Monday, November 30, 2009

advent journal: how silently, how silently

I woke up this morning knowing it was going to be a busy day. (It appears waking up is oging to be a theme this season.) Mondays are rebuilding days at the Duke restaurant, meaning we pretty much have to make all things new, as far as our menu is concerned. From the time I get there at eleven until the dinner service begins at five, I keep a steady beat, working my way down a very long prep list. Though I knew my day would not have any significant breaks, I still put a couple of books in my bag, with it being Advent and all, because I always look for a couple of travelers for the journey this year. They rode to work with me and back home again before I was able to give them any attention; I was glad to have them with me nevertheless.

I did have something on my mind other than cooking, however. In L’Engle’s discussion of quanta last night there was something I didn’t quote, or quoted partially that kept coming back to me.

And, like the stars, they appear to be able to communicate with each other without sound or speech;

there is neither speech nor language; but their voices are heard among them,

sings the psalmist.
She is quoting Psalm 19, paraphrased this way by Eugene Peterson:
God's glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
Professor Night lectures each evening.

Their words aren't heard,
their voices aren't recorded,
But their silence fills the earth:
unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.
Wait – the choir extolling the sacredness of silence is not yet fully gathered.

I got home tonight and opened one of the books that had spent the day with me, Chet Raymo’s The Soul of the Night, to find him speaking of the silence of the stars. Raymo wrote a column for the Boston Globe for years that often spoke to me, even though it was in the Science section, because he looked at the universe with such a sense of wonder. Here’s what I read tonight:
As a student, I can across a book by Max Picard called The World of Silence. The book offered an insight that seems more valuable to me now than it did then. Silence, says Picard, is the source from which language springs, and to slience language must constantly return to be recreated. Only in relation to silence does sound have significance. It is for this silence, so treasured by Picard, that I turn to the marsh near Queset Brook in November. It is for this silence that I turn to the stars, to the ponderous inaudible turning of the galaxies, to the clanging of God’s great bell in the vacuum. The silence of the stars is the silence of creation and re-creation. It is the silence of that which cannot be named. (8)
I wonder. Another Bostonian, Phillips Brooks, came pretty close to naming it in one of my favorite carols:
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in
When Elijah ran and hid because he was scared of Jezebel, God found him and told him to go up on the mountain and wait. The wind came, then the earthquake, and then fire – all noisy signs, but, the scripture says, God was in none of them. Then came, as the footnote in the RSV says, “a thin silence.” And God was there, how silently once more.

Getting ready for dinner is a noisy, frantic affair; getting ready for Jesus, however, is not. Or so it appears. And this is where I come clean about not being so comfortable with silence. I’m not very good at being still and knowing God is God. Yet the cloud of witnesses gathering round me today are calling me to take stock of the spaces between the stars, the minute movements of the quanta, and listen to the sound of silence, a deep abiding call to re-creation and renewal.

We watched Elf again the other night – second time this year already. During the scene where Buddy bounces up into Santa’s sleigh as it is trying to take off, a jack in the box pops up and startles him. As many times as we have seen the movie, none of us had ever noticed that detail before. It seems to me the call to silence is a chance for me to find something new in the story, an opportunity to be caught by surprise in all to familiar territory. Ginger and I often speak of the difference between ritual and habit. The latter is something one does over and over without thinking, or because it is how it is always done. The former is meaningful and intentional repetition, embracing the paradox that mystery resides in words and deeds we know by heart.

And that mystery seeps to the surface when we are silent like the stars.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

advent journal: connected to change

I woke, on this first day of Advent, knowing that the day was full, moving from church to work to writing (since my practice is to write everyday during the season), and hoping I could point my mind and heart in a direction that would give me something to say when I got home from work around eleven. Just before I left the house, I checked the Writer’s Almanac for my daily dose of poetry only to find that this particular First Sunday of Advent is the same day on which both Madeleine L’Engle and C. S. Lewis were born. And I said – out loud, “At least I know what I’m going to write about tonight.”

I met both writers when I was a child. Not in person, you understand. Mrs. Reedy read A Wrinkle in Time to us as reward for our hard work as fourth graders at the Lusaka International School; I don’t remember how The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe ended up in my hands, but it set me off on adventures of my own as I climbed through the back of the wardrobe with Lucy and the others. I could fill up two or three shelves with books by the two of them, and write for several weeks about what each of the different books had meant to me. Therefore, I feel right in saying I met them when I was a child and they became my friends, though neither ever knew me.

Madeleine taught me about Advent, as well as the rest of the liturgical year. I have read and re-read The Irrational Season, which is a series of essays beginning with Advent (“The Night is Far Spent”), following the calendar through Epiphany and Lent and so on, and ending with Advent once more (“The Day is at Hand.”) I can’t get to my copy tonight because we have a friend visiting who is sleeping in the room where that book lives, and so I picked up one that stays here in the dining room, And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings, and paged through, reading what I had underlined many years ago. What I found reminded me that one of the strains of faith Madeleine has sung with resonance to my heart is that of connectedness.

Quanta, the tiny subatomic particles being studied in quantum mechanics, cannot exist alone; there cannot be a quantum, for quanta exist only in relationship to each other. And they can never be studied objectively, because even to observe them is to change them. And, like the stars, they appear to be able to communicate with each other without sound or speech . . . Surely what is true of quanta is true of the creation; it is true of quarks, it is true of human beings. We do not exist in isolation. We are part of a vast web of relationships and interrelationships which sing themselves in the ancient harmonies. Nor can we be studied objectively, because to look at us is to change us. And for us to look at anything is to change not only what we are looking at, but ourselves, too. (20,21)
My margin note reads, “Life is a group sport.”

This First Sunday also marks two years since Ginger came to what is now our church here in Durham. We moved because we felt God calling us here, which also meant leaving the Boston area, where we had spent all of our married life together, save the first four months. Two years means we have been here long enough to begin to find new friendships, which take time to grow, and long enough to be reminded moving does not mean forgetting. “I thank my God when I remember you,” Paul wrote, “because you have filled my life with joy.” Those words were burned into my heart because of a song the Youth Choir in Fort Worth sang to and for us as we were leaving them for Boston. Perhaps it is the lyric that best fits the ancient harmonies of which L’Engle speaks. Our daily lives are no more stable than the quarks and quanta, change being the defining word for all of us; what endures is love: love that calls our name from the past, love that greets us in the present, love that calls us into whatever the future might be.

Whatever it is, we will go together.

Seventeen or eighteen First Sundays ago, I went with Ginger to the church in Winchester for the first time. She had been the Youth Minister there for several months, but we didn’t have a car and I was in graduate school and teaching full time, so the prospect of losing a couple of hours to the commuter rail wasn’t an option for me. I slipped down Bunker Hill in Charlestown for early mass at the Episcopal church (again, thanks to Madeleine for the introduction) and then back home to study. Ginger came home one day and asked if I would be the prophet for Advent and walk in each Sunday in costume and read the lectionary passage. (Did I mention I had shoulder length hair and a beard at the time?) I think it was the second or third Sunday that Ginger came up with the idea that I should sing the chorus of “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell as I came up the aisle, and then again as I exited. She has served three churches since then and I have sung my way to prophecy in each one.

The song has left an indelible mark on my heart, because it reminds me of the faces and stories that have gone with my ritual; these too, are words that fit the ancient harmonies. Today, as I walked out, the congregation sang with me. However we prepare, we will do it together, which means it will not be the same as every other First Sunday. As Madeleine says,
We do not love each other without changing each other. (21)
In what was then the second book in the Narnia series, Prince Caspian, Lewis wrote a scene that added another theme to my life. The children return to Narnia, much older now, and Lucy, the youngest, keeps looking for Aslan, the Lion. When she finally finds him – well, let me let Lewis tell it.
“Aslan, Aslan. Dear Aslan,” sobbed Lucy. “At last.”

The great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large wise face.

“Welcome, child,” he said.

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”

“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.” (141)
God changes, too, along with the quarks and the quanta and the quixotic band of pilgrims that sang with me this morning, or in Marshfield, or in Winchester, or in any place where people gathered to watch and wait to get lost in wonder, love, and praise, singing in tune with the ancient harmonies that call us to connectedness and to change.


Friday, November 27, 2009

an altar in the field

We are suckers for Christmas movies around our house and, as a result, last night ended with us all watching Miracle on 34th Street (the John Hughes version) before we went to bed. In the commercial breaks, whatever channel it was kept talking about “The Countdown to the Twenty-five Days before Christmas,” which I could not help making fun of because they were finding a way to add days to their promotion. And then I thought, “At least they are having a countdown.” Marketing scheme or not, they are inviting us to get ready.

For Christians, tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. Our church year draws to a close and begins again anew on the First Sunday of Advent, our season of preparation, of waiting, of telling the story of how our God, the Creator of the Universe and Ultimate Expression of Extravagance, thought the best way to incarnate Love was to come in the person of a baby born to a Palestinian peasant family. We know the story as well as we know the lines a redeemed George Bailey yells as he runs home through the snow in Bedford Falls, or Tiny Tim’s words as the Cratchit family’s dinner table. We have our own countdown to Christmas.

While we wait in the weeks to come, we will hear what our new strategy in Afghanistan will be, how serious our elected officials are about healthcare reform that is serious about taking care of people over profits, who will get Grammy nominations, how bad the economy is, how rich the big banks continue to be, and how divided we are as a nation. We won’t hear much about the wars in the Congo or Darfur, and we’ll see a lot of commercials and holiday specials, which is to say most of what happens in this Advent season will not help us get ready for Jesus to come again into our lives.

Two thousand years of Christmases and the tidings of comfort and joy don’t seem to come any easier. The wars are even in the same places they have been for all those centuries. Mary and Joseph had to go through checkpoints for the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria and Bethlehem is still barricaded tonight. As best I can tell, there has not been in a year in the little over half a century that I have been alive that the world has been without war, much less known much of peace.

So how then, do we interpret our coming back to the story, year after year after year, to speak and sing of the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger?

One of my favorite Bible stories is in Joshua, after the Hebrew people have crossed through the Jordan River following the Ark of the Covenant. When they get to the other side, Joshua tells them to stack up the stones:

Joshua called out the twelve men whom he selected from the People of Israel, one man from each tribe. Joshua directed them, "Cross to the middle of the Jordan and take your place in front of the Chest of God, your God. Each of you heft a stone to your shoulder, a stone for each of the tribes of the People of Israel, so you'll have something later to mark the occasion. When your children ask you, 'What are these stones to you?' you'll say, 'The flow of the Jordan was stopped in front of the Chest of the Covenant of God as it crossed the Jordan—stopped in its tracks. These stones are a permanent memorial for the People of Israel.'" (Joshua 4:4-7, The Message)
In the midst of a culture that values popularity over principle, chooses fear over faith, and puts stock in power over peace, I want to find the stack of stones (and add a few new ones) to remember what it means to see ourselves as namesakes of the one who grew up out of that manger and called us to be peacemakers. I want to stand in the eye of the hurricane of hope that is the Incarnation, that caught shepherds in its swirl and made magi change their way and wonder what new things God might birth in us this year.

Some years ago, Bob Bennett wrote a song called “Altar in the Field.” One verse says:
I build an altar in the field
in honor in memory
of the many graces I’ve been shown
and the ones I’ve yet to see
and so I leave this symbol
fashioned by my hand
the marker of a love
that I will never understand
I leave an altar in the field
I am waiting to begin waiting, and gathering some stones of my own.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

making pies

For the first time in a couple of years, I didn't have to work the day before Thanksgiving, which meant I got to return to one of my favorite personal traditions: Pie-a-palooza. For reasons I cannot completely explain, this particular holiday compels me to bake pies. Some are for our own enjoyment, and we share them as well. I managed to knock out nine of them today: two sweet potato, two pumpkin, two pecan, two brown sugar buttermilk, and one blueberry (Ginger's favorite). As I worked, I couldn't help but hum one of my favorite Patty Griffin songs, "Making Pies," about a woman who worked at the Tabletop Pie Company in Worcester, Massachusetts. May you have a joyful and thankful day.


Sunday, November 22, 2009

thank you

cynicism comes with coffee
as artificial as sweetener
we’ve grown accustomed
to the bitter aftertaste
negative is normal
critiques and criticisms
pass for conversation in
a culture short on courage
and long on loud

gratitude is hard work
to choose to be thankful
requires the tenacity
of a heart broken open
and willing to sit silently
on a starlight night or in
the shadow of a bee’s wing
the opposite of fear
is thank you -- thank you


Thursday, November 19, 2009

roots music

A couple of weeks ago, I took a Friday morning to do an exercise from Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write, which was to construct a time line of my life. I left the house thinking I would be gone a couple of hours. Almost three hours later, I came home with one section done: from my birth to age five. I wrote about things I remembered and things that had been told to me so often I feel as though I remember them, looking back to my birth in Corpus Christi, Texas to moving to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia to coming to Fort Worth, Texas for our first furlough from the mission field, using the vocabulary of those days.

As I began to write what specifics I could remember, my mind began to turn them into larger themes, giving me eyes to see the traces of melody in my early childhood that have continue to inform much of the soundtrack of my life. One of those themes is a sense of rootlessness. We were on a ship to Africa when I turned one year old, so Corpus was nothing more than a birthplace and I never went back there with any intentionality, either as a child or as an adult. When we returned to Africa, we didn’t go back to Bulawayo, but moved north to Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia because my parents saw greater opportunity there. I’ve never gone back to Bulawayo either. Fort Worth has some long standing connections for me, but those grew later rather than earlier in my life. I was married and faraway from both Africa and Texas before a place (Boston) ever became home.

I’ve written before
of Arnaldo, the Cuban dishwasher who works with me at the Duke restaurant. He is a wonderful and kind man who came to this country as a part of the Mirabel boat lift in 1980, after having fought in the Cuban army in Angola. Last week he asked if I could find someone to work for him on Tuesday night because he was graduating from his recovery program at Urban Ministries of Durham. (I feel comfortable sharing this with you because his picture was on the front page of the paper.) Though he has not been in Cuba for almost thirty years, Cuba is home to Arnaldo. I love to hear him talk about the country, the people, the food, and the music. On any given night, he will regale us with a Cuban song without much cajoling at all. And so, as a graduation present, I gave him a copy of Ry Cooder’s production masterpiece, The Buena Vista Social Club.

Last night, he came into work with his graduation certificate high above his head, and we cheered for him. “Arnaldo,” I said, “I have something for you,” and I gave him the CD, which he immediately unwrapped and put into the old boom box in the corner of the kitchen. He began singing along from Note One.

“I knew these guys,” he said. “I knew these guys.” And he, Abel (our Guatemalan cook), and I danced around the kitchen, except, in my case, danced is a euphemism.

“Thank you, Milton,” he said. “It’s the best thing you could have done for me.”

In the garden of life, I’m a potted plant, able to moved about as the need arises. I thrive fairly well, though I appear to need increasingly larger pots as I mature. Arnaldo is an old oak, even though he is far from the land where his heart took root. He has the dirt in his DNA. They may have shipped him off because he wouldn’t stay in the army, but he is Cuban to the core.

I have very little idea of how that feels, yet I did learn yesterday that even those of us who don’t know much about home can help someone else find their way there, which turns out to be an incredible gift for everyone involved.


Monday, November 16, 2009

start the revolution

Mondays are long days in the restaurant at Duke because, in the parlance of the kitchen, we have to “rebuild our prep”: we have to make all things (0r most things) new. We are open Monday through Thursday nights, and, well, we don’t really want to serve stuff that has sat around while we were gone. Some stuff can go in the freezer or gets used or taken home, but some things we have to let go and make new come Monday. Today that list included cutting fresh steaks, breaking down whole chickens and roasting them, cutting pork chops, cutting the calamari rings and preparing the dredge mixture, making the “tobacco onions” (onions sautéed and then cooked in equal parts molasses and Worcestershire sauce), making the pasta sauces (rosemary and marinara), making the desserts (brownies, apple crisps, chocolate chip pan cookies, banana nut bread pudding), preparing the sweet potato pancake mixture, cooking fresh pasta, making rice, mashing potatoes, prepping the side vegetables, making the macaroni and cheese pastries, and baking cornbread.

Like I said, Monday is a long day.

At the Durham restaurant, the whole menu changes four or five times a year, in large part to maintain our commitment to seasonal and local food, but also for some of the same reasons we prep new stuff on Mondays: to keep things fresh and interesting, to help us sharpen both our skills and our imaginations, to keep us from getting complacent about our cooking. It also requires we stare down our fear to risk. After a month or two, a menu becomes comfortable and reliable, and customers become attached to particular dishes. Replacing all the entrees means knocking off the favorites and asking our diners to risk with us. For the most part, they do.

Seeing both things as metaphor has been on my mind today after finishing Parker J. Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, where he spends a good bit of time talking about how the working metaphors for our lives affect how we live them out. He also talks about leadership, and the “shadows” we have to live through in order to find the lights of inner strength and outward community, one of which he describes as the “denial of death itself,” and he says:

Within our denial of death lurks fear of another sort: fear of failure. In most organizations, failure means a pink slip in your box, even if that failure, that “little death,” was suffered in the service of high purpose. It is interesting that science, so honored in our culture, seems to have transcended this particular fear. A good scientist does not fear the death of a hypothesis, because that “failure” clarifies the steps that need to be taken toward truth, sometimes more than a hypothesis that succeeds. The best leaders in every setting reward people for taking worthwhile risks even if they are likely to fail. These leaders know that the death of an initiative – if it was tested for good reasons – is always a source of new learning.

The gift we receive on the inner journey is the knowledge that death finally comes to everything – and yet death does not have the final word. By allowing something to die when its time is done, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.
I had the morning off on Friday before going to work on a catering gig, so I went with Ginger to hear a discussion at the Duke Divinity School being moderated by one of our church members. One of the presenters asked, “How do we think about our Christian tradition in new and radical ways?” She went on to say, for instance, two of the archetypal themes of Christian history were radical generosity and iconoclasm. The Christian tradition has, at its core, a stream of a radical re-looking at our blind spots and asking, “Who is being denied their imago Dei?” We do better, she said, when we chose to see revolution as normal in our lives of faith.

On Saturday morning, I was a part of a deacons’ retreat at our church. We worked hard with an eye to how we can help our church grow to be stronger and more vital in our witness to our community. I gotta tell ya, it’s easier to latch on to revolution as normal when it is a grand idea in a seminar than when it is talking about line items in the budget of a local congregation. I thrive on change probably more than most folks and I also understand every institution, large and small, requires a certain amount of steadfastness for the sake of self-preservation. The paradox of that preservation is that it is less secure in keeping everything the same than it is when things are allowed to die and revolution is allowed its natural place in the order of things. We are evolutionary creatures; we were created to thrive when we grow and change; we were not built to stay the same.

I’m grateful to say I saw some seeds of faithful insurgency planted around our table Saturday morning. I’m looking forward in seeing what takes root in our hearts, even as I am aware of the fledgling rumblings of revolution within my own heart. What would that be: a coup de coeur?

That I’ve been reading Palmer is no accident. I’m working hard to listen to my life because there is much to hear. These are days full of invitations to follow, which also means being willing to follow and fail, and learn and grow. As much as it makes for great devotional writing, the prospect of failure gets more foreboding with age, or the attachments and entanglements that come with being on the planet for over half a century. It’s just tougher to strip the gears and head a new direction, that’s all. On the other hand, when I look ahead believing I am far from finished with my time here, why would I not want to let it all ride on the next big adventure, the next chapter in the story, the next menu, if you will?

Why not, indeed.


Friday, November 13, 2009

a poet's bible

As I was reading this morning, I reached for David Rosenberg’s A Poet’s Bible: Rediscovering the Voices of the Original Text and his translation of parts of Job and Ecclesiastes took me on a wonderful little journey.

A Poet's Bible

I found it used, on the shelf
in the basement of the Harvard
Bookstore, one blurb proclaiming,

“The best translation of this century,”
yet relegated to life among the
remnants and returned, years ago.

And this morning, after coffee and
my own reflection on my daily
work, I found it again and pulled

it from my own shelf and a place
it had sat unread far too many
days for a best translation.

I opened to Ecclesiastes
(turn, turn, turn)
to see how the poet heard what

I know by heart because he knew
the words behind the words,
all unrecognizable consonants

to me, running right to left,
as if we were playing the record
backwards to see what was being

secretly said; but there’s no secret
when I can sit and listen to
my life, to his words:
the grace to be still
in the flow of all creation

for a moment
I read it repeatedly in silence
and the chill of this rainy morning
glistening with the grace that has

traversed millennia, transcended
language, and is aged with the
understanding of fallen leaves and

broken branches, life and death,
failure and hope: used books,
used lives found in translation.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

the fellowship of the broken

I have several friends who are authors.

Not that I’ve ever met them, you understand. They don’t even know who I am. Yet I count them as friends because their words have helped me to learn and grow. And so I carry deep gratitude and affection toward Madeleine L’Engle, Frederick Buechner, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Henri Nouwen, to name a few. I thought of Nouwen in particular tonight when I got email today about The TED Prize that was awarded to Karen Armstrong (also an author) in 2008 and culminated today in the launching of the Charter for Compassion. Armstrong is a former nun who has become one of the world’s best and best-known religious historians and probably one of the few people in the world who actually understands Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The Charter for Compassion is her initiative to call people together by beginning with the understanding that compassion and interconnectedness lie at the heart of most all of the world’s religions. The charter begins:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

I still haven’t gotten to how Henri Nouwen fits in to all of this. Well, I have to back up a few years.

Try twenty-five years.

In the early eighties, Nouwen wrote a book called Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life that I bought and read and read again. In it, he gave me the best working definition of compassion – voluntarily entering the pain of another – and he made the case for that compassion being a “uniquely Christian virtue.” As one blurb explains:

At first sight compassion seems to be a natural, instinctive, human response to others’ pain and suffering. But on closer inspection the authors conclude that for the Christian true compassion is born only out of prayerful reflection on the implications of the Incarnation and the demands it makes on all who would follow in the footsteps of the Man of Sorrows.
As I listened to Armstrong talk, I wondered what he would do if he were here to read her offering. Would the priest and the former nun find they were on the same page? The question is fun to think about, but it’s not the one driving me to write tonight. Listen to Nouwen:
Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. As busy, active, relevant ministers, we want to earn our bread by making a real contribution. This means first and foremost doing something to show that our presence makes a difference. And so we ignore our greatest gift, which is our ability to enter into solidarity with those who suffer. Those who can sit in silence with their fellowman, not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.
The Fellowship of the Broken. Yes.

As I read his words again, I realize I understand what he is talking about because of the Incarnation, because of my faith in Christ and the lessons I learn from Jesus’ life. When I listen to Armstrong, I understand the Fellowship of the Broken is not limited to Christians any more than we can claim to have a corner on the truth (or the Truth). We are called to care for one another because we are all God’s children.

God’s broken children.

Nouwen was compelling because he lived a life of true compassion, actually entering pain he could not comprehend. He asked to be sent to the poorest parish in the world to work even as he was becoming a well-known writer and speaker; he also spent years as a part of the L’Arche Community. No doubt his faith was what compelled him to make those choices. The same was true for Gandhi, yet the faith that led him down the same path of brokenness was not called by the same name.

Before we even join churches or mosques or synagogues, we are a part of the Fellowship of the Broken. Coming to terms with that connection and committing ourselves to compassionate living is what will begin to put us back together.

Take a minute and watch the video.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

fall music sampler: rainy day edition

As the remnants of Ida make their way through our neighborhood, I thought tonight might be a good one to think about rain songs. I'll start with a great clip of Usher dancing along side of Gene Kelley and "Singing in the Rain."

I'll follow with a clip of a very young Nanci Griffith singing something those of us who are not so far removed from our drought days might still be willing to sing: "I Wish It Would Rain."

And speaking of youngsters, here is Stephen Bishop in an American Bandstand clip singing "Save It for a Rainy Day."

One title can lead to two good songs; here's the Jayhawks (also from long ago) singing their song of the same name:

James Taylor covered the song "Rainy Day Man" with great success; here's Bonnie Raitt singing it back to him at a tribute show.

I'll let her song be the segue to James Taylor and Elvis Costello covering the Everly Brothers' "Crying in the Rain."

She's got a song that fits the category, so I can't pass up the chance to share Patty Griffin's "Rain."

And I'll close with another cover: the Boss singing John Fogerty's "Who'll Stop the Rain."

Stay warm and dry, my friends.


Monday, November 09, 2009

of cardboard and connectedness

The loading dock area behind the West Union at Duke, in which my restaurant is located, is also where we go to throw away our trash. The singular term no longer applies because of the way we are expected to separate and organize our refuse for disposal. There is a giant dumpster where the garbage goes, but first we keep any food-related trash for the compost area, recyclables (plastics, glass, aluminum) in recycling bins, and all cardboard boxes have to be flattened and put into a baler.

I am sharing all this scintillating information to get to this detail: every restaurant in our building has to take a turn being responsible for keeping the trash area clean and emptying the baler everyday for a week, and that week comes round for us every other month. Our latest week began today. Billy, the daytime chef is a Duke institution, knows everyone, and takes great pride in the area being cleanest when it’s our week. That also means when someone just dumps their cardboard, he figures out who it is, goes and gets them, and makes them clean up. Up until tonight, he has been the one to do the baling, and I have helped enough to know how to do it. It’s just never been full at the end of my shift.

Tonight it was. More than full. So full Abel and I had to take out almost a third of what was in there to get the baler to work. For those of you who remember when David Letterman used to crush things with a pneumatic press, that’s what this baler does. The cardboard gets loaded in the front, a giant press keeps squeezing it down, and that process continues until you have a full bundle. Then you manually keep the press in the down position, open the front of the machine, thread two twenty foot metal ties through the machine so they wrap around the bale and bind them, release the press so the bale is free, set a wooden palette in front of the open machine, raise the floor so the bale rolls out on the palette (we’re talking a ton of cardboard here), roll the palette down to the loading dock, put some fresh pieces of flat cardboard down so the threading will work the next time, and close the front door so people can start stacking stuff in there again. Tonight, we got to add the steps of cleaning up after two restaurants who, when they saw the baler was full, decided it was cool to jus throw their boxes next to the machine without even breaking them down.

If you are still reading at this point, here’s my question: when you know what it is like to have to deal with the baler because you have to take a turn, why would you make life more difficult for those who are baling when it’s not your turn?

Seems like an obvious question (and answer), yet I notice most every time I take out the trash, whether assigned to bale or not, that cardboard is strewn about without much thought for who does have to do the cleanup. And, I’m afraid, that kind of insensitivity is not confined to recycling at Duke. We, as human beings, often fall short in the “do unto others” category. We may not want it done to us, but we don’t necessarily choose for that to also mean we won’t do it unto others.

In restaurants that serve more than one meal, as the ones I work in both do, all of depend on the kindness of coworkers to leave the station in shape for us who follow. And we are expected to leave things ready for the next shift to come in. That means everything from cleaning well to leaving notes about what might have been used up or will need to be prepped, to taking time to refill squeeze bottles or consolidate the produce in the walk-in refrigerator. And, though I realize this has to rank right up there with a shaggy dog story when it comes to lengthy set ups, I am struck that life is the same way. Whatever the action or the situation, we are, for the most part, following someone into that situation and will be followed by another. It’s as true about grocery lines as it is about churches.

Somewhere in my blog reading when I got home from work (and I lost the reference by the time I got out of the shower and came back to write), I came across a wonderful post challenging churches to think beyond the present tense and be mindful of those who will follow. Their point was looking at a grand theological idea; I’m looking at the same idea on a more hands-on level. Think about who will be walking into the room next, pulling into the parking place next, using that shopping cart next, stepping into your spot once you have moved on. I’m not advocating Random Acts of Kindness (though I like those) as much as making a case for Intentional Acts of I Knew You Were Coming After Me.

We are all being followed, even as we follow someone into most every situation. We may not be able to control much of any of the situations we walk into, yet we can determine how we will leave things for those who come after us. Though I wish more folks would remember this week, while I am baling the cardboard, I’m writing mostly so I will remember next week and next month when I’m not.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

best lights

It’s not so much the words
as the way they sometimes
line up, the way they are
placed on the page --
single syllables can speak,
tear open false healings,
deep calling to deep
with faith and familiarity
both brand new and ages old.
I saw these four words:
our own best lights
at the tail end of a sentence
about being true

and I wondered where
my best lights had gone,
why I become too easily
accustomed to beams
buried under bushel baskets
of daily living, how I can
forget what brightness is,
how easily dim becomes
the definition of normal.
Yet, found by four small
words, I remember the light
shines in the darkness and
the darkness cannot put it out.


Friday, November 06, 2009

chance meetings

I’m a collector. Not a keep-it-in-the-box-so-it-will-be-valuable-someday kind of guy, as much as I like to keep things around for a few days (weeks, years) before I let them go. Things like grocery store receipts, ticket stubs, random pieces of paper that somehow ended up in my pocket. I have brochures and postcards, old magazines, business cards scattered here and yon around the house and, every so often (though not as often as Ginger would like) I clear (at least some of) them out.

My mind is much like the top of my desk in that I collect random bits of information, both useful and not so, and keep them tucked away in what passes for a mental filing system, but is perhaps more like one of those random thought generators that goes to the pile and pushes one to the top every so often. One of my favorite recurring metaphors that keeps bouncing back came from a Wittenburg Door article in the late Seventies or early Eighties that talked about “billiard ball relationships” and how we spend most of our lives deflecting off one another on our way to somewhere else rather than spending the time and energy required to listen to and love one another. Even in the incidental contact of life, we can find meaning and connection rather than allowing ourselves to offer nothing more than a glancing blow.

Somewhere around the same time, Christine Lavin sang a song that I keep in the same file, “The Moment Slipped Away,” that begins:

She's a famous actress movies and TV
I recognize her as we climb the stairs of the IRT
we cross the street together moving up Broadway
I'm trying to come up with something clever I can say
about how I love her work what it means to me
how in her most recent film she acted brilliantly
maybe she'll think I'm stupid maybe this'll make her day
but she disappeared into the crowd and the moment slipped away
Both metaphor and melody found me in the afternoon flow of this fall day in 2009 as I was out running errands. I had three tasks: take the Story People poster Ginger gave me for framing, get light bulbs at Lowe’s, and get gas for the lawnmower. My first stop was the TROSA Frame Shop, which also sells furniture. TROSA is Triangle Residence Options for Substance Abusers and a wonderful organization that helps addicts get back on their feet through work. Along with the frame shop, they have a landscaping business and a moving company; all three do great work at fair prices. I’ve been going to the frame shop for over a year now and have gotten to know the woman who does the framing at least well enough that we call each other by name and have told a little bit of our stories.

At the end of April last year, I stopped in the store because I was passing by and saw her at the desk. She beamed as she told me she was just days away from being clean for eighteen months. I asked her what that meant and she said, “It means I get forty dollars of my own each month.” She continued, “That don’t sound like much, but when you’ve gone eighteen months without two nickels to rub together, it feels like a lot.” TROSA had provided her housing, employment, and support over that time, but that forty bucks meant she had earned their trust.

I have not seen her since. Today, I walked in as she was coming down the stairs and she smiled, called my name, and gave me a big hug. Before I could say anything about framing, she told me November 3rd had been her two year anniversary. She had completed the program, was going to graduate on November 15th, and was now in school training to become a TROSA staffer.

I felt fortunate to get to share her excitement and achievement.

I parked at the BP station not far from our house and went in to pay for the dollar’s worth of gas I needed for the mower. When I came out, a Pontiac that looked as though it had come off the assembly line about the same time as Christine Lavin’s record was parked behind me. The driver’s door was open and a man who looked quite frail was sitting with one foot out on the pavement, looking at my car and perhaps wondering what had happened to the driver. When I walked up, he said, “I like your license plate.” (I have Red Sox frames around them.”) I thanked him and he continued, “I was up there in 1980 – Carlton Fisk’s last season.”

“We moved from there about two years ago,” I answered. “I like it here, too.”

“More laid back,” he said, and smiled. I wished him a good evening and then he said, “Nice to meet you. I don’t imagine I will be seeing you again.”

He turned our glancing blow into a lovely moment of truth and connectedness. We probably won’t see each other again. (Right – now watch us run into each other at the gas station once a week.) The brevity of our contact in the scope of human history shouldn’t diminish the moment of common humanity we shared. How much better a life full of those kinds of chance meetings over one filled with silent passings.

Someone has said of language that we have words for what matters to us. Take note, then, we do not have words for the kinds of encounters that colored my afternoon. The frame lady and I are not friends, yet we are more than acquaintances or passing strangers. The gas station guy are more than passing strangers simply because we took time to speak. We have words for neither.

Both need names lest we forget they matter, and they help to make us whole.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

kodak moment

I had a camera once that could take pictures
with everything in focus, from front to back,
each detail crisp, sharp, and identifiable.
I can’t do that with my own eyes, as

I learned again this week, driving through
Duke Forest, the variegated veil of fall flavors
cascading down from the tree tops to street level.
I pulled to the side of the road and gazed into

one canyon of color, layers of gold and green,
of umbers and ochres, shades of life and death,
and I wished for my old camera to let me see
all of them at once. Instead, I had to settle

for my human view, choosing the near or
the far or the in-betweens, a leafy lesson
to remind me how hard it is to carry both
dreams and memories, or hope and duty;

that the journey to wholeness is less about
seeing everything clearly than seeing
clearly that everything has its season,
its fleeting moment to be in plain view.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009

taking time

Remember when Alanis Morissette told us irony was “like rain on your wedding day” – which is mostly sad and not ironic at all? Well, it’s not raining here in Durham, but I have my own offering of irony: I’ve been all set for a post on Sabbath for several days and haven’t made time to write.

Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

This weekend my church hosted a conference on “Faith and the Environment.” My contribution was to help prepare the meals on Friday night and Saturday morning. One of the conference organizers took me on a shopping spree at our State Farmers Market in Raleigh and almost everything we ate came from there. I met some great people doing some wonderful things on both small and large scales. And I heard Norman Wirzba talk about Sabbath and what the concept means for our care of and compassion for the creation of which we are a part.

Using the Genesis 1 account as a map of sorts, he took us on a journey through the days in which God spoke all that is us and around us into existence and then looked at the Seventh Day when God rested to reflect on the purpose behind everything that had been brought into being. The climax of creation, Wirzba said, was this act of menuha, tranquility and repose. Sabbath is not doing nothing, but resting, reflecting, reinvigorating. Rest, in this sense, is the opposite of restlessness.

I came away with a couple of quotes that have stayed with me through what has already been a more restless week than I would like. I will quote them and then tell you they pull me beyond the speech in our Fellowship Hall.

Creation is the place where the love of God is made concrete.

Creation is an act of ultimate hospitality: God made room for what was not God to be.

Though I have not been posting, I have managed to get back in the routine of my Morning Pages (thanks, in part, to Wirzba’s words), which I see as a moment of morning Sabbath, if you will. And as I have turned these two ideas over in my mind and heart, what keeps coming to mind pulls me to see them in the light of knowing that I am created in the image of God. As God spent the “week” breathing, speaking, imagining a universe with everything from light years to ladybugs into existence and then followed that brilliance with time to think about what it all meant, I have weeks of my own to consider. What am I breathing, speaking, and imagining into the world in which I live? How is my love made concrete in what I do? Or is it? And then the big one, for me: how am I making room for what is not me to be?

Twice this week I’ve answered my phone to hear the voice of an old friend. Two different friends, actually. Each one was calling from the road, on their way from one place to another, and began with the same sentence, “I was driving and thinking about you and thought I would call.” The conversations took different turns after their openings, but both had the same result: I hung up the phone feeling loved and connected to something beyond me: to memories and dusty dreams, to laughter and longing, to hope , and to love (as E. E. Cummings said) that is “more thicker than forget.”

Their love made concrete has made me wonder who needs to hear from me.

Working in a restaurant kitchen carries with it a certain sense of urgency: we work with perishable products, we are almost always facing a deadline, and, once service starts, we cook until they quit coming. All those things are true, as is the fact that our sense of urgency is as much self-imposed as it is false. I get more calls on my day off than a heart surgeon it seems sometimes, and most of them were, well, not urgent. But waiting is not one of our strong suits. I’m working to understand this urgent illusion because buying into it is one of the ways I end up not making room for what is not me to be. I can’t make room. I don’t have time. I have things to do.

But living into the wholeness of being created in God’s image is about time, not things. Abraham Joshua Heschel said:

The Bible is more concerned with time than with space. It sees the world in the dimension of time. It pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things; it is more concerned with history than with geography. To understand the teaching of the Bible, one must accept the premise that time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space; that time has a significance and sovereignty of its own.
If time is at the core of what life means, even as God took the seventh day to relish and reflect on what he had brought to be, how then does time feel like such a tyrant? Why do I feel I have to wrestle my schedule to find time for Ginger, for writing, for life?

I am not living creatively, I think. God did not imagine me living this way. I want to take time to imagine living differently as well.

And then write a new creation story of my own.