Friday, August 28, 2009

summer music sampler: aging white guy edition

My friend David Gentiles posted an old Don McLean song on his blog today. That and my continued listening to Randy Newman's Harps and Angels sent me on a little musical journey of my own this evening. And so, I offer a sampling of some of my favorite aging songwriters and some of their best work.

First, thanks to Davy, here's another Don McLean song I'm glad he helped me remember, "Castles in the Air."

It's hard to let summer go by without a bit of the Boss,so here's one of my favorite Springsteen songs, "If I Should Fall Behind."

Back in an acoustic vein, here's Jackson Browne's solo acoustic performance of "In the Shape of a Heart."

The Eagles covered Browne's "Take it Easy" to start their career and added Tom Waits' song, "Ol' 55" to their On the Border album. (Well, at least it's a segue to Tom singing it himself.)

Which brings me to another woderful writer of lyrics and melodies who sings them, well, creatively: Randy Newman. This song, "Losing You" was written for a friend who lost his son. It keeps knocking me out.

Thank you all, gentlemen. Keep up the good work.


P. S. -- Rick and Christy commented that the list lacked Guy Clark and John Hiatt. They are so right. Here then is John Hiatt singing "Through Your Hands," which could just as well be a hymn --

and Guy Clark doing his best work with "Old Friends." (Notice who is sitting in the circle.)

Their encouragement also led me to add another favorite from Lyle Lovett -- who I took Ginger to see on our first date (singing a Steve Fromholtz song).

Peace, once again,

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

he's got danny glover eyes

We have a new dishwasher at the restaurant at Duke. His name is Arnaldo and he is from Cuba. He is about my height and, I’m guessing not much over half my weight. His skin is dark – ebony – and yet luminous enough to let you see the lines worn into his skin by wherever life took him before he ended up in our kitchen. The way those lines shape and mark his face allow him to exude the same kind of calming presence as Danny Glover did when he turned to Kevin Kline and said, “Man, get yourself to the Grand Canyon.”

That's it: he has Danny Glover eyes.

(And I hope the obscure reference makes you go watch the movie.)

He comes into the kitchen promptly at five, shakes my hand, and says, “How are you, Sir?”

Sir. So, you see, he has me smiling from the start. And then he goes to work. First, he washes whatever dishes and pots and utensils and bowls we have managed to stack into strange sculpture by the dish machine in the midst of our prep. He then cleans up his area to get it ready for dinner service and then asks me for something to do. Everyday. And with that question he moves from washing to being a part of the prep team, which is good because he actually is a cook; the job, however, was for a dishwasher and a job was what he needed. He doesn’t complain. He works and he smiles and he is kind. Kind in a way I rarely experiece. Kind in a way that changes the way the room feels when he walks in. Kind in a way that makes me glad we work together, even though tomorrow will mark four days that we have known each other. Kind in a way that makes me wonder about me and what it feels like when I walk in the room, whatever room that might be.

Our week has been, as they say in the restaurant business, a “soft opening”: we had eighteen customers the first night, thirty-six last night, and fifty tonight. I’m not much at geometric progressions, but if things continue we should hit a thousand soon after Labor Day. We are happy because it was well into September last year before we hit fifty. We are off to a good start. And we are all tired because we have been going full strength all week, trying to make things the best they can be. I’ve had three ten or eleven hour days in a row and there are a few more to come without much down time in between over the next couple of weeks. Yet, I find myself looking forward to work and one of the reasons is that I get to be around Arnaldo and share in his kindness.

As we move toward the end of the dinner shift and things slow down on the line, the cook’s job turns from creating to clean up and the dishwasher moves into full motion: the last hour is his heavy time, getting everything washed and put away. As Abel and I were wrapping and labeling things to go back in the walk-in, I could hear Arnaldo singing from the dish area. He was singing in Spanish, so I didn’t understand him, but what I did comprehend was he was not singing as though he needed something to get him through the stacks of pots and plates; he was singing like he had the afternoon off and the top down on the Wrangler, full of joy and life.

I am fortunate in these days to say part of what happens when I go to work is I get to watch and listen to Arnaldo sing and be kind. Tomorrow will be a good day.

I’m sure.


Saturday, August 22, 2009

on nights like this

I wish there were some way
to cut a small slit in the wall
and let the air, trapped since
first construction, spill into
the room and tell its stories.

I wonder who walked these
floors in those first days,
when the pin oak at the curb
was smaller than the house
and the street not so shaded.

I welcome those ghosts,
the spirits that have seeped
into the floors and sit next to us
at dinner, whose luminance
lights our house in the dark.

I remember I am only here
as one who has called this
house a home, worn the finish
off the floors, and left the
lights on in the kitchen.


Thursday, August 20, 2009

making change

Over the summer, we have seen both the Chef de Cuisine and the Sous Chef at the restaurant leave for other places. Actually, the latter followed the former, which is not unusual in restaurant circles, but that’s a story for another time. Both guys were there when I joined the staff; they have been the bosses I knew, they have set the tone for the kitchen, they have been the ones who determined the routine.

And now, they are gone and we are left to deal with the change, and to change ourselves, for that matter.

Some years ago, Ginger and I were walking through Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts when a homeless man yelled out from his seat on the sidewalk, “Change!” Ginger turned and said, “I don’t have any money.”

I blurted back, “I’m trying, I’m trying.”

The two uses of the word aren’t that far apart, I suppose. Change, on the one hand, has to do with how you break down a dollar bill – or a five, or a ten – into smaller pieces: four quarters; ten dimes; two quarters, three dimes, three nickels, and five pennies. On the other hand, in places like our kitchen these days, change also has to do with how we break down the bigger picture and figure out the new formula to make things work, as familiar faces move away and new ones appear. For my part, I’m working different shifts, taking on different responsibilities, and learning the habits and hopes of my new coworkers. And the whole enterprise feels about as stable as the value of the dollar on the international market.

Stability, if not overrated, is certainly over-expected. Life is made of change. Our lives are dynamic, not static. There is no way to stand still, to stay the same. And we are dynamic creatures created to negotiate this changing thing called life. Some years ago, a friend gave me a book called Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories by Daniel Taylor. One of the key points early in the book has to do with learning to see ourselves as being a character, rather than having a personality. The latter leaves us looking at ourselves as somehow hardwired the way we are and unable to change much, but when we see ourselves as characters in our own life story, we create the possibility for change.

My days as an English teacher come roaring back here to remind me of all of the discussions I have had with students around “character development” and how a person grows and changes as he or she encounters the events in the story. A character is both recognizable and able to change, just as I can see myself in the pictures of me over the years and yet I am not who I was then. The point of our story – of The Story, if you will – is to grow and change. We fall out of wholeness and health when we try to stay the same and ask life to follow suit. We show our character when we use the change to make life add up in a new way.

Let me be specific. When the Chef de Cuisine left, it was hard for me. I like him, I trust him, and I liked working for him. I learned a lot about being a manager from him and he was someone I could bounce ideas off of. We also had shared interests in books and music and history. I really did wonder how well the kitchen would hold up without him. And I wondered what I would do. Last week a new Sous started. He is not the other guy and he brings some wonderful new things to the kitchen. Learning to work with him has challenged me to look at how I do things, to offer information about our restaurant, to intentionally listen to see what new things he has to bring and what his fresh eyes can see about us that we have either forgotten or ignored.

The nature of our business is that neither one of us will be in that kitchen forever. Some summer down the road, one of us, or one of the other guys who make up our team will begin their own new chapter without our daily involvement and we will all make change. Driving home from the memorial service of one of our beloved church members who has been a part of our congregation for a long time, it struck me that church works a great deal like a restaurant kitchen: the mission to feed others is ongoing, even as the characters change. We have the same mission, but the cast of characters calls us to rethink how we do things, why we do things, and what we can learn from and about each other.

One of the Bible verses that has given me pause for about as far back as I can remember is Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” because one of the things I love about Jesus is he is not the same – even in the Gospels. If the verse said, “Jesus Christ is Jesus yesterday, today, and forever,” then I’m in. But life isn’t the same because God isn’t the same. We were breathed into existence by a God whose very nature is full of imagination and dynamism. How can we say, “God is Love” and then think God stays the same? Love is change at it’s best. Love builds character, creates relationships, gives meaning: “now we see through a glass darkly, but someday we will see face to face.”

The very essence of love is to make change out of life: to take all of the elements and make them add up differently. We are finding new life in the kitchen because we are letting go and letting in at the same time. Perhaps the nature of a restaurant makes that easier than in church because our sense of a sacred institution causes something to rise up in us that makes us feel as though we must protect and defend the church (either big or little C) from change. We too easily become convinced that it is our stability that has sustained us and lose sight of the subversive, ever-changing love of God that will not let us go and calls us to practice the art of letting go and letting in, of character building, or see ourselves in story rather than stained glass.

“I love to tell the story,” we sang in church on Sunday, “for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”

I love that song because I trust it is true – and that we are characters in that same, still unfolding story.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

come, christians, join to sing

Here is the manuscript of a sermon I preached this morning at our church.



I would like to begin this morning with a sentence that I’m fairly sure has not been uttered by many people. Here it is: some of my favorite sermons have to do with punctuation and grammar.

Seriously. I’ll give you a couple of quick examples. In Matthew 6, many translations of the Lord’s Prayer read, thy kingdom come (comma), thy will be done (comma) on earth as it is in heaven. Listen to the way we say the prayer. We pause after thy will be done – and when we do, we miss something important in the prayer: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Take out the comma and the prayer becomes more powerful.

Ephesians 6:1-10 uses the metaphor of the armor of God to talk about how we prepare ourselves to live out our faith in the world. If we read the preposition as possessive – that is, as a list of things God has to hand out to us, the passage says one thing. If, however, we read the preposition as descriptive – that is, that God is the armor – then the metaphor deepens: we are called to wrap ourselves up in God.

I’m sharing this scintillating information because our passage from Ephesians 5 is another that turns on grammar and punctuation. Some translations make the final statement into a series of imperative sentences:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit. Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. Give thanks always and for everything to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

But the Greek is actually one long sentence, filled with participles helping to explain what it looks like to be a Spirit-filled congregation.

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Hold that thought and let’s go back to the first part of our passage that sets up the whole idea:

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

Look carefully, live watchfully -- watch where you’re going -- is a call to live intentionally. I found a challenging word in what a commentator named John Martens wrote about this verse:

One of the most difficult aspects of living life for me is living life with watchfulness. It is easy to fall into patterns, to live life by rote, to find a comfort zone where watchfulness just drifts away, even if that comfort zone is filled with unreflective busyness. How I live is not always based on conscious decisions, which is precisely the issue. You begin to do things because that is the way you have always done them, or you simply plop on the couch after a busy day, unable to consider what would be the best way to live.

Look carefully and make the most of the time.

In our 24-7-365 world – informed by our Puritan work ethic – making the most of the time means getting more done, working harder, wearing ourselves out. In today’s verses, making the most of the time has to do with taking the time to listen and to connect our lives to God and to one another. The passage continues with an admonition not to get drunk (to do more than numb ourselves to the difficulties of daily life), but to participate in a different sort of intoxication, if you will: to be filled with the Holy Spirit – which brings us back to our parcel of participles and the call to sing together, with gratitude and deference.

Randy Cooper writes:

Singing is more than making a joyful noise. God has given us singing and worshipping to break down categories of gender and age and race and class. In singing and worshipping, we enter the life of God through the Holy Spirit. If God’s Triune life is indeed one of mutual submission and love among [Creator], [Christ], and Holy Spirit, then as we become one body in Christ we share in Christ’s eternal ‘singing.’

Here, then, is how the Spirit moves in our midst: in melody, in gratitude, and in intentional solidarity. We are called to sing together. James, I offer you your new favorite verse. I think it says God wants everyone to join the choir.

As soon as we start talking about singing together in worship, we are going to start talking about what we are going to sing and what one commentator called the “worship wars” break out. What was designed to bring us together sometimes pulls us apart. We all have our favorite songs, yet the meaningfulness of worship shouldn’t ride on whether or not we got to my hit parade this morning. Rather than thinking, “They finally sang my song,” I can choose the respond, “Hey, they’re singing your song,” and let that be when I sing loudest and listen best – when I get to be on something more than what matters to me. That’s how the Spirit helps us to grow and change.

Worship, fundamentally, is a team sport – as are both life and faith. Though it requires personal commitment and contribution, worship is about us, not me. Gathering together to sing is an act of faith and solidarity, and a subversive one, at that. It’s like the end of Arlo Guthrie’s song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” where he encourages his audience to walk into their psychiatrist’s office and sing, " You can get anything you want, at Alice's restaurant." And walk out.

Then he imagines:

You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he's really sick and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both nuts and they won't take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singing a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. They may think it's an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said fifty people a day walking in singing a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it's a movement.

When they marched from Selma to Montgomery, they sang, “We shall overcome” in solidarity with the saints of God who have sung together in the face of oppression and persecution across the centuries. Though we are fortunate to not live under the same kinds of hardship, we are about the same important work when we gather for worship. We cannot afford to let what happens here become rote or mundane, or to allow the songs we sing to divide us over issues of taste rather than unite us in the mystery of the intoxicating Spirit of God. What we do here together can change us, change our city, change or world – or it can simply be another thing to check off of our list of meetings to attend this week.

The melody of faith is more complex than the tunes that meet our specific tastes. If our worship experience is going to make the most of the time, if it’s going to fill our minds with wisdom and our hearts with the gratitude that grows out of the presence God’s Spirit, if it’s going to be more than merely marking our calendars that we made it to church, then we will come to be more committed than comfortable, to be more faithful than forceful, ready to defer rather than demand.

Come, Christians, join to sing. Alleluia. Amen.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

our country of marriage

Yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of Ginger's and my engagement. We celebrated with a quick trip to Boston (my first since we moved), including a Sox game and a meal at the Hard Rock, which is where we ate on August 12, 1989 (except at the one in Dallas, which is no more). For our anniversary, Ginger gave me a "Story People" drawing that says,

"You're the strangest person I ever met," she said
and I said, "You, too," and we decided to know each other a long time.

And we are having a great time together.

We are more together than we know,
how else could we keep discovering
we are more together than we thought?

Wendell Berry, “The Country of Marriage”
Our Country of Marriage

We walked the streets of Boston again –
the streets where we grew together,
grew up together, and found our
footprints still etched in the sidewalks,
even though we have moved away.

Here’s how I remember it:
We were new to the city and still
fairly new to one another.
I was standing on the inbound platform
at North Station, when it was still
an elevated track. When the train I
wasn’t waiting for pulled away, I saw
you standing on the outbound side,
my most familiar and favorite face
shining among the shadowed crowd.
You saw me at the same time and
you smiled the surprise that left
my heart both bright and breathless.

We have good reasons we no longer
live where we can walk across the
Common, or smell the sea salt
though summer’s open windows.
Still, the geography of the heart
holds our history in the mountains
of memories, the countless coffee
shops from Newbury to Ninth,
the string of sunsets and stories
that run like the Appalachian Trail
across our country of marriage
to where the light shines in different
windows and Schnauzers still woof
their welcome when we come home.

I’m proud to be a citizen of
our country of love and laughter,
this land we have discovered together
and, even now far from its frontier,
this land still full of the discovery
of what it means to love for a lifetime.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

cleaning off my desk

I guess tonight might be the blogging equivalent of clearing off my desk.

I have not written as regularly as I would like over the last couple of months for a variety of reasons, this week however, it was not for lack of ideas. Before the time gets away, I want to comment on a couple of things and then make a request.

First, John Hughes died this week. He was the director of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Uncle Buck, Wierd Science, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club, to name a few. As a youth minister in the 80's, I leaned into his movies to help me understand the kids in my youth group. And, for that matter, to learn a bit about myself as well. He was not the greatest director ever, yet he made movies that mattered to me and that I still watch and quote extensively.

And I would still love to know the punch line to the joke Judd Nelson was telling when he fell through the roof.

Here is a tribute montage someone else put together that is worth passing along.

Second, and leading into third, we went to see Julie and Julia last night, which is a story about blogging as much as it is about cooking and finding out what matters most.

One of the things I found in the movie was a push to figure out why I am writing these days. What I mean by that is I know why I write (because I am a writer), and I want to do more with this blog than ramble this way and that. So, the "third" in this litany is a request. I am thinking about taking on some themes -- a week, or perhaps longer for each -- and writing in a particular vein for that time to see what sort of shape my writing might take beyond my fairly regular posts, and to see what I can learn and how I can grow. Though I know the days of regular commenting on blogs has passed, I am asking for suggestions of themes or ideas you think might be worth me tackling. And we will see where it goes.

Thanks for reading.


P. S. -- Speaking of Julia Child, I couldn't close without posting this favorite Saturday Night Live clip.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

my town

I came across this video through my neighborhood association listserv. It gives a good sense of this cool little city.


Monday, August 03, 2009

breathe on me

Sometimes, the way we look at the world swings on a sentence.

A small, well chosen collection of words can change not only what we are reading or hearing, but also how we see and hear everything around us. The Great Gatsby holds (at least) one of those sentences for me, as Fitzgerald describes Gatsby looking across the bay at the green light that has mystified him and that he now knows shines on the dock at Daisy Buchanan’s house.

Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to a moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock.

And then comes the sentence:

His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
In nine words he shows us Gatsby’s slide from the heights of romance to the edge of despair and reminds us enchanted objects are fragile and fleeting. There is a certain sadness in love, in dreams, in being human that we all know to well and he named it in a sentence. One of the draws to reading the Gospels is they offer several such sentences that give glimpses of Jesus beyond what is readily apparent. They are bends in the road where we have to stop and think about what we have read, where we have to let the story dig a little deeper into our hearts and minds. One is Jesus’ encounter with the man at the pool who had been there for thirty-odd years hoping for his turn to go first into the angel-stirred waters that he might be healed. His physical handicap meant he moved slower than the rest and, thus, was never first. Jesus came upon him and, before he healed him, asked one question:
"Do you want to get well?"
The very asking reveals the answer might not be so readily apparent. Another favorite of mine reads almost like a throwaway phrase. After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus goes off to pray and the disciples go fishing. Sometime in the middle of the night, a storm blows up on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples look up to see Jesus walking on the water in their direction, but the narrative reports:
He looked as if he would pass them by.
Yes, they called out to him and he climbed into the boat and calmed the waves. And I wonder if there isn’t something else to learn from this story that seems to say Jesus was out there walking for some other reason than saving his followers from a good soaking.

My favorite is in the foot washing scene John describes as part of the last night Jesus spent with his disciples before his crucifixion. He begins:
Knowing he had come from God and was going to God, he took a towel . . .
In eleven words, John articulates the context of all that we are and all that we do: we have come from God and we are going to God. That arc of life is what enabled Paul to claim nothing – absolutely nothing – can separate us from God’s love shown to us in Christ. As they gathered that night, Jesus knew he was a dead man walking. He knew what was coming next. He also knew from whence he had come and where he was going well enough to care for his friends and to rest in the Love that held them all.

Yesterday, my friend Terry preached at our church and showed me another sentence that I had not seen before, even though I had read the passage many times. He read from John 20 about one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances when he came through the locked door and found the frightened disciples in the Upper Room. Terry pointed to this sentence in the story:
And with that, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
He went on to wonder how to unpack the sentence, which he described as a “Christian Breathing Ceremony.” Did Jesus say the words as he breathed? Did he breathe on them one at a time, or as a group? Did he breathe, and then speak? He went on to challenge us to consider the possibility of instituting a Sacrament of Breathing, much in the same way we have imitated Jesus’ words and actions in Communion, or for some in foot washing. And then he smiled.

“A little too intimate for you?” he asked. “Are you scared of halitosis?”

For both the Hebrews and the Greeks, the word for breath was also the word for spirit: ruach and pneuma, respectively. (The parallel exists in many other languages and religious traditions, I’m learning.) God breathed the universe into existence, breathed life into the lungs of the first humans; Jesus breathed the Spirit into his disciples. Hear Henri Nouwen:
The Spirit of God is like our breath. God’s spirit is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. We might not often be aware of it, but without it we cannot live a “spiritual life.” It is the Holy Spirit of God who prays in us, who offers us the gifts of love, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, gentleness, peace, and joy. It is the Holy Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy. Let us always pray: “Come, Holy Spirit, come.”
As Terry described the scene, I imagined Jesus blowing gently into the faces of his followers, each one closing his eyes and letting the breeze, if you will, fall across his face and into his heart. And I thought of a scene I had not recalled in many years from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, where Aslan breathes on all the creatures the Snow Queen had turned to stone and they came back to life in Narnia as the endless winter began to thaw.

There is power, power, power in the breath.

In most every moment of our lives, we breathe without thinking. It is what gives us life. Were we to stop breathing, we would stop being, just as poets speak of those who “breathe their last.” Meditation practices passed down across the centuries teach us to focus on nothing but our breathing as a way of centering, of letting the distractions fall away, of finding ourselves and God. What is most mundane is also most profound. At our church, Ginger begins the service each week by asking us to get comfortable in our seats, to relax, and to breathe.

“Inhale slowly,” she says, “and then exhale. Breathe in the breath of God and breathe out the love of God.”

We inhale the Spirit and exhale Love; we are coming from God and we are going to God. Every breath we take, if you will, every move we make can be an act of the Spirit and a breath of fresh air. Or, not. As my mind often does, it has wandered back to a hymn of my Baptist days that comes on a fresh breeze today:
Holy Spirit, breathe on me until my heart is clean;
let sunshine fill its inmost part, with not a cloud between.

Holy Spirit, breathe on me, my stubborn will subdue;
teach me in words of living flame what Christ would have me do.

Breathe on me, breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe on me;
Take Thou my heart, cleanse every part, Holy Spirit, breathe on me.

Holy Spirit, breathe on me, fill me with pow'r divine;
kindle a flame of love and zeal within this heart of mine.

Holy Spirit, breathe on me till I am all Thine own,
until my will is lost in Thine, to live for Thee alone.

Breathe on me, breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe on me;
Take Thou my heart, cleanse every part, Holy Spirit, breathe on me.
(If you want to sing along, you can hear the tune here.)