We are the most powerful nation on earth, and we are not the world’s last best hope. We may be able to win more gold medals than anyone at the Olympics next month, but we are not Number One in many categories, particularly those that have more to do with compassion than competition. We are better tellers than listeners. We prefer to be in charge rather than in community. As Christians who also happen to be Americans, we do well to remember we are called to be God’s people, not act as though we are the Chosen Ones.

Greg closes his post with good questions:
Let’s show the world what it means to be a people of integrity, faith, and hope.

If not now, when?

If not us, who?
The questions are powerful to me because I choose to read them as a pilgrim, not a patriot.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

treading lightly

For days in a row, now, the sun
has shone brightly on me, making
me begin to believe it is summer:
a season of light. I finished two
two projects in the house yesterday;
today I painted a room that has been
waiting for weeks to be a different
color, and tended to my garden,
watering the small green tomatoes
that hold such promise. I even
made a soup from left overs in the
fridge. I feel awake, aware, and even
useful, and I find it hard not to wait
for the other foot to fall – the foot
that stomps daylight into darkness
and kicks me into free fall, into the
days of unpainted rooms, undone
projects, and unplanted gardens.
“How do you feel?” the doctor asked.
“Like myself,” I answered. Why, then,
do I let myself believe the lie that is
my depression, the lie that says it can
permanently change the weather
of my heart when I know it will
come (and go) like the Dixie storms
that punctuate my Carolina afternoons;
the dark thunder clouds are real and
they are temporary; the sun, however
comes up every morning -- it’s true.


Monday, July 21, 2008

looking good in the neighborhood

At the risk of sounding like a lackey for the Durham Chamber of Commerce, I want to talk about our great neighborhood. Our street is actually on the border between three neighborhoods – Old West Durham (where we actually reside), Watts-Hillandale, and Walltown. Our local weekly newspaper, The Independent, publishes a list of The Best of the Triangle. Here is everything that made the list that is within walking distance (I’m talking three or four blocks here) of our house.

Best of the Triangle: 2008 Readers' Choice winners
The Independent Weekly, June 2008

Best local bookstores
The Regulator (finalist) -- awesome
Nice Price Books (finalist)

Best hair salon in Durham County
Funky Monkey (finalist) – Ginger’s place

Best jewelry store in Durham County

The Bicycle Chain
Best bike shop

Best store to buy eyewear

The Music Loft (finalist)
Best place to buy music gear

Dogstar Tattoo (finalist)
Best tattoo studio
Best place to get pierced

Whole Foods
Best retail cheese selection
Best green business
Best place to people watch (finalist)
Best outdoor dining in Durham County
Best business lunch
Best salad
Best comfort food (finalist)
Best brunch/breakfast (finalist)
Best bagel (finalist)

Sam's Quik Shop
Best retail beer selection(finalist)

Ninth Street Dance
Best dance studio

White Star Laundry & Cleaners (finalist)
Best dry cleaner

Mad Hatter's Bakeshop -- amazing
Best birthday cakes(finalist)
Best desserts (finalist)
Best bakery (finalist)

Best chef in Durham County
Ben Barker @ Magnolia Grill
Amy Tornquist @ Watts Grocery (finalist) --my chef!
Tim Lyons @ Blu Seafood (finalist)

Watts Grocery -- my restaurant!
Best new restaurant in Durham County
Best waitstaff in Durham County (tie)

Blu Seafood & Bar
Best waitstaff in Durham County (finalist)
Best Caribbean cuisine (finalist)

Magnolia Grill
Best waitstaff in Durham County (finalist)

Cosmic Cantina
Best super cheap meal
Best meal after 10 p.m. (finalist)

Elmo's Diner -- Ginger's fave
Best children's menu
Best waitstaff in Durham County (tie)
Best comfort food (finalist)
Best brunch/breakfast (finalist)

Bruegger's Bagels
Best bagel

Best desserts (finalist)

Dain's Place -- I can vouch for all of these
Best burger in Durham County
Best neighborhood bar in Durham County (finalist)
Best place to watch televised ACC in Durham County (finalist)
Best bar food in Durham County (finalist)

Vin Rouge
Best French cuisine (finalist)

Blue Corn Café
Best Mexican/Latin American cuisine in Durham County (finalist)

Dale's Indian Cuisine
Best Indian cuisine (finalist)

The Green Room
-- even Ella can go in
Best place to shoot pool
From burgers to bicycles, tattoos to tiramisu, with all kinds of ethnic food, coffee shops, an old school pool hall, and a great pub with a great burger, all I can say is I love where I live.


P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Friday, July 18, 2008

fear factor

One of the food blogs I read regularly is Smitten Kitchen. I don’t know who writes it, but it is among the most beautiful and accessible of the blogs that take food seriously. In one of her recent posts, she asked people to talk about why they were afraid to cook. Her list set me to thinking about fear in general and, for some reason, my thoughts fell into rhyme.

Fear Factor

It’s my favorite room, but that’s not true for some;
when it comes to the kitchen, those some come undone,
who’re afraid to sauté or to simmer or sear,
who’d opt for some take out and grab a cold beer.

We’re all scared of something – it doesn’t have to be cooking
that makes our palms sweat or sets us to looking
with eyes of suspicion and stares of disdain.
No, it’s much more than food that sets our fears aflame.

The things that are scary go past breads and béarnaise,
beyond cupcakes and corn (you know some call it maize),
to the questions and quandaries that fester and foment
in both fears for a lifetime and fears of the moment.

Some fears are big, like tornadoes or earthquakes;
some fears are small—think of hangnails and toothaches.
A snake or a spider can send some running to hide,
while a few are afraid of things battered and fried.

Some are scared of the dark, or of turbulent weather
And others that N’Sync might just get back together
Some are frightened of hula hoops, hot wings, and horses,
Others scared of their marriages, some of divorces,

Some are scared of Al-Qaeda, some of Al Roker,
Or that they might be doused with their kid’s Super Soaker;
Some are scared of the new, some afraid of the old,
Others fear that their neighborhoods should be more patrolled.

Some are scared they will die, some are scared they will live;
Some are frightened the blood drive will ask them to give.
Just the thought of a needle can give others a chill,
and then there’s the terror of the credit card bill.

The climate is changing, gas prices are rising –
perhaps, that we’re fearful is not so surprising:
nuclear warheads can make us afraid --
that Celine Dion songs are allowed to be played;

Cat-burglars, kidnappings, foreign attacks,
cockroaches, coal mines, that mole on your back;
Outsourcing, outside, and some outboard motors,
slick politicians and party-line voters;

Insurgents, incumbents, wifi, and water,
on particular days – your own sons and daughters;
foreclosures and Fox news, dark streets at night,
lumberjacks, lawyers, and airplane flights;

Kleenex and Clorox, Keanu Reeves movies,
people who still say things like “far out” and “groovy,”
botox and beetles, eviction, ebola,
satellites, cell phones, and sugar-free cola;

Loneliness, failure, new places, old wounds,
arthritis, amnesia, rejection, blue moons,
chemicals, cholera, downed power lines,
clear cutting, kudzu, signs of the times;

TV evangelists, late night news anchors,
hankers and flankers and cankers and bankers,
being buried alive or left somewhere for dead,
hybrids and hotheads and the not-so-well-read;

I’m fearful of stopping lest I leave something out;
I’ve yet to mention Google or gout,
or governments – see, there’s so much to fear:
the Yankees, umbrellas, poodles, cashmere.

Whatever our fears, we all have our reasons
for running and hiding, for living in seasons
of conflict and doubt, of turmoil and stress
because of the things that make life a mess.

The fears are quite real, and so are our choices
to push through the scared and find other voices
To speak to our fears without acquiescing
to all that is frightening, but instead keep ‘em guessing.

Whether frightened of food, or afraid of the dark,
of undersea monsters or dogs that don’t bark,
one simple reminder can keep us prepared:
before you can be brave, you’ve got to be scared.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

small, thanks

Once a month a few of us gather at church for a potluck dinner and discussion. Sometimes we have specific topics; sometimes we don’t. Tonight we were looking at Joy Jordan-Lake’s book, Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous; Ten Alarming Words of Faith. I was fed by the meal, the book, and the discussion.

Joy is a good writer who also happens to be a dear friend. Three of my godchildren live at her house. The book is full of great stories that help to move the discussion of what it means to be a follower of Christ beyond the academic and doctrinal into the messy relational reality of our lives. Though she didn’t tell any stories about me (Ginger makes a bold appearance in the chapter on Holiness), I think Joy has written a hopeful and challenging book.

I had to smile this week when my package of books came from, because one of them – titled, if you can believe it, Oh Shit! It’s Jesus!: The Relevance of Jesus Without All the Religious Crap – only wishes it could be Joy’s book. (The review book is nowhere as edgy as it was trying to be with its title, which does little more, I think, than shock. I have no idea what marketing genius thought that cover would get people to buy it.) Though I think the review book is destined for the remainder bin from Day One, I can only hope Joy’s book gets the reading it deserves, even though the publisher has done little or nothing to promote it.

She works down her top ten list – resurrection, community, abundance, wisdom, holiness, peace, blessedness, worship, forgiveness, hope – with candor and compassion and left all of us sitting around the table talking about how her stories had helped us better articulate our own. Here. she writes about her disappointment in trying to open a food and clothing pantry, which appeared at the time to be futile:

Aware that we had no funding to speak of, and that our opening day had been reason enough to close the world’s finest food pantry for homeless people altogether, I walked home in despair.

I was not meditating on the word worship. Or how it derives from worthship, the th being dropped in the fourteenth century. Or how it’s because God is worthy of our adoration that we worship, and because those made in the image of God are worthy of our respect that we serve. And the –ship of the worth/worship: the understanding that this is something we’re on board with together. This same ideal caused the architects of medieval cathedrals to build sanctuaries in the long shape of a ship – even naming these main sections “naves” from the Latin, navis, for ship: all of us journeying together, with God, to God.

All this I’d managed to forget in one single morning – just me, journeying alone. Sulking. (96)
Somewhere in our discussion, our associate pastor asked, “What word about Jesus makes you nervous?”

Though I didn’t answer first, I knew right away what it was: small.

My world started big when I was little. I grew up in Africa, the son of missionaries. I’ve traveled on three continents and seen amazing things. This summer, my brother and sister-in-law have been in Guatemala and Greece, one of my nephews has been in India, and my dad runs a foundation sending students all over the world on mission. I walk a block to work every morning here in Durham and come home to Ginger. We’re going to Texas next month to lead a retreat, but other than that, I’ll be here in my neighborhood.

It’s hard to take and I’m happy. Both things are true.

One of my recurring thoughts as I was reading The Tangible Kingdom was, “I’m not an evangelist.” One of the things both Ginger and learned in four years of trying to plant a church in Boston was evangelism is not our gift. Sharing the love and grace of God matters to me, but I wear away at you the way the hands of children wear smooth the tail of the library lion: it takes time. This week, I saw a message on the neighborhood listserv from someone new to the neighborhood asking to borrow a lawnmower. I lent them ours and invited them to dinner Sunday night.

Hospitality is my thing.

And, in terms of scale not importance, hospitality works best as a smal thing. As much as I’m tempted to be drawn into the quest for The Grand Gesture of my life, that is not the life to which I’ve been called. I find myself in this line: “I was hungry and you fed me.”

That’s me.

My blogging friend Simon
, who lives in Australia, has a book whose title I love: God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighbourhood. I haven’t read the book because it’s not available in America. Too bad. It’s just been nominated for Christian Book of the Year down under. I would love to go see Simon in Australia. I want to get to Morocco and Prague. I want to go back to Istanbul and Paris. I wish I could do something about what is happening in Darfur or the Congo or Zimbabwe. I look forward to hearing my family’s stories of the things they saw and did on their mission trips and, these days, I’m finding God here in the ‘hood.

My world is small. My God is not. It’s hard to fit those two sentences together sometimes, in similar fashion to Joy’s walking home alone from the food pantry in her then neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., particularly when I look at my life in comparison to friends who are getting to do things – big things – I wish I could do. And they are doing great things. They are not, however, making muffins, sharing lawnmowers, or having my neighbors over for dinner.

This is the life to which I have been called.

Joy, again:
To worship is to prepare for the uncomfortable. For God’s showing up, often not when and how we expect.

To dig out, make room for change and birth and re-birth.

Worship with cymbals and the clatter of clothes-closet racks. In stained-glass cathedrals and dark basements.

Everything we have and we are on the altar, laid down with awe for a God whose ways are not our ways but whose face is all around us.

With gratitude for a God whose love flows like the deep end of the ocean, and whose power is bound to catch us up short, knock us clear down to our knees.
Gratitude, indeed.


P. S. -- There's a new recipe.

Monday, July 14, 2008

putting the "in" in incarnation

Though it was almost thirty years ago that I was on a mission trip in the interior of the Yucatan peninsula, in a little village called Hoctun, I can still see the man vividly.

Our task was to dig wells and put in water pumps to help the subsistence farmers do more than, well, subsist. The ground was covered in rocks and the vegetation was almost as sparse as the rainfall. When we got to our first site, the man was standing in his small field, a cloth bag draped over his shoulder and a pointed stick about five feet long in one hand. He would wedge the stick in between the rocks and twist it to make a small space, reach the other hand into the bag and drop two or three kernels of corn in the hole, and then cover them by scraping the dirt back over with his foot.

“What’s he doing?” I asked.
“Planting corn,” replied the missionary who was our team leader.
“That won’t work,” I said.

The man came to mind again this morning as soon as the gospel reading began: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.” Ginger began her sermon by describing how the Palestinian farmer of that time would have had the bag over his shoulder and would have broadcast the seed by the handful over the ground around him, letting the seed fall wherever it might.

(A short break so you can watch the best telling of this parable I know – and the song is killer, too.)

It makes for great theater, but my feeling about that farmer is the same I felt back in Mexico: it won’t work, which makes the fact that it was Jesus’ metaphor for how the Community of God (I’m still chasing a better word for kingdom) grows downright perplexing, particularly when I take myself back to what we went to do for those three weeks in the Yucatan.

We went to teach them to farm differently. We brought diggers (by that I mean people to dig), tools, water pumps, and all kinds of things to offer them the chance to not have to live on a stick and prayer. Underneath the rocks was fertile soil. The water would mean they could grow vegetables they had grown before. They could also keep chickens and rabbits. Part of our message was, “If you want your farming to be productive, you’ve got to use more efficient technology and practices.”

Don’t get me wrong. They needed the help. I think we did good work during those three weeks. I think we helped to save some lives. But I’m thinking in metaphor here. Jesus uses the image of a subsistence farmer to represent how the Community of God takes root and grows, or doesn’t in us. I find deep comfort, somehow, in knowing our God whose name is Love, is full of grace and hope and even power, and is marvelously inefficient. If the world is a farm, then God doesn’t appear to think a tractor’s sexy. The crop, instead, gets planted one randomly dropped seed as a time.

The whole of Matthew 13 is filled with parables that are somewhat counter intuitive by most current standards. Jesus talks about a farmer doesn’t pull any weeds and just harvests everything, then of the Community of God being like mustard seeds and yeast (both rather mysterious in their workings), then on to treasure hunters on land and sea willing to give up everything for their quest, and then a fishing version of the inclusive farmer, with the fishermen hauling everything into the nets. We read the stories and then we, like the disciples come looking for explanations. Much of the time, the explanations I’ve heard move to the parts of the parables that deal with who gets left out: the soils that don’t measure up, the tares to be bundled and burned, the fish to be tossed out.

I’m not sure the culling comes quite so easily.

The folks at sent me some books to read and write about (who am I to turn down free books?). I was a couple of chapters into The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay when I heard Ginger’s sermon on the Sower, and I got a little past halfway sitting at Panera yesterday afternoon. The authors live up in the Pacific Northwest and are working out a new model for Christian community that has more incarnation and less institution than the church. Rather than sitting in sanctuaries waiting for people to join them, they are out in the pubs with the public, working hard to incarnate Christ’s love to those who have been burned by religion or who know nothing of faith. Though much of their critique is aimed at the evangelical church and uses a vocabulary with which I’ve lost much of my familiarity, I appreciate their passion and their willingness to work out their faith in public. The book is giving me much on which to ruminate and I think it’s worth the read.

As far as where some of their words took me, I got hung up on one sentence. In the midst of their great stuff on how ministers and other Christians needed to get out of the building to share Christ’s love and how they needed to build relationship rather than connect to convert, they wrote of the people with whom they found resonance:

They think the homosexuals’ struggle for sexual clarity isn’t that much different in God’s sight than the heterosexuals’ struggle against pornography.
Man, there’s a lot to unpack in that sentence.

First – and to the point: there’s a big difference between homosexuality and pornography. Being gay or lesbian doesn’t destroy relationships and individuals; pornography does.

Second, what the hell is “sexual clarity”? My gay and lesbian friends are struggling because they aren’t accepted, not because they’re confused.

Third, when we don’t welcome everyone with the love of Christ, we’re missing what it means to be a part of the Community of God. There’s a lot of good gay and lesbian soil out there folks where God’s love is growing strong, in spite of the rejection and ridicule that comes from many of those who call themselves Christian.

One of the themes in the parables is God’s willingness to scatter love everywhere and to take in every growing thing. Yes, the parables talk about sorting things out at the end. I struggle with those parts of the stories because I think it’s completely consistent with the image of God we’re given through Jesus for God to get to the sorting out and just yell, “All ye, all ye, ox in free.” (At least I know I’d be foolish to count on God to agree with me on who should be asked to leave.)

I’m not trying to rail on the guys who wrote the book. I highlighted the sentence because it hurt. Two thousand years on and we still don’t know how to love one another very well. What I know about love is it is fundamentally who God is; it looks the same when it is shared between two people, whether they are gay or straight; and it feels the same to me as I give love and receive love from both my gay and straight friends. When we speak of Jesus, we often say he was “fully human.” I think he loved people in a way that allowed them to be fully human as well. If our call is to create incarnational community, then we are called to love each other into wholeness, which mostly means I love you into becoming the person you feel called to be, not who I imagine you could become.

When it comes time for the sorting, if God says to me I missed the point because I let too many people in, I will smile and take the hit. What would break my heart would be if God said, “I had room for everyone. Why did you keep closing the door?”


Sunday, July 13, 2008

splendid savings

When I leave church on Sunday, The Splendid Table is playing on our local NPR station. The show is sometimes a little too don't-we-all-love-our-villas-in-Tuscany for me to take, but most of the time they offer interesting conversations and recipes. It's great for a Sunday afternoon.

Today the host, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, gave a brief excursus on "how to eat like a gourmet for less money" that I found interesting. It seemed worth passing along.

  • Look for the sell by date and if it’s today barter; ask for 50 % off – they have to sell it. Then either use it that day or freeze it.
  • If you don’t cook, learn to do three simple easy things: make a simple salad with a homemade dressing; learn to boil up some grains; or learn to grill vegetables. If you can do those three things you can put together a meal that is low on the food chain, super cheap, and super healthy.
  • Every steak or chop starts out as a roast; buy the roast and cut your own steaks or chops and you can save some money.
  • If you want ethnic ingredients, go to the neighborhoods where these cultures shop. You’ll save money and get a good lunch out of the deal.
  • Buy imported food and wines where the dollar still has some strength and real estate is still inexpensive like Chile or Argentina.
I know we don't all want to eat like gourmets and I like the idea of thinking creatively about how good food and affordable food don't have to be mutually exclusive. Again, not terribly profound, but worth passing along.

GIve me a couple of days and I'll t ry to come up with some accompanying recipes.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

grade and grace

Two things have spoken to me this week: music and muffins.

As I’ve mentioned before, part of my daily ritual at the restaurant is to make the English muffins that serve as the buns for our hamburgers and shrimp burgers. The recipe takes time, so as I’m walking in at eight each morning I start picking up bowls and whisks and measuring cups so I can get the dough going immediately. The recipe breaks into five periods of activity, with corresponding periods of waiting:

I mix warm water, yeast, and honey; then mix in four cups of flour and then two more; then I mix together the eggs, salt, and oil and add that to the flour mixture; then I mix in another cup and a half of flour.

Then I wait for about thirty minutes until it gets bubbly.

The second period of activity involves adding five more cups of flour and stirring for about three minutes (to activate the glutens).

Then I wait until the dough doubles – also about a half an hour.

Stage three involves kneading the dough, which includes probably adding another four to six cups of flour and working the dough for five or six minutes.

Then I wait until the dough doubles again, also about thirty minutes.

The next step is to roll and cut the muffins and put them on baking sheets.

Then I wait about fifteen minutes to let them rise again.

Finally, I toast the tops and bottoms of the muffins on the flat top (with a bit of butter) and put them in the oven for about eight minutes. If all goes well, the muffins are ready when the kitchen opens at eleven for lunch. Though the recipe is clear, each stage calls for choices. I have to decide when the dough looks and feels right; when I stop mixing or kneading has an effect on the final product. This week I have paid particular attention, trying to make the muffins better. Yesterday and today I achieved a muffonic convergence, as I like to call it: pretty damn perfect muffins.

“This is why I love this job,” I said to my cooking partner, Cort. “You get to feel like you’ve done something well and then move on to what you need to do next.”

Even though the art I create is incredibly temporary – I put the plate together and you eat it, all in the span of minutes – it is also incredibly gratifying because it is quantifiable: I know what a great plate of fish tacos ought to taste and look like (in that order) and, even though I make about twenty taco plates everyday at lunch, each one requires attention as its own unique creation.

I work in a kitchen, not on an assembly line.

As I’ve also mentioned before, much of our non-culinary conversation during the day swirls around music, either bouncing off the songs playing on the boom box, or rising up out of our past experiences. Somewhere in the course of the day, Billy Joel took his turn as our topic and about the time I was going to say that my brother, who is a musician, said way back in the early eighties that he thought Joel’s music would be enduring, Dave said, “You know the reason he keeps touring and trying so hard is he’s pissed he’s never gotten the recognition as one of the great guys of rock and roll.” (Which makes this clip interesting.)

I never told the story about my brother. I spent the rest of the shift thinking about Billy Joel feeling as though he has somehow come up short. I thought about his song, “Angry Young Man”:

I believe I've passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight
I once believed in causes too
I had my pointless point of view
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right

And there's always a place for the angry young man
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand
And he's never been able to learn from mistakes
So he can't understand why his heart always breaks
And his honor is pure and his courage is well
And he's fair and he's true and he's boring as hell
And he'll go to the grave as an angry old man
OK, one more thing I’ve mentioned before in this blog: I live with my own sense of worthlessness, with not feeling as though I’m enough. One of the big reasons I’m no longer a high school teacher is I hated giving grades. The essential element of teaching, for me, was the relational connection I made in the classroom. I asked the kids to take risks, to be themselves, to trust me.

And then I gave them a grade: “Thanks for trying; you get a C.”

I couldn’t do it because of the way I internalized the grades I received along the way – and I do mean I received: they weren’t grading the paper; they were grading me. Cooking is different for me. I realize those for whom I cook may not like everything, but they aren’t grading me. The payoff, for me, is in the creation and presentation of the dishes (when I’m at work) and in the sharing of the meal as we sit together around the table when I’m at home.

The difference is as subtle and as profound as my typing grace when I meant to type grade in the previous paragraph. One letter changes everything.


The grace is find in my job comes from being able to claim my competence, to to grow and learn, and to both flourish and fail with abandon. It not that failure is without consequence it’s that I’m doing what I love, so I can weather the storm. And so I heard Dave’s words about Billy Joel with sadness because he’s doing what he loves and lives with grades more than grace. In his biggest hit, Joel wrote:
Don’t go changing to try and please me
You never let me down before . . .
I took the good times, I’ll take the bad times
I love you just the way you are
Billy, if you’re listening, you’ve given some of the best words and music to the soundtrack of our lives. Your songs are alive at our house in ways I can’t even begin to tell you. I hope you can get from grades to grace.

Me, too.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

they're playing our song

Where there’s a restaurant kitchen, there’s a radio that, for whatever reason, tends to end up on the “Classis Rock” station, if not one that plays “the Oldies.” Having graduated from high school and college in the Seventies, much of what passes for “classic” was the soundtrack of my adolescence (this was the number one song my senior year in high school) and, though some of it is worth repeating, I had not planned to ever again have to hear

because love grows
where my rosemary goes
and nobody knows like me
(Quick – name that band.)

My current kitchen is filled with cooks who know and play music, so the old songs provide us with conversation starters, comic relief, trivia questions, and the chance to both critique and sing along. We’ve had a couple of good laughs listening to lyrics that, well, sound kind of creepy in today’s world:
I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan
won’t you hop inside my car
(“Vehicle” – name that band.)

It sounds destined to become the Amber Alert theme song. And then there’s these lines from “In the Summertime”:
have a drink have a drive
go out and see what you can find
(Once more – the band?)

My favorite unexpected use of a word in a rock and roll song goes to Rick Springfield for “Jesse’s Girl”:
I feel so dirty when they start talking cute
Want to tell her that I love her but the point is probably moot
I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.

One of my favorite things about our conversations is how we each have had to own up to some guilty pleasures. For all the superiority we can so easily muster, we’ve all had to come clean about the songs we love to hear, even when they aren’t necessarily cool to own up to. After all, pop music is about infecting our brains and hearts with melodies (sometimes cheesy) that won’t let go. I have to own up to this one and this one, at least. Oh – and this one. OK, one more.

One of the things that has struck me is how often I can sing along with the songs – even the ones I don’t like. Maybe it’s the power of radio and repetition, maybe there’s some deeper reason, but my mind is full of the words and music that have filled my days from then until now. I’m also struck with how hard it is to say I like these old songs in a room full of guys who need to make sure we all know we’re above that sort of thing. It’s easier to be a snob than it is to be one of the general public. I want to feel cool, not common.

The truth is while the Beatles were coming apart the Carpenters were only just beginning and I owned both records. I bought Joni Mitchell and Neil Diamond and stayed up late in the dorm room playing America songs with friends, even though we had no idea what it meant that “there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.” But in the hierarchy of hipness, it’s cooler to talk about Tommy, or to know the deep cuts on albums by the Kinks, or to be able to dive off and talk about the Plimsoles and the Pogues. I can keep up for awhile, but I’m just not that cool.

One of the dangers of life on the liberal end of the theological spectrum is falling prey to thinking that our end is where the cool, enlightened people are. That sentence carries a stronger air of superiority than I intend to convey, but I can’t come up with another way to say it. And it may feel the same way at the other end of the continuum. I don’t know because I don’t live there.

The guys in the kitchen aren’t trying to belittle anyone, in fact, our combined musical tastes run the gamut, yet there’s a certain level of musical acumen expected if you want to be taken seriously as a part of the conversation and that, ultimately becomes at least somewhat exclusive. When it comes to what I sing while I’m slicing onions, the ramifications of rock don’t really matter; they’re going to play the same ten songs again tomorrow. When it comes to life in the larger context, how easily I make it to sing along with me or how willing I am to join in with someone else becomes more critical. Harmony and humility, it seems, are essential partners.

I’ve ended up getting a little heavier than perhaps the story of our kitchen singing can hold. Somewhere during the day today, we moved from snarping on the songs to singing along. It just seemed like something worth noting and carrying home.


Sunday, July 06, 2008

of cupcakes and communion

Our house sits on the border between two neighborhoods, Old West Durham and Watts-Hillandale. The latter has a Fourth of July parade that goes back about sixty years. We even made the news:

The line that stuck with me from the piece was the parade is "an unintentional tradition." The couple that started it were looking for a way to keep their kids from getting bored during the summer and read an article in a parenting magazine that suggested a parade. Sixty some years ago, they were trying to do something fun with the kids and this year over eight hundred people showed up to march and watch and hang out and eat cupcakes. Though we were closed this week for vacation and general maintenance, our restaurant handed out almost seven hundred cupcakes (we made them at the catering shop) to help celebrate the day and the neighborhood. Here we are in action:

(The Chef-Owner of the restaurant is handing out the vanilla ones, her daughter is in the middle, and I'm in charge of the chocolate.)

We had Communion today, as we do the first Sunday of every month, which is, perhaps, my favorite part of worship. I did wonder as I ate and drank today if Jesus might have instigated an unintentional tradition as he served the bread and wine to those with whom he had shared most intimately. The question is valuable to me because the meal is all the more meaningful if it grew out of the power of the present tense -- those disciples eating together to remember and passing on the memory -- rather than as planned repetition: The First Annual Communion Celebration.

I just finished reading The Shack (which I will talk about more along the way). One of the things God says to Mack, the protagonist, at the end of the book is, "It's not about rituals." The comment caught me because I've often spoken of the value of ritual ("meaningful repetition") over tradition ("meaningless repetition"). What comes to me in all of this is unless what we share in the present, whether cupcakes or Communion, is resonant and relational in the present, all the ritual and repetition in the world won't breathe any life into it. Last year's loaves are stale, any way you look at it.

I'm not much of a Fourth flag waver; handing out cupcakes to little kids and watching them dive into the icing was what made the day for me. I even saw some of them at the Farmers' Market yesterday and somehow felt connected. What grabs me most about Communion is it is a table where all Christians have eaten, eat now, and will eat the meals to come. More than ritual, it is about connection. A place for everyone, and food, too.

Many years ago, my friend Ken Hugghins talked about reading the gospel accounts and, after reading Jesus saying, "I will not drink of this cup until I drink it with you in the kingdom of God," thinking we should all raise our glasses and say, "Here's to the day." That phrase led my friend Billy and I to write a song with that title. It comes close to being one of my favorites of what I have written.

pieces of life laid on the table
here is the blood poured out in love
fill this cup raise it up
here's to the day my friend

time draws a line down innocent faces
tears mark the dreams that never came home
so you'll say goodbye say goodnight
here's to the day remember

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

gather in close now cling to each other
sing to the night you don't sing alone
fill this cup raise it up
here's to the day remember
The intention of ritual that matters most is not in the ones at the beginning, but in those of us who keep handing down what we were given, as Paul says, "I will tell it to you as it was told to me . . . ." Would that we could eat and drink around the Table with the abandon and joy of those kids with icing from ear to ear.


Saturday, July 05, 2008

faith-talking people

When we moved to Durham, we didn’t buy a house right away, mostly because we still owned in the free-falling New England housing market that we had to sell. We rented a place for the first three months that, in hindsight, ended up letting us get to know our new hometown before we decided where we wanted to live. We spent many afternoons driving up and down streets, trying to get a sense of what was available, what connected to what, and what felt like it could be home. We ended up in the perfect place for us: an urban neighborhood within walking distance from almost everything with a variety of people, a house that didn’t require too much work, and room for the pooch to run in the back yard. I thought about our process last week when I read an article in The Economist called “The Big Sort” that talks about how many of us Americans – at least the ones with means – are segregating ourselves into like-minded communities:

Americans move house often, usually for practical reasons. Before choosing a new neighbourhood, they drive around it. They notice whether it has gun shops, evangelical churches and “W” bumper stickers, or yoga classes and organic fruit shops. Perhaps unconsciously, they are drawn to places where they expect to fit in.

Where you live is partly determined by where you can afford to live, of course. But the “Big Sort” does not seem to be driven by economic factors. Income is a poor predictor of party preference in America; cultural factors matter more. For Americans who move to a new city, the choice is often not between a posh neighbourhood and a run-down one, but between several different neighbourhoods that are economically similar but culturally distinct.

For example, someone who works in Washington, DC, but wants to live in a suburb can commute either from Maryland or northern Virginia. Both states have equally leafy streets and good schools. But Virginia has plenty of conservative neighbourhoods with megachurches and Bushites you've heard of living on your block. In the posh suburbs of Maryland, by contrast, Republicans are as rare as unkempt lawns and yard signs proclaim that war is not the answer but Barack Obama might be.
The article goes on to describe some of the consequences of our grouping:
Because Americans are so mobile, even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbours leads over time to severe segregation. An accountant in Texas, for example, can live anywhere she wants, so the liberal ones move to the funky bits of Austin while the more conservative ones prefer the exurbs of Dallas. Conservative Californians can find refuge in Orange County or the Central Valley.

Over time, this means Americans are ever less exposed to contrary views. In a book called “Hearing the Other Side”, Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania crunched survey data from 12 countries and found that Americans were the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them.
I can’t help but think talking about faith with those who disagree with us can’t be far behind. With the notable and wonderful exception of Borg and Wright’s book, The Meaning of Jesus, which grew out of both their faith and their friendship, I don’t know of many models of mutuality and maturity when it comes to talking across fences to one another. We know how to yell. We know how to cast stones and aspersions. We even know how to blog. And we struggle to embrace each other as disciples of Jesus together. It’s easier to stay within our smaller circle, though I’m not sure that’s all there is to it.

Here’s what I know about me. I grew up Southern Baptist and have found my way to the United Church of Christ, which comes pretty close to running the gamut of the American Christian continuum. I haven’t been a member of a Baptist church in almost twenty years. This summer, thanks to relational connections that have weathered well over time, Ginger and I are going back to Texas to lead the Baptist Laity Institute with Gordon and Jeanene Atkinson. Though I’m moving back into circles of my past, I’m also moving into unfamiliar territory in many ways. I’m a bit scared, actually.

How odd to think about entering into Christian community and wondering how I will welcome and be welcomed. I should not be so out of practice.

Many years ago, I was leading a small group on a youth retreat and asked the kids to write down the names of those they knew who were not Christians. One girl – a senior in high school – looked perplexed and said, “I live in a Christian family, I go to a Christian school, and I go to church; I don’t know anyone who isn’t a Christian.”

I felt sad because she was missing so much of life.

I live in a Christian home, go to work in (how shall I say?) an environment that doesn’t particularly fosters more profanity than prophecy, and I go to church – my church. I try to catch up with the vocabulary that blows around on the blogs – missional, emergent, incarnational – and I recognize some of it, wrestle with some of it, resonate at times, and wonder how reading and listening to people who profess the same faith as I feels like working with a foreign language?

Each Sunday in our worship, as we move from, as we say, “having gathered to preparing our hearts for worship,” Ginger says, “Take a deep breath – now let it out; breathe in the breath of God, breathe out the love of God.” There’s a place to start. The next step, it seems to me, is to listen before I begin staking my claim. If we are one in the Spirit, I must trust I am, like everyone else in the room, coming from God and going to God. I am not God’s defender or chief spokesperson; I am called to welcome everyone with the same open arms Jesus held out to all comers.

Now, I need to get out of my neighborhood and live out my words.


Friday, July 04, 2008

one more time

I've been trying to think about what to write off and on all day. Tonight, after the Durham Bulls game, they had fireworks to "patriotic" music -- Springsteen's "Born in the USA," Lee Greenwood's "I'm Proud to be an American," Ray Charles singing "America," Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," and Toby Keith's "I am a Soldier -- played sequentially without any hint of irony. The songs made me think of my post last year at this time and, at the risk of being either redundant or self-indulgent, I'm re-posting it tonight, mostly because not a whole lot feels different between then and now.


I do a fair amount of listening to country music, but I’m always a little gun shy of my radio this time of year (no pun intended) because the closer we get to the fireworks the more often they play Toby Keith singing about putting a boot up anyone’s ass who disagrees with our government, or – inevitably – I’ll hear Lee Greenwood sing about being proud to be an American.

I’m not proud to be an American.

I can’t be since I had nothing to do with my being an American. I can take pride in things I’ve cooked or written because I did those things, but I’m an American by circumstance, by geography, by fortune. I feel grateful. I feel responsible. But I’m not proud.

Another way to think about pride is to define it as arrogance: rather than it being a sense of accomplishment, it is a sense of entitlement. I’m concerned for our country because I think the latter is the image we project to much of the world, whether we intend to or not. We come across as though we see ourselves as The One Who Know Everything or The Ones Who Are Convinced Everyone Wants To Be Just Like Us.

The analogy that comes to mind is a scene from The Breakfast Club after all the kids (Brian the science nerd, Andrew the athlete, John the angry kid, Allison the outcast, and Claire the popular girl) have become vulnerable with one another:
BRIAN: Um, I was just thinking, I mean. I know it's kind of a weird time, but I was just wondering, um, what is gonna happen to us on Monday? When we're all together again? I mean I consider you guys my friends, I'm not wrong, am I?
BRIAN: So, so on Monday...what happens?
CLAIRE: Are we still friends, you mean? If we're friends now, that is?
BRIAN: Yeah...
CLAIRE: Do you want the truth?
BRIAN: Yeah, I want the truth...
CLAIRE: I don't think so...
ALLISON: Well, do you mean all of us or just John?
CLAIRE: With all of you...
ANDREW: That's a real nice attitude, Claire!
The scene continues:
BRIAN: I just wanna tell, each of you, that I wouldn't do that...I wouldn't and I will not! 'Cause I think that's real shitty...
CLAIRE: Your friends wouldn't mind because they look up to us...

Brian laughs at her.

BRIAN: You're so conceited, Claire. You're so conceited. You're so, like, full of yourself, why are you like that?
To turn the world into a high school detention hall may seem simplistic, but hear me out. We are a lot like Claire: she’s not mean or vindictive; she is uninformed and arrogant. She has been taught she’s better than others and has not heard voices telling her otherwise until that Saturday in detention. (Wouldn't that make a great Security Council ice-breaker: OK, if your country was a character in The Breakfast Club, which one would it be?)

When we were in Greece and Turkey last year, almost every hotel had CNN International on the television. The same alleged news organization that fills our homes with endless teen drama queens and pontificating pundits has an international channel that is informative and articulate. I can only assume they don’t want us to see it lest we become informed and realize the world is not what we think it is. We are being taught not to question, not to act, even not to care.

Almost twenty five years ago Little Steven Van Zandt, of E Street Band and Sopranos fame, wrote a song called “I am a Patriot,” which I first heard on Jackson Browne’s wonderful 1989 record, World in Motion. In the video clip I found of Little Steven, he makes an impassioned and linguistically colorful introduction to the song, imploring his audience to question everything and then he sings:
And the river opens for the righteous, someday

I was walking with my brother
And he wondered what was on my mind
I said what I believe in my soul
It ain't what I see with my eyes
And we can't turn our backs this time

I am a patriot and I love my country
Because my country is all I know
I want to be with my family
With people who understand me
I got nowhere else to go
I am a patriot

And the river opens for the righteous, someday

I was talking with my sister
She looked so fine
I said baby what's on your mind
She said I want to run like the lion
Released from the cages
Released from the rages
Burning in my heart tonight

I am a patriot and I love my country
Because my country is all I know

And I ain't no communist,
And I ain't no capitalist
And I ain't no socialist
and I sure ain't no imperialist
And I ain't no democrat
And I ain't no republican either
And I only know one party
and its name is freedom
I am a patriot

And the river opens for the righteous, someday
I love the honesty of the song: “I am a patriot and I love my country because my country is all I know.” Van Zandt names our love of family and want of security right along with our call to question what is going on and work for justice. My friend Gene pastors a church that talks about Life Mission Questions, which I find wonderfully resonant. The answers we find, my friends, are only as good as our questions. In that spirit, I have a few I think we need to ask more emphatically.
  • How can we hold people indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay without telling them or anyone else why and then talk about human rights to other countries?
  • How can we complain about countries seeking nuclear power and/or weapons, even threatening war if they continue, when we have them and intend to keep them?
  • How can we continue to staff military bases in countries all over the world when we would never let anyone set up a base on our soil?
  • How can we spend a billion dollars a week on war and not have universal health care our citizens?
  • How can we work to end terrorism without working passionately and relentlessly to end poverty?
  • Why do our presidential candidates have to raise millions of dollars to get elected?
  • Why don’t we think of the other countries of the world as colleagues rather than subordinates?
  • Why aren’t the voices of healthy dissent louder in our country?
  • Why are all our issues described as polarities?
  • Why must everything be either red or blue?
  • Where are the courageous leaders who are willing to do something other than raise money, worry about being electable, and pander to multinational corporations?
  • Where are the real journalists?
Feel free to add your own.

I am a patriot and I do love my country, even though it’s not all I know. I do think the river will open for the righteous someday and, as Martin said, justice will roll down like water. Liberty and justice for all – all the world.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

cooking acoustics

I begin the lunch shift every morning by baking. We make English muffins everyday to serve as the buns for our hamburgers and shrimp burgers. If I don’t start as soon as I walk in at eight they aren’t ready when lunch begins at eleven.

Cooking and baking are two different things. Cooking is improvisational theater: you prepare, you gather all the ingredients around you, and then you wait for someone to call out the elements they want in the performance they’ve ordered. Good recipes are suggestions, relying on the cook to trust his or her senses to make sure the dish turns out as it should. Baking is science. The best bakers don’t just measure ingredients; they weigh them. If the dough is supposed to rise for thirty minutes that means you better have the timer set, or else the bread won’t be what you were hoping for.

My muffin making, therefore, calls me to hone skills that aren’t in my regular set. I’ve gotten pretty good at the muffins, but there is much more to learn. Take, for example, the conversation that took place a few days ago as I was kneading the dough. The delivery guy came with the sourdough bread we buy from a local baker, which led to a discussion about a bakery that had relocated. I asked it their bread was good.

“They do a good job, but the bread has never been the same since they left the old building,” our Chef de Cuisine replied, going on to explain that the bread is affected by the whole room, not just the baker and his recipe. “It’s the bricks in the walls, the size of the room, the way the room holds temperature, the ovens and other stuff. You have to learn how to make bread in that room; recipes don’t always travel well.”

“Sort of cooking acoustics,” I said. It’s not that it’s different bread, just that the room affects how the dough grows and develops.

The conversation has kept me thinking about context and what It means to be who we are where we are. I’m playing a new room these days with our move to Durham. The acoustics of life have changed; things don’t rise or fall the way they did in Marshfield, or in Charlestown before that. I’m still me and I’m trying to figure out how the recipe of my life plays out in these new surroundings, and how I will grow and develop in these days.

I’m mindful, in the rise and fall of my life, that six months after our move to Marshfield my depression got the best of me. In the years that followed, I’ve worked hard to understand the taste and texture of the darkness, if you will, and to prepare myself for the difficult improvisation needed to survive. Now, six months into our move to Durham, I’m struggling again. I’m not saying the cause and effect is quite so clear cut as I am saying I’m living through something that carries some resonance with where I have been before. I know this recipe. Even in a different room, I know what I need (knead?) to live through this.

One day, the baker in the bigger room will have baked there long enough for the aromas of yeast and flour to permeate the bricks that feel so new now. One day, he will know how the air circulates to let the dough proof in the perfect place to make loaves that are delicious and consistent. The only way from here to that day is to keep baking morning after morning, adjusting to the cooking acoustics and finding a resonance that runs deeper than change and circumstance.

Me, too.