Sunday, November 30, 2008

advent journal: fifty-two christmases

It’s been a long time since I felt ready.

Perhaps it’s because this past year has been one of settling in, rather than moving on. Maybe it’s because I’m an hour and a half away from December and I don’t feel depressed (which is new for this time of year – at least in recent memory). Then again, it could be because I’ve spent the better part of the year working hard at my job and not reading as much as I’m accustomed to do, or writing as much as I wanted, and I’m ready for a centering season to remind me who I am and who I want to become. Perhaps all of the above are true. What I know is I am stepping into the season with energy and expectation, rather than the desperation of Advents past, which is enough to release a river of gratitude.

I feel awake. I feel alive. I feel thankful. And I’m determined to read.

My practice in Advent has been to pick a couple of books as traveling companions, and I usually chose ones of a theological nature. This year, I invited one and one invited me to take a bit of a different road to Bethlehem. My friends Lori and Terry gave me God: stories, which is a collection of short stories that have spiritual themes edited by C. Michael Curtis. From my bookshelf, I chose The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates, a book I don’t remember acquiring. I want to grow as a person, a Christian, a writer, and a reader during these days, and I’m hopeful my traveling companions will help me find my way.

I was the prophet today during worship, as I am each Sunday of Advent, walking down the aisle singing, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” and then delivering the prophetic passage for the day, which was Isaiah 64:1-9. Isaiah’s prayer/sermon was first spoken during the Babylonian exile during a time when the people of God had chosen to be held captive by their fear rather than being compelled by their calling. It’s not one of the passages that rings with resonance because of a phrase made famous; it’s not even that easy to understand in some places.

The opening story in Curtis’ book is “Exodus” by James Baldwin. It centers around Florence, the daughter of a freed slave who, after hearing her mother’s story of walking off the plantation one day, dreams of the day of her exit, and finally chooses it, even though she must leave her mother on her death bed.

Oates’ tells first of “District School #7, Niagara County, New York,” the one room schoolhouse where she began her education and learned to read. Though her recollections gave me pause to reflect on my first school days, she described a world I have never known.

I was not moved, particularly, by any of the stories I read today. I didn’t come away with a quote or anecdote to share or remember. All three feel like people who get on the bus at your stop and ride with you awhile, rather than ture traveling companions. And so I’ve taken time to notice them a bit, in the same way I used to study people riding on the bus in hopes of remembering them for characters in my stories at a later time. I see a story of a prophet calling out to people who feel trapped and have allowed themselves to resign to it; a woman who feels trapped and chooses to break out at great cost; and a woman who looks back on a trap she escaped without knowing she was ever in it. When I look at the stories that way, I’m familiar with all three, for I have stories to tell of living in all three conditions.

As a high school student I learned about the arc of a story, which had not changed by the time I became a high school English teacher: introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, denoument – all of it driven by conflict (person vs. person, person vs. nature or technology, person vs. his or herself). Tonight I start my Advent story with much conflict to speak of. Since I’ve been using a bus metaphor, so I’ll stick with it, for now. My story opens on a season of open road, riding on a bus with two books I don’t know well on a journey that leads to an ending I already know.

This ought to be riveting, don’t you think?

I used to play golf. My last summer of college was the best of my golfing career. The reason was we played everyday. A group of us took early classes and then headed for the links every afternoon. Since it was summer in Waco, we had no trouble getting a tee time; it was one hundred and fifty degrees. Playing the same course everyday gave me a chance to grow as a golfer because I learned from both my mistakes and my successes. That summer – and only that summer – I was an under 90 golfer.

After fifty-two Christmases, there are still things for me to learn from walking the same road to Bethlehem, singing the same songs, hearing the same words, and welcoming Jesus into our hearts and our world, again. Well, that’s not exactly right. I will do well to remember the destination may be the same, but the journey will not. I am starting from a different place, both physically and personally, and I have some different companions. And I feel ready, which, as I said, is a new starting place for me.

We’ll see where the story goes.


Friday, November 28, 2008

dinner conversations

I’m not sure what it is – the pie, the lazy day, my thankful state of mind and heart, the fact that other blogs are posting poems – but I have landed on a couple of great poems this week. Today’s offering comes from another one of my favorites, Mary Oliver. I have posted her poetry previously here, here, and here. I found this one as the Thanksgiving Day post at The Writer’s Almanac.

Winter and the Nuthatch
Mary Oliver

Once or twice and maybe again, who knows,
the timid nuthatch will come to me
if I stand still, with something good to eat in my hand.
The first time he did it
he landed smack on his belly, as though
the legs wouldn't cooperate. The next time
he was bolder. Then he became absolutely
wild about those walnuts.

But there was a morning I came late and, guess what,
the nuthatch was flying into a stranger's hand.
To speak plainly, I felt betrayed.
I wanted to say: Mister,
that nuthatch and I have a relationship.
It took hours of standing in the snow
before he would drop from the tree and trust my fingers.
But I didn't say anything.
Nobody owns the sky or the trees.
Nobody owns the hearts of birds.
Still, being human and partial therefore to my own
though not resentful of others fashioning theirs—

I'll come tomorrow, I believe, quite early.
This semester we have worked hard to get the restaurant at Duke off the ground. Part of that work for me, besides cooking, has been to get out into the dining room and make some sort of connections with the students who come to eat. I’m pretty good with names, so, over the course of the last couple of months, I’ve managed to remember the names of thirty students or so who are regulars and they know my name (since I’m wearing a name tag.) Reading this poem reminded me that acquaintance and allegiance are not the same things. The connection between us looks different from each side. They are customers to me – people I want to like the food and the place and come back; I am a cook at their college.

I am planting roots here and they are passing through.

When I was born, the population of the world was about 2.8 billion people. The world population clock says four billion people have joined our ranks while I’ve been on the planet and it won’t be long before we top 7 billion folks finding their way around the world. Even Kevin Bacon can’t be connected to all of them. The sheer immensity of our population feeds the sense of wonder that grows in me as I read Oliver’s words and imagine the little bird coming down to land on her finger for food, creating a moment in which the enormity of the universe is distilled in the preciseness of the moment. In like manner, the incidental contact that happens over dinner between the students and me carries the same sense of wonder that we could find each other in a world of seven billion people, even for a moment. Still, being human, I think many of those moments are lost on us. We don’t realize our brush with eternity in passing conversation over dinner.

And, thank God, some days we do.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

saying thanks in the dark

After a day full of thanks and food, I sat down to write and was found, once more, by one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, W. S. Merwin. (Thanks, Christine.)


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

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

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

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

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.
Reading the poem again – particularly that last two lines – has brought me to a new conclusion: the opposite of fear is not courage, but gratitude. We are most fully human when we are most deeply grateful.

One of our Thanksgiving traditions is to go around the table before we eat and each offer something for which we are thankful. My friend Terry, who plays harmonica on my Christmas story, said he learned again this year how much joy and sorrow are connected and was thankful to be living in the middle of them. Everyone around our table was acquainted with grief, as I’m sure was true wherever meals were shared today. Sorrow and sadness are ubiquitous in our world. Therefore, if Terry is right (and I’m betting he is), joy is just as far reaching. We, then, are left with a choice: we can look into the night, dark though it is, and wonder what is coming next to get us or we can look up at the stars shining in the dark and say, “Thank you.” And it’s a choice we have to make again and again, broadcasting our gratitude in every direction, thanking God and thanking one another.

May we be those who choose to say thank you and wave, dark though it is.


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

late night thanks

It’s late. Everyone else in the house has gone to bed and I’m waiting for the last pie (of eight) to finish baking so I can sleep as well. Here as Thanksgiving Eve gives way to Turkey Day, I’m in full blown food mode, so this time food is food more than metaphor. Here’s our menu for tomorrow:

deep fried turkey (hey – I’m in the South now)
cornbread dressing (my mother’s recipe)
buttermilk mashed potatoes
green bean casserole (Ginger’s favorite)
roasted corn and crushed pineapple risotto
chipotle sweet potato and pecan gratin
maple glazed brussels sprouts
roasted butternut squash with plantains (I'm making this one up -- I'll let you know how it goes)
refrigerator rolls
And for dessert:
amazing pumpkin pie
sweet potato pie
apple pie
pecan pie
brown sugar buttermilk pie
blueberry pie
I’m a thankful boy.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

tell me a story

I come from a family of storytellers.

Actually, I come from a family of slightly exaggerated storytellers. We tell good stories and we feel free to alter the details to spice it up a little, too. I love to listen to a story, or read one, or even watch one, almost as much as I like to tell them. A great story leaves an indelible mark on our hearts. Like a great melody, it inhabits and haunts and pulls up feelings with a simple phrase, reminding us we have been changed by our listening. We are no longer the same.

Today was “Mountain Sunday” at our church (as well as Stewardship Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday and the Last Sunday in Ordinary Time). The title refers to the music we sang and heard today, which came mostly from Appalachian and gospel traditions, both of which know of and speak from a deep acquaintance with both suffering and gratitude. And so, our service began

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
traveling through this world of woe
but there’s no sickness toil or danger
in that bright land to where I go
From there we wandered across rivers and up and down mountains through our songs and scriptures, until it was time for Carla, our associate pastor, to preach. She began her sermon by talking about stories and then saying she was going to tell part of hers, I leaned in. She told us about how her family settled in Charlotte and survived the coming and going of the textile mill, and how they built homes to be close to one another. As she talked about their Thanksgiving traditions, she told of one tragedy that had befallen the family – the death of a child – and how that marked the holiday for all the years after. As she described one of her relatives, she used a descriptive phrase that turned the story from information to incarnation as she spoke of the “sacred sorrow so bound up with his gratitude.”

Her words landed on me with resonance and power. In the same moment, I knew she was right and I wondered how it is the two are so inextricably tied together. From my English teacher days I remember a story needs conflict or suffering to move it along and to move it toward redemption or reconciliation or even disappointment. What the stories tell us is we were built to learn from our suffering, not simply to endure it. Perhaps that is how stories were born in the first place – the good ones, anyway. Carla had a phrase for that as well: good stories are those that shape our souls into vessels to hold our gratitude.

Her words made me wonder what kind of story I’m telling and how well the stories I hear and tell mold my soul into a thanksgiving tank, if you will. So many of the gospel hymns tell stories of heaven. We even closed our service with a rocking rendition of
some glad morning wihen this life is o’er
I’ll fly away . . .
Many of those songs were born out of suffering, yet their response is more than asking for relief. It’s not about getting out, it’s about getting through. Gratitude grows when we trust that suffering is not the last word.

The story is not yet over.

Suffering that doesn’t breed thankfulness turns to despair. Gratitude that is not informed by grief may quench our souls only briefly, but quickly evaporates. Memory – remembrance is the thing that binds the two so essentially and stories remind us to remember, as the saying goes, who we are and whose we are.

And I remembered this morning, thank you.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

the lord's sukiyaki

A group from our church got together tonight for dinner – actually, for a Japanese dinner. Of the eight of us gathered around the table, three had lived in Japan (one of them teaches Japanese at a local high school) and one had Japanese relatives. We had an authentic Japanese meal: sukiyaki and nabe. I’ve cooked a lot of different things, but I know very little about Japanese cooking other than I’m a big fan of the eel roll at our supermarket’s sushi bar.

When I got to the house where we were eating, people were in the kitchen chopping the vegetables that were going into the dinner: daikon, bok choy, Napa cabbage, a variation on a scallion whose name I forget, and a couple of very cool kinds of mushrooms (enokitake and something translated as crab mushrooms). There were also some jelly-like noodles, cubed tofu, and thinly sliced beef. (The nabe was the vegetarian version of the dish.

At the meat-eating end of the table, where I was sitting, there was an electric skillet. The chief cook began by adding a little oil and then sautéing some of the meat. The she added the daikon, the bok choy, and the cabbage to let them soften a bit. She then began building the sauce, adding vegetable broth, soy sauce, sugar, and aji mirin. As we watched and talked, she added the rest of the ingredients and let them simmer in the sauce for a bit as she cooked the meal right in front of us. We then filled our bowls and ate until the skillet was empty.

A year ago, on this very Saturday before Thanksgiving, I finished my drive from Marshfield to Birmingham, my Cherokee packed with all the things that wouldn’t fit in the Pod for our move to Durham. We spent Thanksgiving at my in-laws and made the final leg of our journey the week following. This year has been a lot like the dish tonight: a collection of ingredients, some cooking faster than others, somehow coming together to create, well, something that is feeding us here.

Besides going to enjoy the meal, I also went as a liaison from the deacons to this group of young adults in our church who wanted to talk about Communion. And so we sat at table together, sharing our food and our stories and contemplating the Lord’s Supper. I did some prep work of my own this afternoon, looking for quotes and information. The most interesting discovery I made had to do with intinction. I’m fairly clear about the fact that it is my least favorite way to receive Communion. I can identify two reasons why. First, my introduction to it was from a minister who saw it as expedient – two courses delivered at once – and I don’t think Communion is about expedience. Second, if I’m going to have a meal, I want both courses, thank you. In my searching this afternoon, I learned intinction became part of American Christian practice primarily because of the tuberculosis epidemic in the 1930s. Rather than expedience, it grew out of a response to the very real fear of disease and death; the church had to figure out how to serve the elements in a way that wasn’t life threatening. There was more theology and ministry going on there than I realized. Though I still want to eat and drink, I will move forward in a different spirit the next time we celebrate in that manner.

As we shared our feelings and opinions with one another, we all had some things that were more taste than theology and we talked about why they mattered to us. The discussion ultimately ended up with our talking about why we are glad to be together in our church. Around the table tonight, we re-membered the body of Christ.

In my searching this afternoon, I came across a quote from A. W. Tozer that spoke to me:

Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become "unity" conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified.
Communion is that tuning fork for me. I’ve been a part of churches in Africa and Texas and Massachusetts and now Durham and celebrated Communion in all of them. Though the meal might not have been served in the same way, it was the same meal – the same meal shared by Christians across the centuries, to be shared for the centuries to come, each morsel of bread and sip of wine echoing the resounding tone that tunes our hearts to God’s key of life.

The gifts of God for the people of God.


Friday, November 21, 2008

mix and stir friday five

I've been a part of a blogging group called RevGalBlogPals for a couple of years now. Every Friday they do a thing called The Friday Five, where someone poses five questions for everyone to answer. I read them, but I've never joined in before. This week the questions were about kitchen stuff, so I couldn't help myself.

1) Do you have a food processor? Can you recommend it? Which is to say, do you actually use it?

I'm still using the Cuisinart food processor we got as a wedding gift. After almost nineteen years it's still going strong. I use the blade mostly; the julienne and shredding blades less often. This time of year, I use it to mix my pie crust dough.

2) And if so, do you use the fancy things on it? (Mine came with a mini-blender (used a lot and long ago broken) and these scary disks you used to julienne things (used once).)

I started answering this in the last question. I'm mostly a blade guy. Though the julienne blade is great for shredding cheese and the slicing blade gets apples nice and thin for pie.

3) Do you use a standing mixer? Or one of the hand-held varieties?

I have one of these KitchenAid beauties (in white) that's almost as old as my Cuisinart. I love it. I even bought the pasta attachment, which is awesome.

The other mixer I have is a Braun hand mixer that is the coolest thing ever. It is hand held and can be put right into the pot for pureeing. Also has a whisk and a chopper attachment.

4) How about a blender? Do you have one? Use it much?

I have a blender as well. It is newer than the other appliances because I learned the hard way to find one with metal gears (and a glass bowl. of course). Primary use: frozen drinks for Ginger.

5) Finally, what old-fashioned, non-electric kitchen tool do you enjoy using the most?

I just got this, but I can already tell it is going to be my favorite thing this Thanksgiving. It is a layered cooling rack and it only costs twenty bucks.

Bonus: Is there a kitchen appliance or utensil you ONLY use at Thanksgiving or some other holiday? If so, what is it?

My electric knife to carve the turkey. Yes, also a wedding present.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

great, with child

I know it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and I’m one of those who wish the stores could wait just one more week before putting out the decorations and I’ve been thinking about Mary preparing herself to give birth, even though we aren’t quite done with the Pilgrims just yet. I think what set me to thinking about it was a note from my friend, Heather, saying her water had broken and she would be giving birth some time between now and tomorrow morning. Thinking of her also reminded me of why I like to read Luke 2 just the way Linus quoted it: from the King James version. No other version gives you language like this (trust me, I’ve looked):

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
She was great with child. The words are full of illustration, animation, and metaphor. I love the image of this young, poor, humble, and pregnant girl being (read this in your best Tony the Tiger voice) grrreat, as though she was both things. You know: great, with child. She apparently must have been a pretty good mother, so as Jesus grew (in wisdom and stature), perhaps they said in a different way that she was great with (her) child. Of course, if someone feels the need to point out great has to do with girth, then some of us have to come to terms with being great without child, but that’s another post.

The verses hold a companion phrase that also speaks to me: the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. (I picture the translators in a room somewhere coming up with that phrase and saying to one another, “That’s smashing, old boy. Jolly good show.”)

I’m captured by the verbs: accomplished and delivered.

Even as I prepare to spend the weekend getting ready to feed those who will gather with us for Thanksgiving, and that this is one of those years when Advent doesn’t begin the Sunday after the turkey, I find the animals in the stable of my heart getting restless, waiting for the days to be accomplished, or whatever needs to be accomplished, so we can gather around the manger. Tonight, as I wait for word that Heather has welcomed her new son, I give thanks for them and for the KJV guys and Linus and all those who sweep the barn clean so the baby can be born and we can all be delivered.


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

Sunday, November 16, 2008

celebrate me hone

I had a little time this morning before I left for church and I began reading the new issue of Harpers that arrived over the weekend. What caught my eye was a full page ad of new books from Harvard University Press, and, in particular, one title: Loneliness as a Way of Life by Thomas Dumm. The resonance of the title sent me looking for more about both the book and author, and I found this:

“What does it mean to be lonely?” Thomas Dumm asks. His inquiry, documented in this book, takes us beyond social circumstances and into the deeper forces that shape our very existence as modern individuals. The modern individual, Dumm suggests, is fundamentally a lonely self. Through reflections on philosophy, political theory, literature, and tragic drama, he proceeds to illuminate a hidden dimension of the human condition. His book shows how loneliness shapes the contemporary division between public and private, our inability to live with each other honestly and in comity, the estranged forms that our intimate relationships assume, and the weakness of our common bonds.

A reading of the relationship between Cordelia and her father in Shakespeare’s King Lear points to the most basic dynamic of modern loneliness—how it is a response to the problem of the “missing mother.” Dumm goes on to explore the most important dimensions of lonely experience—Being, Having, Loving, and Grieving. As the book unfolds, he juxtaposes new interpretations of iconic cultural texts—Moby-Dick, Death of a Salesman, the film Paris, Texas, Emerson’s “Experience,” to name a few—with his own experiences of loneliness, as a son, as a father, and as a grieving husband and widower.

Written with deceptive simplicity, Loneliness as a Way of Life is something rare—an intellectual study that is passionately personal. It challenges us, not to overcome our loneliness, but to learn how to re-inhabit it in a better way. To fail to do so, this book reveals, will only intensify the power that it holds over us.
But I need to back up for a minute. The journey my thoughts took today began yesterday when Choralgirl mentioned the movie Home for the Holidays in her post, which is one of our must-see-again movies during the holidays. Which is to say, I’ve been thinking about home. Seeing the book title this morning just pushed me farther down the road.

I got to church a little early, so I went into our newly renovated church library and, after a little browsing, picked up Frederick Buechner’s The Longing for Home (big surprise), a book I read many years ago but didn’t retain. Something about the days growing colder pulls me to Buechner. The mention of King Lear in the description of Dumm’s book was also a connector. The first Buechner book I ever read was Telling the Truth: The Gospel, as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, in which he referenced one particular line from Lear:
The weight of these sad times we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
Those words have never let go of me. At the risk of being overly quoteful, I want to pass along the words that grabbed me before I went into worship this morning.
In a novel called Treasure Hunt, which I wrote some years ago, there is a scene of homecoming. The narrator, a young man named Antonio Parr, has been away for some weeks and on his return finds that his small son and some other children have made a sign for him that reads WELCOME HONE with the last little leg of the m in home missing so that it turns it into a n. “It seemed oddly fitting,” Antonio Parr says when he first sees it. “It was good to get home, but it was home with something missing or out of whack about it. It wasn’t much, to be sure, just some minor stroke or serif, but even a minor stroke can make a major difference.” And then a little while later he remembers it a second time and goes on to add, “WELCOME HONE, the sign said, and I can’t help thinking again of Gideon and Barak, of Samson and David and all the rest of the crowd . . . who, because some small but crucial thing was missing, kept looking for it come hell or high water wherever they went till their eyes were dim and their arches fallen . . .In the long run I suppose it would be to think of everybody if you knew enough about them to think straight.” (17)
Buechner goes on to say Parr was referencing Hebrews 11:13, 14:
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth, for people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
Strangers and exiles: those acquainted with loneliness; those who are always headed for, looking for, longing for home.

November, for me, is the clubhouse turn towards home. Thanksgiving means I go on a pie-baking binge and hand them out to the neighbors, wherever our neighborhood has been, and that we do our best to fill our table with those who need to be at home for the holidays. We don’t have our final count for this year, but the table is filling up. Thanksgiving is also the precursor for Advent, the season of longing that takes us home for the holidays in a more permanent sense. Though I’ve still got a couple of weeks, something about the words that found me let me know I’m heading home a little earlier than usual.

Bewteen Buechner and the boys holding up the misspelled sign, I found myself humming a homecoming song I haven’t thought about in awhile, but gives soundtrack to my feelings today.
please celebrate me home
give me a number
please celebrate me home
play me one more song
I can always remember
and I can recall whenever
I find myself too all alone
I can sing me home
From Dumm to Buechner to Loggins and all of us in between, home is the place we long for and look for and occasionally stumble into. The address is often elusive, but we know it by the smells or the tastes or the melodies or the faces looking back at us when we walk in. And, if the song were playing, everyone from Samson and David to King Lear and Cordelia to Antoine Parr might sing:
well, I’m finally here
but I’m bound to roam
come on, celebrate me home
Yes. Please. Celebrate me hone.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

comedy is empathy

Ginger and I agree on most things in life, but one of the places where we differ is our disparate opinions of The Office. She can’t stand it and it cracks me up. I’m late to the show, actually, catching up these days with through cable reruns and well aware that the original British version is probably even funnier. I thought about the show today because I heard part of an NPR interview with Ricky Gervais, the creator of both series and the star of the British version. I stepped out between two catering gigs to grab a cup of coffee and a shot of thoughtfulness thrown in for free.

Gervais has just finished a US stand up tour and was promoting an HBO special that is coming up. In the part of the interview I got to hear, he was talking a bit more philosophically about what comedy means and where it comes from. I’m fortunate that has a transcript of the part of the interview that I heard:

"America is my mecca for entertainment. Everything I have ever loved has come out of America," Gervais says. Those comics "taught me that you have to be at the bottom rung of the ladder. No one wants to see unfeasibly handsome, clever people doing things brilliantly; they want to see a putz struggling and falling over, and the important thing is getting back up again."

Gervais insists there is no place for a peacock in comedy. He says it's all about being the everyman and maintaining a fallible persona that people can relate to. "There should be no machismo in a comedian because comedy is about empathy," he says. "I think the audience doesn't need to be told that your life is better than theirs."

In Out of England, Gervais comes onstage with a king's crown and a rock star's pomp, accompanied by fireworks and Queen's "One World, One Vision." His ostentatious entrance is a tongue-in-cheek jab at production values and the idea of celebrity.

"Soon you find out that all my anecdotes of fame are about me being the underdog, me being embarrassed socially, depressed, everyone getting the better of me," he says.

Gervais says returning to stand-up has allowed him to discover the importance of physical comedy. He realized "what people liked was me acting out a scenario as opposed to just telling jokes," he says. "Because comedy is empathy, most of the things we identify with are probably nonverbal. Body language and the way that you feel things are are more important than what you hear."
Comedy is empathy. He said it twice. Comedy is empathy.

One of my favorite movies is an offbeat little comedy that was one of Luke and Owen Wilson’s first films: Bottle Rocket. The tag line to the movie was, They’re not really criminals, but everybody’s got to have a dream.” Owen plays Dignan, a lovable goof who thinks his seventy-five year plan to criminal success is the key to life. Luke plays his friend Andrew who has just been released from a psychiatric hospital. Dignan sees his plan as salvation for them both and begins to put together a team. In the scene below, he’s interviewing Bob for the position of getaway driver.

“That’s good. That’s good. ‘Cause it hits me right there.” Empathy.

In another one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) says to one of his students, “We’re not laughing at you; we’re laughing near you.” Comedy is empathy.

Empathy is identifying with the feelings and actions of someone else so much, as one dictionary put it, that when the batter swings the bat your muscles tense. It is identification, connectedness. The comic is not saying, “You’re like me,” but rather, “This is what it feels like to be in your skin.” Comedy is incarnational.

I loved what he said and I thought about it as I was helping to prepare dinner tonight for a roomful of people I didn’t even see. I ran through several comedians in my mind and soon realized Gervais was not describing all of the comedy there is, but what he saw as comedy at its best. He was making a bold statement in a world filled with biting and cynical satire where comedy is mostly target practice. He was offering a powerful and gentle alternative.

Though his words sent me thinking more metaphorically about comedy, particularly related to faith – Jesus as the original stand up comic – I wanted to pass along what I heard because it’s worth regarding someone who takes the time to think about what they do, about what they mean, and then moves to embody those thoughts with intentionality.

That’s good. That’s good. ‘Cause it hits me right there.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

a story for christmas

Several years ago, Ginger asked me to write a story for Christmas Eve. What came out of me was a Dr. Suess-ish sort of tale that has found a life in many places on Christmas Eves since. The story begins this way:

As we gather together on this Silent Night,
To sing ‘round the tree in the soft candlelight,

From a Faraway Christmas, from time that’s grown cold,
Comes a story, you see, that has seldom been told.

Of all of the legends, the best and the worst,
From Christmases all the way back to the first,

This little tale isn’t often remembered
From then until now, down through all those Decembers.

But I found an old copy tucked away on a shelf,
And I turned through the pages, and I thought to myself,

Of all of the times between now and then,
This is the Christmas to hear it again.
This year, you can hear the story in a different way -- on audio CD. My friend Terry Allebaugh added a wonderful harmonica soundtrack, my friend Claudia Fulshaw created beautiful artwork for the cover and the insert, and I read the story and added a couple of other touches. I'm proud of what we did and excited to share it.

In the sidebar to the left is the PayPal button that will make your purchase possible. The CD is $10.00, plus $2.00 for shipping. If your order is over $50.00, shipping is free. (That's in the U.S.) I will sign, seal, and deliver (or at least mail) the CDs myself.

Entrepreneurship is not my gift. I'm grateful to Gordon Atkinson for his encouragement and technical advice, to Claudia and Terry, and to Ginger for calling the story out of me in the first place.

The story runs on several different levels and is appropriate for most any age. I hope you enjoy it.


a quick update

I talked to my dad this morning as I was going into work. They had just taken my mother into surgery and we were getting ready for a long day of waiting. I did not expect to hear from him until at least four o'clock. Two and a half hours later, he called to say the surgeons found things much less complicated than they expected and they were finished. Mom was already in recovery. Dad called tonight to say she is in a step down room from the ICU and is expected to go home on Monday or Tuesday.

I am grateful.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

god is for us

Sometimes life drifts apart; sometimes it comes together.

Within the last week, several members of my former youth group in Texas found me via Facebook. I still haven’t figured out how to navigate that rather formidable universe, but I am enjoying finding old friends. One of the things we shared in our years together were the songs my friend Billy Crockett and I wrote for youth camp each summer. One chorus didn’t require much work lyrically, on our part, but came together quite well:

God is for us who can be against us
God is for us we are not alone
God is for us we are for each other
hallelujah he is for us
Some years later, Billy was thinking about recording the song (which he did on the CD Red Bird Blue Sky) and decided we needed to write verses. At the time, my father had a serious case of pneumonia and I was really worried about him. And the verses we wrote carried both that concern and the hope that carried us. When we finished, the whole song looked like this:
God is for us who can be against us
God is for us we are not alone
God is for us we are for each other
Hallelujah he is for us

for all the damage done
still won’t turn and run
hearts have been broken
dreams have been stolen
but nothing takes these words away

God is for us who can be against us
God is for us we are not alone
God is for us we are for each other
Hallelujah he is for us

the places that we go
so many different roads
no present danger
no distant future
will take us where we cannot know

God is for us who can be against us
God is for us we are not alone
God is for us we are for each other
Hallelujah he is for us
Tonight I talked to my mother as I walked to my car after work. She had had a hard day and sounded worn out. Her surgery is at nine o’clock tomorrow morning and is expected to take most of the day. Like so many years ago, I am concerned and feeling the distance between us. Tonight, pieces of my past came back together to remind me of what I know is true underneath the uncertainty.


P. S. -- I tried, unsuccessfully, to figure out how to imbed an audio file so you could hear the song. If anyone knows how to do that on Blogger, please let me know.

Monday, November 10, 2008

thank you, mama africa

I turned one year old on a ship sailing across the Atlantic Ocean for Africa.

My parents were going to be missionaries in Southern Rhodesia and I was along for the ride. In 1957, the only way to get from Texas to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia was by ship, and then car. We were thirty-two days at sea, leaving New York harbor and stopping only once on the island of St. Helena before docking in Beira, Mozambique. Somewhere in the open water I celebrated my first birthday.

The first task of a missionary in those days was language school. Sindabele was the native tongue (one of the Bantu languages) and my parents were told that the first six weeks of their new life would involve nothing but language classes. They hired a woman named Salina to stay with me while they went about their lessons. One of the favorites stories my father tells is getting one of their first vocabulary lists and finding the word “isikwapa” and it’s translation: armpit. My father was livid and said, “I came halfway around the world to tell people about Jesus and the first word you teach me is armpit!”

Fifty years on, it’s the only Sindabele word any of my family remembers.

Sindabele is one of the “click languages,” meaning there are actual clicking sounds connected to the consonants. You don’t just say the letter, you pop your tongue in one of several ways to make the sound. As a little one, who learned the language faster from Salina than my parents did at school, I couldn’t say the word and the click, I would do one and then the other. No wonder I was fascinated when Miriam Makeba recorded “The Click Song” just a couple of years later.

I tell that story because Miriam Makeba died today at 76. Beyond “The Click Song,” the woman known as “Mama Africa” was one of those voices of freedom that has resonance across generations. She is South African who lived through apartheid and saw her Nelson Mandela become president. She died after singing a concert in Italy in support of another artist taking a stand for what matters. She had a long and full life, far beyond what I knew about it. I didn’t follow her career or know too much more of her music than the song that captured me as a child. And that connection is enough to stop, take notice, and give thanks she sang as she did.


Sunday, November 09, 2008

all good gifts

One of the things I love about our church is there is always a certain level of improvisation, particularly when it comes to worship. Our worship is well planned and very intentional and, like good improv, Ginger often uses what we have prepared and the talents she knows we have to offer and calls us to step into the moment, often in that moment. So it was, when I got to church this morning – about ten minutes before the service began – that James, our wonderful music minister, was walking down the hall saying, “Milton, I know you’re here. We need you for the introit.”

He found me. We practiced. Ten minutes later I was standing at the front of the church and singing

we plow the fields and scatter
the good seed on the land
but it is fed and watered
by God’s almighty hand
he sends the snow in winter
the warmth to swell the grain
the springtime and the sunshine
the cold refreshing rain
all good gifts around us
are sent from heaven above
so thank the Lord, yes thank the Lord
for all his love
I went to church this morning with a lot on my heart. My mother is having surgery on Wednesday and, without telling a story that is more hers than mine to tell, it’s a big deal. I went to church this morning, more than anything else, to ask my fellow Pilgrims to pray with me. Even though I live with the pastor, I had no idea what hymns she had chosen, but here is how they went down. After the introit and our call to worship we sang another favorite of mine, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” My heart hung on these words:
summer and winter and springtime and harvest
sun moon and stars in their courses above
join with all nature in manifold witness
to thy great faithfulness mercy and love
great is thy faithfulness great is thy faithfulness
morning by morning new mercies I see
all I have needed thy hand hath provided
great is thy faithfulness Lord unto me
Our prayer time soon followed. I told my church family what was happening in my family and asked for prayers for my mother. Others lifted up their joys and concerns, which included celebrating a ninetieth birthday with one of our dear ones, and then, as has become our custom, we sat quietly at the end of Ginger’s prayer and listened to the choral response, which begins with a piano instrumental until the voices finish the verse of another favorite hymn:
here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it
seal it for thy courts above.
After the children’s time, we sent them off to Sunday School singing
we are walking in the light of God
we are walking in the light of God
we are walking, we are walking
we are walking in the light of God.
When Ella was first learning to walk on a leash, she responded with a combination of distraction and determination to not go quietly down the street. In her one year of life (her birthday was November 4), she has chewed through five – count them, five – lifetime warranty leashes. One day, amidst the frustration of our endeavor, I decided I would see if singing might make a difference, and I began singing the same chorus we sang to send off the children, with one small change:
Ella’s walking Ella's walking
Ella's walking in the light of God . . .
As soon as she heard the song, she began trotting down the street and continues to do so even now. Something about the light keeps her moving. As I listened and sang this morning, I found the same is true for me.

After church and coffee hour, we had our monthly deacons’ meeting and, since it’s November, the budget was part of the agenda. As I’m sure is true in many churches, the discussion was colored by the present state of the economy, which pulled us too quickly to being distracted by all we think we can’t do rather than who we believe God is calling us to be in the year ahead. Though we didn’t sing to get ourselves back in the light, we did talk our way there. We will need to keep talking and remembering if we are to live into the words that were our closing hymn today:
not alone we conquer, not alone we fall
in each loss or triumph, lose or triumph all
bound by God’s far purpose in one living whole
move we on together to the shining goal
forward through the ages in unbroken line
move the faithful spirits at the call divine.
One of the reasons I love the last hymn is it takes the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers” so we can sing about something other than war, which is not a metaphor for faith that does much for me. I’m not looking for a fight. I am looking to be reminded of what I know is true: whatever circumstances life presents, Love is the Last Word. When I remember who I am and Whose I am, as the old saying goes, I can also remember the best response to that kind of Love is gratitude.

Thank the Lord, yes thank the Lord for all the love.

Now I’m going to sing myself to sleep.


Saturday, November 08, 2008

autumn leaves

When I got to the front yard, my neighbor had
just finished raking the leaves. Our property line
was well delineated: no leaves on his lawn,
leaves on mine. He has chosen to participate in
fall’s festival of futility in ways I have not. I’m
waiting for a good stiff breeze to blow them
all down the block to belong to someone else.

The leaves are more singular in their task than I;
all they have to do at this point is let go and fall.
I have to -- well, I won’t bore you with my to dos --
let’s just say I already have enough futile flailings
to attend that I don’t need to add raking to my list.
And so my yard is full of leaves -- let me be clear --
not because I didn’t have time to rake, or I didn’t
buy a rake, or I had planned to rake and was kept
from my task by some circumstantial emergency.

I’ve chosen to let my lawn be a sanctuary for the
fallen, a place for leaves to land and stay for as
long as they like. If I do gather them at all, it
will be to make a big pile for the purpose of
doing my best Snoopy impression, shuffling
through the stack, my head kicked back in glee,
until all the leaves are scattered once more
across the yard. Then I will wave to my
neighbor as he rakes, and go inside, grateful.


Friday, November 07, 2008

still on the line

On our trip to Texas, we stopped for coffee somewhere south of Waco and, along with our beverages, we picked up James Taylor’s new CD, Covers, to give us a break from the radio. As I said earlier this week, my life is a movie in search of a soundtrack. A couple of cuts in, I could feel something change inside me as he began to sing, “I am a lineman for the county.” I have loved “Wichita Lineman” since I first heard Glen Campbell sing it on a record my parents had, to when I learned Jimmy Webb wrote it, to when I heard Jimmy Webb sing it, and on down until JT’s soft, well-weathered voice carried the words and music as we drove up that Texas highway last week.

The BBC said it was No. 87 of the Top 100 Songs and Rolling Stone put it at No. 187 of it’s Top 500 Songs of All Time, right after "Free Bird," which makes for an interesting juxtaposition. Here are the lyrics:

I am a lineman for the county.
and I drive the main road
searching in the sun for another overload

I hear you singing in the wire
I can hear you thru the whine
and the Wichita lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation
but it don't look like rain
and if it snows that stretch down south
won't ever stand the strain

and I need you more than want you
and I want you for all time
and the Wichita lineman is still on the line
From my earliest memories, the song is tied to “Gentle on my Mind,” which was on the same record. Both of them are unusual love songs, I suppose, and I sang along heartily even though I had no idea what he was singing about, other than I liked the word pictures of
moving down the back roads by the rivers of my memory
and for hours your just gentle on my mind
As I have heard “Wichita Lineman” over the years, I’ve come to see it as a tenacious love song. Here’s a guy who is dutifully doing what he thinks needs to be done and, even in the midst of his hard work, love comes singing to find him. The lines that kill me are
and I need you more than want you
and I want you for all time
and the Wichita Lineman is still on the line
Ginger and I talked again today about how our work schedules – OK, mostly mine, since I work five nights a week, and this week, six – keep us from eating dinner together or being able to get out and do much. Maybe the song hits because I feel like the Bull City Line Cook who is still on a line of his own. Most any afternoon, one of us calls the other and says something like, “I just missed you and wanted to say, ‘Hi’.” Even though the phones have nothing to do with lines anymore, I can still hear her heart sing. However the equation of need and want plays out, what I understand almost twenty years on is the tenacity of love is not about hanging on, or hanging in there, but about diligently boring into one another’s beings and determinedly tightening the bonds between us, regardless of schedules and duties and whatever else life may hold. Whether all has been said and done, or there is still much to do and say, we are together.

And we have music to play as we go.


Thursday, November 06, 2008

on the street where I live

The opening scene of the movie, Big, (as I remember it, twenty years later) was of Josh and his friend, Billy, walking together down a tree-lined street singing,

The space goes down, down baby, down, down the roller coaster. Sweet, sweet baby, sweet, sweet, don't let me go. Shimmy, shimmy, cocoa pop. Shimmy, shimmy, rock. Shimmy, shimmy, cocoa pop. Shimmy, shimmy, rock. I met a girlfriend - a triscuit. She said, a triscuit - a biscuit. Ice cream, soda pop, vanilla on the top. Ooh, Shelly's out, walking down the street, ten times a week. I read it. I said it. I stole my momma's credit. I'm cool. I'm hot. Sock me in the stomach three more times.
OK, I didn’t remember their song; I found it here. But I do remember the street, lined with giant trees in their full autumn regalia, looking about as American as it gets. For a long time I wondered where those streets were, then I moved to Boston and found those streets, but I never got to live on one of them.

Until now.

Here is what our street looked like this morning when I turned to the left

and to the right.

Yup. I’m cool. I’m hot. I'm fortunate. Sock me in the stomach three more times.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

good for us

I woke up thinking about the Kenyan election that was held some time back. Was thought to be one Africa’s most stable democracies was ripped apart when the results did not go the way the party in power hoped they would. I woke up thinking about it because I had spent the evening watching power change hands and seeing both candidates graciously take their places in the transition.

Yes, the final weeks of the campaign looked, as one commentator described it, like “a knife fight in a phone booth,” but no one was killed, no one was violently intimidated, and we elected a new president. There are a number of things I wish were different about the way we behave and operate politically as Americans, but today I woke up thankful for what we accomplished last night.


Tuesday, November 04, 2008

an american tune

I suppose there are any number of ways I could describe my life, but one that fits as well as any is a movie in search of a soundtrack. Whatever is going on, I’m always listening for the right song to rise up from the jukebox in my mind and take it’s place on the turntable. (Yes, I realize the metaphor needs to be updated.)

Though North Carolina is a state with an early voting option, Ginger and I waited until this morning to vote just because we like voting on Election Day. I made a quick trip to Dunkin Donuts to get our stand-in-line coffees and then we walked the block and a half to the polling place in our neighborhood, which is the local elementary school. Since we live in a very politically and culturally active area, the lines weren’t long because most of our neighbors voted early, so we were home just a little after seven. Up until today, I’ve voted only in Texas and Massachusetts during presidential elections, which means the fate of the state was already determined before I even cast my ballot. This year, North Carolina is one of the “swing states” (I like that better than “battleground”) and my vote carries some weight beyond my exercising my opportunity to be a part of the process.

This election marks the ninth time I have voted for president. I turned eighteen in 1974, just two years after my family had moved back to the States from Africa, and I was still figuring out what it meant to be an American in many ways. (Wait – I’m still trying to figure that one out.) For all that confounded and overwhelmed me, I was taken in most by the music. When we lived overseas, music was one of the main ways I felt connected to the US. I can remember getting James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, or Crosby, Stills, and Nash, or Carole King’s Tapestry (just to name a few). One of the albums that marked me most was Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel. We moved to Houston in January of 1973 and somewhere in that year Paul Simon went solo and released There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, which had the radio hit, “Kodachrome.” For a kid in eleventh grade what’s not to connect with a song that begins

when I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
it’s a wonder I can think at all.
And it’s not the best song on the record. “St. Judy’s Comet” is a wonderful take on a lullaby, “Loves Me Like a Rock” is good gospel fun, “Something So Right” is worth hearing just about any time, and then there’s the song I woke up humming in my head this morning, “An Ameican Tune.”
Many's the time I've been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and often felt forsaken
And certainly misused
But I'm all right, I'm all right
I'm just weary to my bones
Still, you don’t expect to be
Bright and bon vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home

And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it's all right, it's all right
We've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we're traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest
Two things about this song pull at me. The first is the lyric, which is a mixture of hope and struggle. Regardless of who wins the presidency today, we face the daunting task as a nation of figuring out how to be together. Reconciliation needs to become our national pastime. We are all wounded and battered. I wonder why it’s so hard to find the connectedness in our pain. We seem so quick to choose to strike out, as if seeing others hurt like we do makes things better. Would that in what feels like our age’s most uncertain hour, our American tune would be orchestrated with something other than the cannon of the 1812 Overture.

Speaking of tunes, the second thing that pulls me to this song is the melody, which is an adaptation of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, or (as I know it) “O, Sacred Head Now Wounded.” Melody leads to melody and then to lyric, and I am pulled to the final verse of the hymn, which are some of my favorite words in any song:
what language shall I borrow to thank thee, Dearest Friend
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
o, make me thine forever, and should I fainting be
Lord, let me never, ever outlive my love for thee
I know nothing of how Simon came to put his words to Bach’s melody, but that those notes can carry both the uncertain feelings about my country and the heart of my faith calls me to think about how I can carry the reconciling love of God into the uncivil conflict that is our political arena. As a nation, we can’t be forever blessed, but as children of God we never run out of love. How can it be that it seems so much easier to choose sides than it is to choose solidarity?


Monday, November 03, 2008

the field

When Ginger and I fly, she always takes the window seat and I always opt for the aisle, which means, from time to time, someone unrelated to us sits in the middle. Last night on the flight home from Texas, a rather chatty woman sat between us and covered a wide variety of subjects from her husband’s impending trip to Iraq to do software work for the Department of Defense to her church in Austin. At one point, she was talking about something that had happened at the church and she said, “I went to the pastor and said, ‘If you don’t want people to dwell on the past you’ve got to show us what’s next.’”

While she continued talking, my mind wandered off on a journey of its own. We were flying back from Texas because we had flown down on Friday for three events that were all something other than “what’s next”: my brother’s fiftieth birthday (or, at least when we could celebrate it), my dad’s eightieth birthday (same scenario), and my thirtieth college reunion – all three markers that gave me pause to look back more than forward.

Those words, however, are not enough. When it comes to time, we lack for sufficient vocabulary. When we convince ourselves time is linear, we’re working with a deeply flawed metaphor. This is a line:


It lies flat on the page and runs in two directions. If you want to be generous, you can say it has two dimensions, but only if you draw a really fat line. Time is so much more. Think about the verbs we use. We save time, lose time, make time, waste time, have time, take time, and – on weekends like the one I just lived – we move through time as though it were an environment.

I’ve not been on the Baylor campus in a number of years and have not been to Homecoming in a decade. When we parked the car at the stadium on Saturday and walked across the grass to the tents for the reunion picnics, I wondered what I was in for. Ginger and I got our plates of barbeque and moved toward the tent and the first two people I saw were Al and Keith, pledge brothers, who called my name and hugged me and the years disappeared with their welcome. It was not about how long it had been as it was about being, together. We had missed much of each other’s lives (they had children, now out of college, I had never seen) and we found the gossamer strands of friendship still tethered us. For the next couple of hours, I talked with folks whom I had not seen in years, picking up conversations we had laid down and continuing on.

Webster says a reunion is “an assembling of persons who have been separated.” And so it is. We walked through time, across time, even out of time to find one another on the field we had walked together long ago, and, as we stood, we grew back together. Rumi wrote,

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.
Time is a field, where we can meet and re-member ourselves, reunite ourselves, not looking only for what is next, but for all that ties us together. The day was filled with good things, yet I would have made one change. I would move Homecoming to March, so that we could have stood together in the field, surrounded by bluebonnets.