Thursday, March 31, 2011

lenten journal: an open letter to an old friend

for David Gentiles

it’s not the anniversary
of anything other
than the second March
without you here
still you showed up
unexpectedly at a meeting
I had with some people
to talk about a dream

and then again tonight
in Nathan’s new book
though I had a hunch
you might be in there
but you snuck up on me
when I sat down to write
with the innocence mission
as background singers --

one friend writes,
everything is changing
while the day sky stays blue
changing around him
and me without you
waiting for you to arrive
where does the time go
where does the time go

-- and then I remembered . . .
it’s opening day
your Indians are in first
for at least a few days
at least that’s what I said
to the picture on the desk
both of us smiling at Christy’s
wedding like old friends


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

lenten journal: lenten acoustics

I spent the day packing boxes, loading them into the U-Haul, and unpacking them in their new location. In this year when I’m not going to have to move to a new house, my school decided to move to a new building. We’ve anticipated the move since the beginning of the school year, but permitting and bureaucratic issues with the town (not Durham) have delayed things, to put it mildly. We went into high moving gear when we got the clearances we needed in order to not have to pay April rent in our current location. We divided into groups, each teacher taking on a team of kids and a list of assignments, and we got it done – or at least got a lot of it done; tomorrow we will finish and I will drive to the new building when I go to work on Friday.

As someone who has spent my life moving, I’ve learned a thing or two about place. A few years ago, I wrote a post called “cooking acoustics,” which was about the power of the room when it comes to baking bread. Many years before that, I remember a conversation with Rhealene Stewart, who was the organist at University Baptist Church most of my life. She was there when the church moved into the “big sanctuary” and used to talk about how the room changed the people. “We became more formal from the very first service,” she said, “not because we talked about it or decided to do it, but just because we moved from church in the Fellowship Hall to church in a room with stained glass windows and a pipe organ.” Church acoustics.

Ginger and I have lived in seven residences in our marriage. In each one, we have developed traditions that were site specific, not because we were intentional about leaving them behind as we moved but because a different space offered different “marriage acoustics,” if you will. In Marshfield, the set up in our living room with a u-shaped couch turned, somehow, into our putting a futon mattress down on the floor – we called it the palette – and sleeping there from Thanksgiving to Christmas (or New Year’s). It was one of our favorite things. We moved to Durham and the living room was neither big enough for the couch or a mattress. When Thanksgiving came, we just didn’t do it, and remarked to each other of the passing of the ritual but the futon seemed to belong in Marshfield in a way it didn’t find a home here in Durham.

So as I stood in what will be my room, which tonight is filled with furniture to be placed and boxes to be unpacked, I wondered what the school acoustics will be. The traffic patterns between classes will change, how the rooms are set up will be different, the options I have in teaching are increased. Also, there are more windows, it feels like there is more space, and the building is located in a much more populated area (with a bakery next door!). I have to learn a new route to and from school and figure out a new time to leave each day to get there on time.

As I drove home this afternoon thinking about the day, I began to think about Durham’s acoustics and the resonance my life is finding here. Part of what has shaped me here is missing Massachusetts, and the grief is not the whole range of feelings. The sanctuary at our church here is a small A-framed building that is wood and brick on the inside. I love to sing in the sanctuary because of the way my voice expands in the space. It feels effortless to me. I can feel my throat relax, my muscles ease, and I become connected to the room rather than someone just standing in the middle of it. Walking the street of this city feels the same way. Connected.

Lent reminds me that there are liturgical acoustics as well. These are days of focus and forgiveness, of preparation and intentionality. Eastertide rolls in as the stone rolls away and bursts in our hearts like a big bass drum. Pentecost is Snoopy dancing in the leaves. Lenten acoustics for me thrive on resonance and memory in much the same way I can hear a song I love but have not heard in years and the melody comes up from inside of me out of muscle memory bringing with it not only words and music but the sights and smells and feelings and faces of all the times I have heard or sung that song.

long ago a young man sits
and plays his waiting game
I remember buying the record as a sophomore at Paschal High School in Fort Worth -- 1971. Tonight, some forty years later, it swam to the surface on this spring night as I write about the acoustics of place because I’ve been packing boxes once again. What reverberates most is the gratitude.


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

lenten journal: holding pattern

the reason we don’t
go spinning into
space as the world turns
they say is gravity
as though being weighed
down is what does it

we sat around the
dinner table with
one who wrote a book
that mattered to Ginger
and was held in place
by the power of words

we helped serve dinner
at the shelter with friends
for folks weighed down
but still spinning away
and offered a tether
in our breaking of bread

we burst in on belly
dancers down at the pub
of all shapes and sizes
writhing for a room full
of friends who found who
resonance in the rhythm

what matters most is
weightless -- gossamer
grace or glee – you know:
old trails of love and tears
fresh new lines to trace
held on to not held down


Monday, March 28, 2011

lenten journal: cloud of witnesses

the eighth grader who wants to know
if I’ve graded the paper he turned in yesterday.
the neighbor ranting on the listserv
taking out his frustration on the rest of us.

the guy at the shelter who helped me
carry in the chicken for tomorrow night’s meal.
the woman in front of me at Costco
who didn’t seem prepared for the check out line.

the President who spoke about Libya
trying to explain what our country is doing.
and I’m sure there was at least one
whom I walked by without even noticing.

the cloud of witnesses of my day to remind me:
be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

lenten journal: sunday sonnet #23

The passage for today was Jesus meeting the woman at the well. My sonnet was particularly affected by the following video. Thanks to my friend Down Under, Simon, for posting it.

sunday sonnet #23
a woman of no distinction, she
came alone to the well at noon;
engaged her in conversation, he
came her reputation to impugn –
at least that’s what she thought when they met,
then his questions gave her pause to think
their meeting might be more than a threat
for he turned and asked her for a drink.
He knew her past and stayed to hear her --
the ways that she’d been hurt and been wronged;
she’d made sure no one could get near her
now he was saying that she belonged.
This is how God’s grace is sown:
to be loved is to be known.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

lenten journal: blessed are those . . .

I spent the better part of the morning with some friends from church as a part of a Lenten Bible study. We are focusing on the Beatitudes. As I was preparing to lead the group, I was struck by the fact that Matthew takes just four chapters to move from Jesus’ genealogy to his birth to his baptism to the temptations to calling the disciples and then spends the next three chapters on one sermon. I’ve been reading through a couple of commentaries that talk about understanding the blessings of the beatitudes as Big Picture: an eschatological perspective of the realm of God, which is both now and not yet. I thought about the commentator’s word when I sat down this afternoon with Stephen Dunn again and his essay on “Poets, Poetry, and Spirituality.”

The classic spiritual journey is from travail to understanding to acceptance. (168)
That classic journey is the one on which I was raised. As the old gospel song says,
farther along we’ll know more about it
farther along we’ll understand why
cheer up my brother live in the sunshine
we’ll understand it all by and by
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews proclaimed, “the evidence of things not seen.” Yes and I have come to see that life is more nuanced and more complicated that the stepping stones in the classic journey. Dunn offers another thought:
Spirituality in poetry. Here’s another attempt at a definition: A journey from travail toward an understanding that leads back to mystery.” (170)
Though Dunn is not writing from a Christian perspective, he informs mine because he asks good questions. I have found that I need the questions of those who are not insiders to my faith perspective to challenge me to see more than I can find on my own or within my community of insiders, particularly when it comes to dealing with pain and struggle. Take, for example, Tom Waits’ song, “Georgia Lee”:
cold was the night, hard was the ground
they found her in a small grove of trees
lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
she's too young to be out on the street.
why wasn't God watching?
why wasn't God listening?
why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?
When I was in the deepest part of my depression and trying to figure out what was happening to me and how to begin to make meaning of it, most Christian writers were not much help because they had a hard time coming to terms with despair without offering how I let Jesus fix me. I didn’t need someone to fix me. I needed someone to listen, to resonate, to sit there in the dark with me and admit it was real and that I could survive. Dunn, again:
I know that despair often can be a ticket to an unchosen journey, and to survive it is to come back with glimpses of what was not available to us before. (160)
As Lent began this year, I observed – no, I celebrated two years that I have been off of my antidepressants. Life is lighter these last two years than the eight years before them and I am grateful. I worked hard to understand what depression was and how I could deal with the darkness and I don’t understand how or why it let up on me in many ways. I live now with the prospect that this is a season of relief, which may last a long time and which may not, and I must continue to let my faith and my life be informed by what I saw and felt and learned while riding the monster. I see what Dunn means by catching glimpses of “what was not available to us before,” just as I have a deeper appreciation for the prepositional phrases that complete each of the Beatitudes:
blessed are the poor in spirit FOR theirs is the kingdom of heaven
blessed are they that mourn FOR they shall be comforted
blessed are the meek FOR they shall inherit the earth
blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness FOR they shall be filled
blessed are the merciful FOR they shall receive mercy
blessed are the pure in heart FOR they shall see God
blessed are the peacemakers FOR they shall be called the children of God
blessed are those persecuted for righteousness FOR theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Jesus’ words feel like an invitation to the journey Dunn described: “from travail to toward an understanding that leads back to mystery.” To begin to grasp the blessing means to be first acquainted with grief, with loss, with suffering. To begin to understand the substance of things hoped for is to find resonance first with the pain that is the substance of human existence. Such is the paradox of blessing, the opening to the deeper mystery of God.

After eight years of depression, I know experientially more about emotional pain than I did before. I also know that love did not let go of me. I didn’t learn that because someone told me to trust Jesus or told me that love wouldn’t let go of me. I learned it because people who love me – Ginger being at the top of that list – didn’t let go. They didn’t try to fix me or correct me; what they did best was not leave. They incarnated love in a way that gave me room to trust that I would be comforted, that God was somewhere in the dark as well. As REM sings in one of my favorite hymns,
when your day is night alone
and you feel like letting go
when you think you’ve had too much of this life, well hang on
‘cause everybody hurts
take comfort in your friends
everybody hurts
don’t throw up your hands
don’t throw up your hands
if you feel like you’re alone
no, no, no – you’re not alone
Despair is the seedbed of hope. Hope is more profound than explanation or reprieve. Love never lets go.

Someday we shall see face to face.


Friday, March 25, 2011

lenten journal: part of the story

Here’s more of Stephen Dunn, once again, from my reading today. These are the opening words to a chapter titled, “The Hand Reaching Into the Crowd.”

We live in a graceless age. Accordingly the word grace (in its various parts of speech) has lost power and significance, though it is frequently used. We have our saving graces, we are graced by one’s presence, we seek to be in someone’s good graces, and sometimes we need grace periods, which instructively, are given these days more by banks than by other higher powers. A recent headline read, Still Cheaper Chicken May Grace Our Menus Soon. The word is nearly unhearable, nearly dead, in that context in which it is familiarly used rarely compel us to engage its meaning. It might be said that all much-used, debased words are looking for restoration, for revivifying contexts.
In its Latin and Old French roots the verb means either to favor or to give thanks. In Modern French it means “to pardon.” . . . The noun’s theological definition refers to God’s free and undeserved favor, at once suggestive of beneficence and selectivity. We cannot earn it; we can only hope for mercy.
When I finished writing last night, I sat down next to Ginger in the adjacent room just to be together for a few minutes before we fell asleep. Between blogging and watching basketball, I had missed who had been voted off of American Idol. She picked up the remote to find the recording. “You can just tell me,” I said.

“Oh, no,” she replied, “you have to see it.”

What followed was the surprise that Casey, one of the more talented of this year’s crop, came in last in the voting. He was then given the chance to “sing for his life,” as Ryan Seacrest called it, though he was hardly through the first verse when the judges stopped him to say they were intervening to save him from elimination. They have one “save” per season and they were ready to use it. The young man was overcome. In the flood of emotion that followed, I heard him say to the judges, “You only have one save. Why would you use it on me?”

After that, all he could say was, “Thank you.”

Tonight, I sat down to dinner with three of our godchildren (and their parents). Jasmine, who is seven, was asked to say grace. She began a series of sentences, each one beginning with “Thank you, God,” that told the story of her day: what she had done, whom she had seen, what she had eaten, all the way down to our sitting around the table and the empanadas that were waiting to be consumed. By the time she was done, all I could say was, “Thank you.”

Dunn’s discussion of grace was a lead-in to a story and a poem about the aftermath of the 1993 World Series where Mitch Williams, a pitcher for the Phillies, gave up a series ending home run. Reporters descended on him in the locker room to ask the akward and agonizing questions reporters ask in the loser’s locker rooms because it was their job. “If the were better men with better jobs,” Dunn wrote, “they would have put their arms around him, asked how they might be of help.” Then, another Phillies pitcher, Terry Mulholland, reached through the mob of mic holders, took Williams’ hand, and led him away from the assault without saying anything to anyone. “Oh,” Dunn writes in the poem, “the luxury of failing in private.” Then in the next paragraph he writes,
Christianity has given us great stories of pardon and forgiveness, in other words of moral grace, but very few stories about the symmetries and felicities of art. We are our stories, which is why it is useful to know many. The scariest people I know are the ones who avidly subscribe to one story, one version of the world.
Perhaps one sign of our graceless age is fail has come into its own. We use it as almost its own part of speech. Epic Fail. Noun, verb, adjective, adverb all rolled into one. We are all each other’s band of reporters, pushing microphones into one another’s faces demanding to know how it feels to be such a screw up. Private is an anachronism. Context is of little consequence. We are being conditioned to think of life as a sequence of YouTube videos or news segments edited to show our failures from every angle without telling the story.

Jesus met the woman at the well and they talked. She had failure written all over her. She was alone at the well because that was the least painful way for her to get through her day. Jesus listened to her story and told her some of his. When she went back into the village, she invited the people who held the microphones in her face to come back with her to the well to meet the one who had offered her grace. Her statement has always been puzzling to me. She said, “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done,” as if that were somehow a comforting statement. I’ve often thought perhaps the gospel writers left out part of her invitation. I want it to read, “Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done and still loves me.” Dunn’s description of Terry Mulholland leading Mitch Williams out of the ring of reporters gives me knew eyes. Mulholland knew what Williams had done and knew the way to forgiveness, to grace and gratitude. Not only did he know, but he took him there by telling his own story of failure through his actions.

The point of life is not to measure up, or even to get it right. I don’t really know if life has a point anymore than a great story has A Lesson To Be Learned. Every story that moves us, that makes us more human is one of failure and forgiveness, of loss and redemption. Sometimes we are the ones who blew the game standing in the spotlight of the inquisitors. Then there are the stories where we get to take someone by the hand like Mulholland, or awaken hearts with our gratitude like Jasmine, or speak words of healing like Jesus. To be a part of those stories, we have to be paying attention.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

lenten journal: spring rain

It’s the end of the grading term at school, the students are frantically trying to finish the rough drafts of their research papers, I’m faced with grade reports – so I spent my free period reading poetry. This morning as I left the house, I picked up my well-worn copy of Poems to Live By: In Uncertain Times, which I bought eight or ten years ago and continue to mine for treasure. The one that grabbed me today was a poem by Robert Bly:

Things to Think
Think in ways you've never thought before.
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you've ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.
Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he's carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you've never seen.
When someone knocks on the door, think that he's about
To give you something large: tell you you're forgiven,
Or that it's not necessary to work all the time,
Or that it's been decided that if you lie down no one will die.
Maybe it was the image of the deranged bear, the child-bearing moose, or the promise of forgiveness that reminded me of a poem by William Carpenter quoted in Stephen Dunn’s book, Walking Light. Both poems share the same sense of yearning and hope, offering voices that calm and encourage.
A man stood in the rain outside his house.
Pretty soon, the rain soaked through
his jacket and shirt. He might have
gone in, but he wanted to be wet, to be
really wet, so that it finally got through
his skin and began raining on the rooftops
of the small city that the man always carried
inside him, a city where it hadn’t rained
for thirty years, only now the sky darkened
and tremendous drops fell in the thick dust
of the streets. The man’s wife knocked
on the window, trying to call him in.
She twirled one finger around her ear
to sign that he was crazy, that he’d
get sick again, standing in street clothes
in a downpour. She put the finger in her mouth
like a thermometer. She formed the word idiot
with her lips, and, always, when she said that
he would give in. But now he stood there.
His whole life he’d wanted to give something,
to sacrifice. At times he’d felt like coming up
to people on the street, offering his blood.
Here, you look like you need blood. Take mine.
Now he could feel the people of his city
waking as if from a long drought. He could feel
them leaving their houses and jobs, standing
with their heads up and their mouths open,
and the little kids taking their clothes off
and lying on their bellies in the streams
and puddles formed by the new rain that the man
made himself, not by doing anything, but standing
there while the rain soaked through his clothes.
He could see his wife and his own kids
staring from the window, the younger kid
laughing at his crazy father, the older one
sad, almost in tears, and the dog, Ossian—
but the man wanted to drown the city in rain.
He wanted the small crowded apartments
and the sleazy taverns to empty their people
into the streets. He wanted a single man with
an umbrella to break out dancing the same way
Gene Kelly danced in Singing in the Rain,
then another man, and more, until the whole
city was doing turns and pirouettes with their
canes or umbrellas, first alone, then taking
each other by the arm and waist, forming a larger
and larger circle in the square, and not
to any music but to the percussion of the rain
on the roof of his own house. And if there were
a woman among the dancers, a woman in a flowery
print skirt, a woman wetter and happier and more
beautiful than the rest, may this man be
forgiven for falling in love on a spring
morning in the democracy of the rain, may
he be forgiven for letting his family think
that is just what to expect from someone who
is every day older and more eccentric, may he
be forgiven for evading his responsibilities,
for growing simple in the middle of his life, for
ruining his best pants and his one decent tie.
One summer night, when I was Youth Minister at University Baptist Church, a bunch of kids were over at my house for a Bible study or something. We were all sitting in the living room when a Texas thunderstorm blew in quickly and the rain fell in sheets. Everything was soaked in a matter of seconds. One of the kids caught my eye and, without a word, we got up, ran out into the rain, and started jumping up and down in the puddles. It was a moment of unadulterated joy. When I turned around, I saw that everyone else had followed us. We stayed outside until the rain left as quickly as it had come and then realized we had about fifteen minutes before everyone’s parents came to pick them up. I handed out every towel I could find in my house and we were still wet and laughing when the cars started to arrive. I remembered that night as I read about the man soaking the city inside him in the rain.

I don’t have a big point to make other than these are all stories that felt worth sharing.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

lenten journal: report card

I feel least like a teacher when I
turn in the grades and distill the
interactions with my students to
one single letter plus or minus

after weeks of asking them to
make their offerings take their chances
all too quickly all that matters is
one letter to somehow sum it up

to go on their permanent record
not the day we all laughed together
or we closed the books and sang out loud
conjunction junction what’s your function

I felt like a teacher on those days
this week I’m an accountant


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

lenten journal: an important slight change

I’ve been mulling over one sentence that I carried away from the Evening with Garrison Keillor the other night. I remember much more of the evening, but his closing word on one story has stayed with me in a more disquieting way as I have wondered how to write about it. He told us about a woman he met when he left Minnesota as a young man and moved to New York City to become a writer. They fell in love and he imagined a wonderful and successful life far away from his roots. Then came the day when she challenged him to go back: “Write about what scares you most: that you will turn out just like them.” He returned to Minnesota and found his way to writing and talking about Lake Wobegon. As he finished the story he said, “I thank her for that important slight change in my life.”

Somewhere in my youth I first read the poem that begins:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
The losses mount up from there:
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
An important slight change. The place where that phrase has taken me the most is back to other words central in my Lenten journey, as I pray for forgiveness for the things I have done and the things I have left undone -- the slight motions of my hands and heart as I both heal and hurt. The changes that matter often begin in incremental incidents.

I think on these things, and the movie Sliding Doors comes to mind. The film shows the two different lives a woman would have had all based on whether or not she beats the closing of the sliding doors on the subway. An important slight change.

The difference between important and slight is often difficult to discern. What seems enormous in one moment shrinks in perspective; what seems dispensable now grows into necessity in retrospect. The bottom line is life has no discards. Each word, each motion matters. The things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone are each an important slight change. Life is important and slight in the same moment.

Perhaps the most tangible metaphor for me right now in understanding this idea is my weight. The lesson learned is I have to be mindful of every bite in order to lessen my presence on the planet (which is the goal). I don’t mean I have to totally deprive myself of everything that tastes good to me, yet I do have to remember what I have eaten both in quantity and quality and find a way to balance it out into a series of important small changes. If I can lose a pound a week, the small changes add up to an significant impact on both my blood pressure and my pant size. If I don’t attend to the things I eat and I don’t eat, I will shorten my life even as I widen my shadow.

I know that’s somewhat elementary, yet the physicality of my daily food choices remind me of the spirituality of my choices in general. When Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken,” he did so with a strong sense of irony. He went for a walk in the woods and picked one path over another on a journey back to the barn. “And that,” he wrote, “has made all the difference.” I imagine him smiling as he penned those words. Sometimes a walk in the woods is a walk in the woods. And that walk brought him to the place where he wrote a poem that has touched many readers since, whether or not they understood the irony. When people ask how Ginger and I met, the short answer is we were at the same Midwinter Retreat for the Southwest Baptist Camping Group in January of 1989 at Camp Olympia. The longer version involves both of us looking back at choices we had made independently of each other such that we both ended up in Texas, with ties to Royal Lane Baptist Church, and on that retreat – all slight changes that grew in importance. In the days since, we’ve both been intentional about the slight ways we remind each other of our love, all of which are important.

Lent, like most of the Christian life, is not a grand gesture but a collection of slight and intentional movements. Even the grandest cathedrals were put together brick by brick, which means every brick counts, every word matters, for each holds the possibility of an important slight change.


Monday, March 21, 2011

lenten journal: thin skinned

It’s been almost a year since I stepped out of a professional kitchen to return to teaching. Though I still cook daily at home and for friends, I’m not doing quite the volume I once was. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is in my hands. Because of the prep work – dicing onions, carrots, and celery for soups, for example – I built up two huge calluses on the index finger on my right hand because of the way I held up my knife. The calluses built up to protect me from pain. The skin became thick and tough in places where I once developed blisters, where the wear and pressure came everyday, where I had to get stronger to survive.

One year later, they are mostly gone.

One of my favorite Bill Mallonee songs from his Vigilantes of Love days is called “Skin” and is written about Vincent Van Gogh, who was too tender to take the pain of his life. The chorus sings,

now look if you're gonna come around here
and say those sort of things
you gotta take a few on the chin
you’re talking about love and all that stuff
you better bring your thickest skin
We have calluses; we become callous. Both words can be traced back to the same Latin word, which means “hard skinned” or “thick skinned.” Callus described my finger; callous we use to talk about what happens to our hearts and minds as we face life’s persistent pain. In her sermon on Sunday, Ginger quoted a line from the novel, The Help (which I’m next in line to read), whose story centers around race issues in a domestic context in the South. One of the narrators, an African-American housekeeper, talks about how the pain affects the younger ones “who ain’t built up a callus to it yet.” The callousness of the privileged called for calluses among the help.

The disappearance of my calluses seems like a worthy Lenten metaphor: let the protection dissolve, drop my guard, and feel those things to which I had allowed myself to become numb, or at least unfeeling, for whatever reason. The disciplines of silence and focus, of laying aside and attending, allow our vulnerability to flourish. The point of life is not so much to toughen up but to stay woundable, if we follow Jesus’ example. When Thomas was unsure they were telling him the truth about Jesus’ resurrection, he asked to see the wounds. The callous and endless news cycle in which we live calluses our hearts and minds to the pain around the world because the presentation is as perfunctory as it is painful. Images of Japan are sandwiched between sports scores and celebrity craziness as if they all held equal weight. Each cycle builds another layer of separation; the news becomes white noise that we no longer hear.

The intentional repetition of faithful ritual runs counter to eh callusing motion of much of life. Perhaps one way to understand the bread and the wine as Broken Body and Blood is the meal is an act of compassion, of opening the wounds, of de-callusing and de-callousing our hearts that we might feel the weight of the world as we come to terms with the gravity of grace.

“Awake, my soul,” sing Mumford and Sons, channeling the Psalmist:
in these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
where you invest your love, you invest your life
in these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
where you invest your love, you invest your life
awake my soul
To be awake means to do the prep work everyday without developing the calluses. Nicodemus looked puzzled when Jesus told him he had to be born again. Jesus wasn’t talking in slogans any more than I think he was speaking of one experience. Following Christ means being born again and again and again. We need our hearts scrubbed clean of calluses, brought fresh into the world over and over, that we might see with open eyes and feel with tender skin all those who need to know they are really, really loved. We need to be born again and again to see the promise that lies in our lives where we have settled for routine or expediency, where we have been beaten down by failure, where we give in to despair. We need to be born again and again to pick one another up, to hope for one another, to feel the pricks and aches of what it means to love. I think my friend Bill will allow the paraphrase of his lyric because I know his heart:
you’re talking about love and all that stuff
you better bring your thinnest skin
Let us love the world unflinchingly, setting our hearts to be born again and again.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

lenten journal: sunday sonnet #22

John 3:1-17 was the lectionary passage today: Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. One phrase in their conversation, which was translated in the King James as “born again,” has been a dividing qualifier of sorts in Christianity, unfortunately. Besides being born again (as in “one more time”), it can also be read as “born anew” (recreation with a new and different nature) and “born from above” (as in transcendent, or able to see with God’s eyes). I hesitate a little with all this explanation because a poem is a bit like a joke in the sense that explanation doesn’t necessarily help its impact, yet hearing the three ways the phrase can be read made me think what they all share in common is a sense of ongoing transformation.

As part of her sermon, Ginger quoted from a prayer by Oscar Romero, part of which says:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
I’m grateful for the prayer for several reasons, not the least of which is that it serves as subtext for the closing couplet.
sunday sonnet #22
As a child I learned John 3:16:
that I needed to be “born again”
as if only one thing could it mean --
walk the aisle and turn away from sin.
“Again” is not the only option
in translation choices are a few;
others that are vying for adoption –
“born from above”, and “born anew.”
Semantics somehow shape the story –
the very way we see and hear it;
and when those options we ignore we
can miss the nuance of the Spirit.
Prophets of a future not our own,
we plant seeds that one day will be grown.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

lenten journal: coming clean

After I finished writing what follows here, I decided I needed to write a brief preface. I don’t usually do so, but I also don’t get specifically political very often. I am troubled by the bombings that began today because of what it says about who we think we are and who are choosing to be as a nation in our world. I needed somewhere to say so out loud. Thanks for listening.

A number of years ago, Ginger and I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C... I remember, in particular, standing in a small room whose walls went up twelve or fourteen feet and were covered with photographs from a village in Russia. The explanatory plaque on the wall told of this community of Russian Jews that were all murdered. The only things left were the photographs in front of me. The pictures were taken when the people in them didn’t know they were going to be killed. There were wedding pictures, family portraits, and shots of friends probably taken for no other reason than someone had a camera. The photographs hung on the walls in the museum without any relational context other than our common humanity and the reminder of what we are capable of doing to one another. More than once, as we journeyed through the museum, we heard or read the words, “Never again.”

A little over a week ago, my Documentary Studies class watched Ghosts of Rwanda, which returned to the country ten years after the genocide of 1994 in which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days. Europe and America did little more than send in planes to get the white people out. The very few UN “peace keepers” in the country were not allowed to even shoot their guns.

Today, on the anniversary of the U. S. invasion of Iraq, we launched “Operation Oddesy Dawn” and began bombing Libya. The Huffington Post said,

In announcing the mission during a visit to Brazil, President Barack Obama said he was reluctant to resort to force but was convinced it was necessary to save the lives of civilians. He reiterated that he would not send American ground troops to Libya.
"We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy," he said in Brasilia.
During the film on Rwanda, they showed a clip of President Clinton explaining why the U. S. wasn’t intervening. After what happened in Mogadishu, he said, we would not longer intervene unless we had “a compelling national interest.” The truth is we, as a country, can stand by while tyrants and terrorists run amok, as long as they aren’t killing Americans or they don’t have large oil reserves. The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has gone on for years. Millions have been killed. The armies have consistently used rape as a weapon. In 2004, we said out loud that what was happening in the Darfur region of Sudan was genocide and we still have done nothing. We are bombing Libya for primarily economic reasons, not humanitarian ones. (I’m not sure you can ever bomb someone for humanitarian reasons; that’s too incomprehensible an irony for me.)

In this season of penitence, perhaps we would do well as a nation to come clean about our intentions, at least to ourselves. As long as there were no protesters in Libya, we kept their money in our banks and sold them weapons – not the really nasty ones, but weapons nonetheless. We will care about African nations when they find oil within their borders. We are more interested in things being stable around the world than we are in people being free and fed. Forgive us, Lord, even though we aren’t particularly repentant. Amen.


Friday, March 18, 2011

lenten journal: in the dark

I came across this post by Tim Suttle tonight over at The Huffington Post and, as I read down, found one of my favorite Annie Dillard quotes:

God asks nothing, and demands nothing, like the stars. It is a life with God which demands these things. You do not have to do these things unless you want to know God. They work on you not on him ... you do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.
The quote stuck out to me because I had been thinking of it only a few minutes before as I stared at a blank page trying to figure out what to write. My thought process began with the news stories I saw today about the full moon being the biggest one we’ve seen in twenty years. That reminded me of Italo Calvino’s wonderfully odd collection of short stories called Cosmicomics. One story, “The Distance of the Moon,” recalled a time when the earth and moon came close enough every night for people to jump between them.
Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course: for a while it would huddle against us and then it would take flight for a while. The tides, when the Moon swung closer, rose so high that nobody could hold them back. There were nights when the moon was very, very low and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair;’s breadth; well, let’s say, a few yards anyway. Climb up to the Moon? Of course, we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder up to it and scramble up.
The story goes on in even more fantastical fashion. Ever since I first read it, I’ve wanted to write a song called, “Ladder to the Moon.” Calvino and Dillard both understand the value and importance of going out into the dark to see the light. I imagine Dillard’s words have shown up in any number of Lenten meditations since she first wrote them. On this Big Moon Weekend, I’m happy to hear them again.

The reason, however, that her words came to mind in the first place was because I was thinking differently about the dark. There is the dark we allow to envelop us like fading house lights in a grand theater so we can better see the stars and ourselves. There is also the dark that descends like weighted rain, that painfully surprises us, that isolates and discourages. These first few days of Lent this year have held more of the latter than the former. I have friends who are hurting and grieving, who are out in the dark and the stars appear to have abandoned them. All I know to do is keep calling their names so they know, at least, they are not alone.

A designated season of preparation in the darkness is one of our underappreciated luxuries. Those who walked and lived with Jesus didn’t know it was Lent. There was no Ash Wednesday. But there was darkness. Incomprehensible, alienating, devastating darkness. The closer Jesus got to the cross, the darker things became. They didn’t look at stars. They slept and wept at Gethsemane. They ran away. They betrayed. They denied. They grieved.

The disciples didn’t know the tomb would be empty as they watched Jesus die and then buried him. They shared the same sense of failure and loneliness I hear and see in my friends. None of them is without faith, but they are without relationships they had counted on to last. They are sitting in the dark, but not star-gazing. Though I’ve had my seasons where the darkness was crushing, this year the darkness is a backdrop to the stars. I’m well aware that I cannot change their circumstances, nor can fix much of anything. I can sit in the dark with them, as others did with me. If I don’t go out into the darkness, I won’t see the stars.

Neither will I find my friends who need to be found.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

lenten journal: allergic reaction

“Works of art are not born in flashes of the imagination, but in daily fidelity.”
-- Albert Camus (quoted in Stephen Dunn’s Walking Light)

The beginning of pollen season is killing me here. I found the above quote as I was reading Dunn's book and waiting until it was time to take my next Benadryl.
allergic reaction
allergies are anathema to thought
there is no room for rumination
in my mucus-muddled membranes
eyelids dropping like garage doors
nose clogged like a rush hour street
all of my ideas are weary immigrants
unsure of who can be trusted
to lead them to free expression
all I can tell them is show up again
tomorrow and the day after that
come back everyday until your
faithfulness acts as antihistamine
come back the morning after rain
or the evening of the first frost
the afternoon we plant vegetables
and the day that nothing happens
soon we will know each other well
enough to create between sneezes

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


the lingering light of spring
loses to the descending dark
despite our best efforts to
hold the night at bay

(there’s no way around it)

the only way to daylight
is to live through till dawn
which all works fine until
I tell you this is metaphor

(it is a poem, after all)

the dark is undaunted
the dawn’s in no hurry
we’re going to hurt like this
for the rest of our lives

(is there any good news?)

we must answer slowly
as deliberately as snails
holding hearts and hurts
for as long as it stays dark


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

lenten journal: photographer's light

One of the photographs of Jesus I keep
in the wallet of my mind is of him
looking out over Jerusalem.

The sun is burning the last bits of blue
out of the Palestinian sky as it sets,
making room for the night.

There is enough light to see the tears
running down his cheeks as he
talks about mother hens.

The gospel accounts would have me think
that I possess a one of a kind photo,
but -- after a day like today

when I’ve sat with my friends and heard
the grief harbored in their hearts,
I begin to understand

it could have been taken on any one
of the nights he walked the earth,
at most any sunset.


Monday, March 14, 2011

lenten journal: left undone

Today was a long day.

I watched as one of our students learned the very hard way that actions have consequences. Big consequences. In this case, they will have to find another school. The details are not my to tell, for both personal and professional reasons, other than to say they did serious enough damage to others with their words that it could be called a hate crime. I know, those are incendiary words, and may seem extreme as a label for what might have started out as a middle school prank. But the words were no joke and we, as a faculty, felt it mattered that we take what they did seriously and let the one who was attacked know they were not alone. It is a risky move for a small private school, and one that could have economic repercussions, and it was the right thing to do.

My Documentary Studies class and I finished watching Ghosts of Rwanda, a Frontline documentary produced ten years after the genocide ended in that country. 800,000 Tutsi people were killed by the Hutus, Rwanda’s larger ethnic group, in 100 days. That’s right: 100 days. (You can follow the timeline here.) The rest of the world let it happen. American and European planes came to get their citizens out. The UN pulled most all of their troops out after eight Belgian soldiers were killed. In the aftermath of all that had gone wrong in Somalia, President Clinton explained we would only intervene where we had a specific “national interest.” As with most of Africa, Rwanda didn’t qualify. For all our Holocaust memorials inscribed with “Never Again,” we sat back and watched it happen. I watched footage of State Department officials debating the definition of the word genocide so they could not be painted into a corner to have to act. When it was over, Western diplomats and government officials made their penitent journeys to the sites where so many had been brutally murdered, offered their empty regrets, and gathered around tables at the UN to talk about what they should have done. I have to say, if I were a citizen of most any African nation, I wouldn’t count on anyone showing up when it happens again. Diplomacy is about expediency rather that truth, when it gets right down to it.

As the evening draws to a close, I find myself back at the prayer of confession, and the line about forgiving us for the things we have left undone. Part of me reads those words and wants to take off on a bit of a rant to ask how we as Christians can sit silently while there are still people held without being charged at Guantanamo, while our immigration policy allows for people to be held in prisons without any civil rights or due process, while our government debates the definition of torture much as they did the definition of genocide to cover their actions, while we continue to cut programs to help the poor and hungry in our country while we continue to feed our military appetites. It’s a worthy rant and we need to be speaking up, yet it is not the word for tonight.

Both the middle schooler and the movie remind me, as a straight white Christian American male, that I’m at the top of The Privileged List. I’m the one Western civilization was cut to fit. I’m the one Western Christianity has catered to. And I am called by God to level things out. God loves me and the rest of the straight white guys, but God doesn’t love us more than anyone else. And God calls me and the rest of the straight white guys to incarnate that indiscriminate love in a way that costs us, a way that loosens our grip on power, a way that doesn’t feed on self-interest, a way that goes out to compel everyone to come to the table for the feast.

It’s too raw to say much more.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

lenten journal: sunday sonnet #21

The lectionary passage today was Matthew's account of Jesus being tempted in the desert. In Reading Jesus, Mary Gordon talks about Jesus' experience in the desert demonstrating how he was growing into who he was becoming, which stuck with me.

sunday sonnet #21
He had been forty days without food
when the Tempter showed up for the test;
this “messiah” was no match for shrewd --
he could cause him to crumble when pressed.
It didn’t end with the quest in the queries --
The temptations were not “three and done.”
Of integrity, Jesus could not grow weary
If Messiah was who he would become.
Jesus growing into his mission –
that’s the picture here painted in sand;
his strength calls to our own volition
to be true in each moment at hand.
Who we are is so easy to lose –
Everyday comes the call to re-choose.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

lenten journal: daylight saving time

When I was youth minister at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas many years ago, I started thinking about Youth Camp around this time of year, beginning to work on a theme for the week and to recruit adults who wanted to go hang out with the kids for a week. I loved going to camp. Still do. One year, some of the kids said the hardest thing about the week was having to get up so early. They wished we could flip the schedule around so that we were up all night and slept all day. So we did – at least figuratively. We reset all the clocks in the camp and rewrote the schedule so that breakfast was served around noon, according to the schedule, and the day went on from there. In actuality, things happened in the same part of the day as they always had, but we just decided what time it was. After a day or two, we believed the schedule we had created was true and we had a great week, until I got home and couldn’t figure out what time it was.

I think about that week most every year on this night because “springing forward” into Daylight Saving Time is basically doing what we did at camp on a national scale: we just decide what time we want it to be and go from there. Tomorrow the sun will go down an hour later than it did today not because the sun did anything different, but because we decided to make it an hour later. I heard parts of an interview on NPR with Howard Mansfield who has written a book called Turn and Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart and thinks Daylight Saving Time undermines our understanding of time:

Daylight Saving Time is like sitting in a room and listening to that gap between the two clocks go. We've all agreed. We've all accepted the clock is the truth. We always just want to get on with our day. And all of sudden we're changing it back and forward. And it's like saying the inch is going to be one length in winter and the inch will be another length in the summer. So wait a minute. So now we're forced back to say, well, what is time? What is really time? And we don't know. And it's just as if we - OK - we all agreed that this is what 6 o'clock looks like and then we change that. It's unsettling.
Now I hear Chicago singing in my head,
does anybody really know what time it is
does anybody really care
What Mansfield went on to say was we are at a loss because time has become disconnected from place. People used to know it was noon because the sun was overhead. Now, we don’t even walk to the window. We just look at our clocks or watches or smart phones. The clocks keep time and time holds us hostage.

One of the things I remember about growing up in Africa is how differently the people there thought about time. Take church, for instance. In most every church I’ve been a part of in America, worship is on the clock. If we go over an hour (or whatever the designated length is supposed to be), then we’ve shattered the sacred schedule. I remember one Sunday in high school when my father took some time at the end of the service to honor one of our youth sports teams. It was after twelve o’clock and people were restless. They were losing their place wherever they had planned to go for lunch. They were missing the first quarter of the football game. Dad recognized their disquietude and said, “Quit looking at your watches. Ten years from now you won’t remember what time we got out of church today but these kids will remember we took time to say we were proud of them.”

The people got quiet, but I don’t think he convinced them to change their perspective.

In the African churches, the service started when we all got there and it finished when, well, we were finished. The point was not to keep time, or even tell time, but to spend it. Together. If we sang for an hour while the crowd gathered, what mattered most was the singing and the gathering, not the ticking of the clock.

We do our best work with time in the church when we think in spans of time rather than in seconds. This season of Lent is a good example of finding the time that matters. We mark time by the events in Jesus’ life, by the places in scripture where he walked and talked and healed, and then we make of it a season, a time of year where we can expect thin places to encounter the Spirit much like we expect the blossoms on the fruit trees that are harbingers of harvest. Maybe we should give up clocks for Lent.

One of my favorite time phrases in the gospels speaks of Jesus’ birth and says he was born “when the days were accomplished,” which is a wonderful and poetic way to say when the moment was ripe. In these days, when a woman is pregnant beyond her “due date” (according to the calendar), we think the baby is late, as though the kid missed his or her birthday instead of seeing things happening all in good time.

Daylight Saving Time would make a good band name, but the true time of our lives is not marked in minutes or saved by daylight. Renaming the hours will not help the days accomplish anything. The apostle Paul talked about “redeeming the time” and making the most of our days. In that light, Lent becomes a way for us to save time from the arbitrary arrogance of the schedule and what Mark Heard so eloquently called “the curse of the second hand.”
so we nod over coffee and say goodbye
bolt the door it's time to go
into the car with the radio on
roll down the window and blow the horn
ain't that the curse of the second hand
ain't that the way of the hour and the day
Come, let us take time and spread it out like a blanket; let us make time like we make bread, giving it room to rise to its fullness; let us tell time we are here just as we would tell a friend we had arrived for dinner and had come to stay until it was time to go.


Friday, March 11, 2011

lenten journal: it is unfinished

“It is finished,” Jesus said, and then (according to old King James) he gave up the ghost.

I know I’m getting ahead of myself, as far as Lent goes, but unfinished things have been on my mind and I find myself looking at that sentence once again. Like any pronoun that begins a sentence, it begs for an antecedent. What, exactly, is finished? Did he mean his life was over? That’s about all that actually ended in that moment. Perhaps he meant he was finished with what he came to do, though he didn’t exactly tie up all the loose ends on his way out. Those who write commentaries and such often look for a more abstract antecedent and some grander theological theme. Bill Gaither wrote a rather moving gospel song, putting the quote to music:

it is finished the battle is over
it is finished there’ll be no more war
it is finished the end of all conflict
it is finished and Jesus is lord
The song builds to a glorious crescendo yet, for all the song’s certainty, the antecedent still lies unexplained, or at least not explained enough. If Jesus was speaking in some cosmic sense, as the song suggests, he was leaning into the future. Even now, two thousand years later, what was supposed to be finished ain’t done just yet. As we walk this Lenten road to the Cross once again, part of the reason is we are living out an unfinished faith: everything was not completed at Calvary, or even at Easter. Such is the nature of our faith, which thrives more in its questions than it’s answers, which takes root in relationships rather than in concrete certainty.

Last week, Elvis Costello wrote a review of Paul Simon’s upcoming record, So Beautiful or So What. The essay is actually going to be the liner notes for the album. He says of Simon’s songwriting:
These days it might court shallow mockery to sing so openly of our humanity, mortality and divinity but not with music to make these themes fly or words containing such wit, grace and humility.
The musical shapes and shades arrive from all over the world and back in time to illuminate the heartfelt intelligence of the writer.
Central to the picture is Paul's vivid singing and own beautiful guitar playing - which doesn't always get full measure in the shadow of his writing.
Throughout the record, I kept coming up against what I can only call, rock and roll surprises; not some orthodox formula but indelible, hypnotic guitar motifs and swinging, off-center rhythms tipping your expectations into a new kind of thrill.
After over fifty years of songwriting, Paul Simon is unfinished, and doing some of his best work. Costello provides a link to a song off the new record called “Waiting for Christmas Day” (now I am getting ahead of myself) that I am willing to predict will show up as a part of Advent in many churches. But it’s Costello’s description that grabs me tonight and how he spoke of “rock and roll surprises:” not some orthodox formula but indelible . . . off-center rhythms tipping your expectations into a new kind of thrill.

Into the unfinished.

Every so often in Christian circles, someone writes a book that becomes a lightning rod and a litmus test and the best new thing and the reason God is going to destroy the earth all in one volume. This week, it’s Rob Bell and his new book that questions the reality of Hell and whether or not God is going to send anyone there even if there is one. First of all, I’m not trying to critique the book here because I haven’t read it. Second, I’m not sure I understand why it would be so terrible for God to throw open the doors and yell, “All ye, all ye, oxen free.” Third, neither of those is my point. I wish we could work out our faith and theology together with the same mind that is in Elvis Costello, willing to be surprised, to have our expectations tipped, to be thrilled by the off-center riffs of the rhythm of our God.

The story of God we have so far is one of God showing up in unexpected places from making Sarah laugh to singeing Moses’ expectations in the burning bush, to meeting Elijah in the silence and the Israelites in the manna, to being born in a barn, to lighting Paul up on the road to Damascus, to letting Tom Waits write songs, to speaking through Rob Bell and Elvis Costello.

And God is not finished.

God is not finished breaking down barriers, calling us to new understanding, breaking out hearts and healing them, opening our eyes, blowing the doors off of our theological cages, or letting us get comfortable thinking we’re finished working out our faith and can coast from here on in. There is more light yet to break forth.

It is not finished. And that’s good news.


P. S. -- Here's a little Simon for your soul.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

lenten journal: life together

One of the informal rituals of our marriage is Ginger asking me, usually apropos of nothing, “Give me three reasons why you love me.” And I do. I have a long list; this is not a difficult challenge. Sometimes, she rephrases the question: “Why did you want to marry me?” Again, easy answer, which is some variation on, “I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you.” We had not known each other long before I knew, whatever direction life was going to take, it mattered that I was with her rather than without her. I was not necessarily enamored of marriage, but I wanted to be married to her. From there, the last two decades have been about taking as many opportunities as I can find to say that over and over. I’m married to Ginger not because I don’t want to be alone, but because I want to be with her.

In a couple of weeks, our quirky little city is hosting an event called Marry Durham,” playing off of the old playground taunt, “If you love it so much, why don’t you marry it?” The organizers are invited to show their love for the Bull City by pledging their vows in the street between Motorco and Fullsteam, surrounded by food trucks, with the mayor there to stand up for them, Wool E. Bull (the Durham Bulls’ mascot) as “Best Bull,” and the proceeds from the event going to charities that work with those in our number who are struggling to survive for a number of reasons. As Spring officially begins, we will participate in a mass wedding that should make Rev. Moon curious, if not envious, all in fun and intentional articulation of what it means to live together in community.

Last night in our Ash Wednesday service, I was moved by the invitation to confession we said together:

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to struggle against everything that leads us away from the love of God and neighbor. Repentance, fasting, prayer, study, and works of love help us return to that love. We are invited, therefore, to commit ourselves to love God and neighbor by confessing our sin and by asking God for strength to persevere in our Lenten discipline.
We are called to struggle against everything that leads us away from love – from life together. We are called to intentionally work toward everything that galvanizes us that tightens the ties that bind, that reminds us life is a team sport, not an individual event.

One of the prayers of confession to which I continue to return is in the Book of Common Prayer. I go back there because of the particular phrase that asks forgiveness for “the things we have done and the things we have left undone.” In the call to do all we can to love one another and live together, often our omissions are those things that cause the cracks to appear, allowing us to drift apart without realizing what we have set in motion. Yes, we can and do inflict damage by what we do and say, still it seems what gets left undone soon becomes forgotten and paved over by life’s other demands, burying necessary relationships like ancient cities under the dust and layers of modern life.

Christine Lavin has an old song called “The Moment Slipped Away” in which she describes missed opportunities where she left things undone – small, significant chances – leaving both her and the person left unencountered lost in the wake of what might have been. In gestures both small and large, what we leave undone opens a gap that gets filled with something other than love. Consistent, intentional, determined, tenacious love that leaves no stone unturned puts the solid back in solidarity.

Jesus knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray just before he was arrested for the last time and he prayed, “Make them one.” Not keep them safe or let them win or make them rich and powerful. Make them one. He knew what we all learn rather quickly as we grow up: the forces of life are fragmenting. We are pushed apart and pulled away from each other. We learn to blame and to betray. We learn to look out for Number One. We learn we can’t take care of everyone, so we have to take care of ourselves. Not long before he prayed, Jesus sat with his disciples around the table and, as he served them bread, he said, “Every time you do this, remember me.” What if we could hear those words as an invitation to communion and community in every meal, in every cup of coffee, in every beer at the pub: every time you eat and drink, look each other in the eye and remember me, remember the love that binds you and do whatever you have to do to forget the lies you have learned that tear you apart.

The point of life is not to be right, or safe, or famous, comfortable, or rich, or powerful. None of those is a sign of success or God’s favor or significance, particularly when our power and wealth and safety require someone else to be poor and weak and scared. The point of life is to be together. To love one another – all the one anothers – and to struggle against everything that leads us away from that love.


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

lenten journal: ash monday

Ash Wednesday showed up early for me this year because I was given the chance, thanks to my friends Lori and Terry, to hear Garrison Keillor tell stories. Though I have listened to him on the radio for thirty years, I’ve never heard him live. Monday, he showed up unadorned, without any of his Prairie Home Companion peeps or props, without even an introduction. Promptly at 7:30, he strode onto the stage wearing dark pants, a sports jacket, a white shirt, and a red tie that matched both his red socks and red sneakers, and he began to chant. That’s the best way I can describe it. He told a story with the cadence and melody of a priest inviting congregants to the Eucharist, his rhyme and humor calling us into community. Then, for a little over two hours, he talked of family, faith, love, death, and sex in a more intimate and vulnerable way than I had ever heard him on any of those many nights when he began his tale with, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown . . . “ – a phrase he never uttered in our time together.

Through the course of the evening, he invited a bluegrass singer to join him on stage, and for us to join them in song: Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” and, to close the evening, “Angel Band.” Our voices provided the connecting soundtrack to his stories, which eloquently told how he got from there to here: from childhood to writer, from “sanctified Brethren” to Episcopalian, from son to father, from wherever he was before to our Monday night in Durham, reminding me again of the power and purpose of ritual, or sacred road markers like Ash Wednesday and Lent and Communion that call us to ask and answer the question David Byrne asked best: “Well – how did I get here?”

“We tell two kinds of stories,” Keillor said. “We either tell bragging stories to show we’re better than everyone else, or we tell stories of confession, which are, I suppose, a kind of ostentatious humility to show we’re more honest than everyone else.” From there he meandered into a maze of faith and family, both confessional seed beds, I suppose, commenting almost in passing that Christianity “is a religion of failure.”

With those words it became Ash Monday: Lent began for me.

In the jargon of my students, Lent might be renamed “Epic Fail” – the season of coming up short, the season of stark reality, and the season of forgiveness because it is in failure that both our compassion and redemption take root.

Yes, I know God is both great and good. Yes, I trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Yes, I know we are only weeks away from that Great Resurrection Morning when the stone gets rolled away and up from the grave he will arise to show that Death is not the final punctuation mark on the sentence that is our human existence. Even though Death has lost its sting, our story – all the way to that Land To Which We Go – is marked, quite indelibly, by failure. The tenacious love of God calls us to faithfulness, not success. Jesus bent down to wash the feet of the disciples because, John says, he knew “he had come from God and was going to God, not because it was all a brilliant strategy for success and conquest.

The disciples left the Upper Room and failed epically in the hours that followed their gathering only to find themselves still in the circle, still called, and still loved. For the rest of their lives, they did their best work when they simply told that story. The same holds true for us. We do our best work for and with one another when we tell and listen to our stories – and that thought takes me to familiar words worth repeating: Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
As Keillor differentiated between the bragging stories and the confessional ones, he said the confessional stories were the ones you could count on to be “mostly true.” When we come to the place, however we get there, that we share our despair in order to find one another and remind one another we cannot run out of or away from the love of God, we are true – even in our failure. In the longings and the losings of life we come back again and again to stones we have stacked up and songs we can sing together.
when peace like a river attendeth my way
when sorrows like sea billows roll
whatever my lot thou has taught me to say
it is well it is well with my soul

I'm gonna love you
till the wheels come off
oh yeah
I love you baby and I always will
I love you baby and I always will
I love you baby and I always will
ever since I put your picture in a frame
We are not beginning a sojourn to success. When we get to Easter morning, or any other day for that matter, we will still be people of constant failure. Jesus didn’t come out of the tomb to take his place on the medal stand. He went to the beach and made breakfast for his bleary-eyed followers who had failed, once again. He loved them and he fed them. And he told them stories.

May we go and do likewise.


word play

This poem is in response to Random Acts of Poetry over at The High Calling.

word play
I love the way
words yearn
for one another:
the way they
join hands
like children
on the playground,
the way they
laugh at each other
climb up the slide
and then crash
into the leaves;
the way they
spoon together
like lovers
in the night,
holding tight
in desperation,
in hope, in love
waking sometimes
just enough
to pull closer
and then sleep
until morning.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

finding ourselves

My students are embarking on an annual journey at our school we call the Academic Exposition, or Expo, which is a big research paper and presentation. We take a day at school for everyone to show their stuff and all the parents come to see what their children have learned. It is an arduous journey to say the least.

In past years, the Expo has not been well guided, leaving the students with their topics and a stack of notecards and expecting them to find their way out of the academic wilderness on their own. This year, we decided to be more directive and instructive on the journey, the idea being to make it more meaningful for them (and us) and maybe even a little fun. Being a good guide, I’m learning (again), is hard work.

At the heart of research lies the adage that your paper is only as good as your question. Both the middle school English teacher and I sat with each of our charges individually to hammer out their vague interests into specific and hopefully interesting questions. The topics ranged from concussions in sports to CNC 3-D printing technology to why we turn prisons into tourist attractions to epilepsy. The last one came from Pete, one of my students who lives with epilepsy and, because of his changing teenage body, has had a very hard year regulating his medication and controlling his seizures. When we sat down for his conference he said, “My question is, ‘How close are we to finding a cure for epilepsy?’”

All I could think was, “Not close enough.”

Yesterday during class, we spent time in the computer lab so they could look for sources. As we searched, he found a rather extensive list of people in history who had epilepsy. He called out across the room, “Mr. B-C, Alexander the Great had epilepsy.” As the others surfed and searched, our time was punctuated by his continual uncovering of this geneology of sorts: Napoleon Bonaparte, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh – at which point I said, “Do you feel like you need to go paint something?”
“Mr. B-C,” he said, “Theodore Roosevelt!”

One of the other students, weary of the role call, responded, “You know, Pete, not everyone in the world has epilepsy.”

He was undaunted. “But – Theodore Roosevelt.”

Discovery that he was of the house and lineage of people who were known for more than the disease they shared in common was encouraging, even life-giving to this bright young man. He was beginning to understand he belonged to a group that mattered. He was not alone in his struggle, nor in his seizures. I thought of Hemingway’s old man, fighting with the fish and feeling the pain of his bone spur, only to be comforted by the thought that Joe DiMaggio understood how he hurt. The validation that our pain and our wounds are not unique is one of the most profound invitations to community that we receive.

So Pete’s exposition appears to be to go out and find himself, or at least his kinfolk, out there in the great unknown, to find those in whom he recognizes himself, or – better yet – those who help him see his epilepsy as something other than his most defining word. Perhaps, in another generation, a kid will look up from his or her own discovery and say to the teacher, “Hey! Pete had epilepsy, too!”


Sunday, March 06, 2011

sunday sonnet #20

This morning, in preparation for our church's participation in the Durham CROP Walk (feel free to make a donation here), we watched a short film from Church World Service about women in Kenya who spent eleven hours of everyday walking to find water until CWS was able to help them build a sand dam which both captured and cleaned water for their use. After the video, one of our church members who is a Kenyan immigrant told us of her life, which pretty much matched the movie. Despite the difficult circumstances she has known in her life, she has a deep and abiding trust in God and in other people that radiates from her. On this Transfiguration Sunday, she let me see the presence of God in a fresh way.

sunday sonnet #19

Today we told two summit stories:
they climbed to meet God in the clouds.
Common folk met uncommon glories
that left them wondering and wowed.
Both stories on the mountain peak –
Ten Commandments, Transfiguration –
tune our hearts to praise and seek
more than just an explanation,
and ask, “Where is God in all of this?”
whether mountain tops or canyons,
to look for light in the abyss,
and live with faithful abandon.
Would I could spend all my days
found in wonder, love, and praise.

Friday, March 04, 2011

oh, say can you see . . .

The Durham Bulls put out an open call for anyone who wanted to audition to sing the National Anthem to show up at the ball park last Saturday and take their best shot. I got there about thirty minutes before auditions were to begin, only to find I was sixty-eighth in line. Fortuitously, Number Sixty-Seven was my friend Terry. Neither of us knew the other was coming. Our serendipitous encounter turned the day from a lonely audition to an adventure in friendship. We took our seats on the third base line and waited our turn.

“Number One,” said the first woman who took the mic, and she began to sing, setting the pattern we would all follow. All 164 of us. The paper they handed us in line spelled it out. We were to walk down to the field when it came our turn, take the mic, say our number, sing, and then hand the mic to the next person in line. We had to sing the anthem in seventy seconds or less without venturing from the traditional melody because, should we be selected, we would be leading the crowd in the song, not performing for them. If we were good enough, we would receive an acceptance letter in a couple of weeks, though that didn’t guarantee we would sing at a game. If an opening came up, we would get a minimum of one week’s notice before our turn to sing. The best news for me was the tryout was for real: I got to stand at home plate and sing the song over the PA. Whether or not I get selected, I got to sing the National Anthem at the ball park.

The first woman started singing at ten o’clock. It was ten minutes till twelve when I held the mic for Terry to play the anthem on his harmonica (he rocked!) and about sixty seconds after that I took my turn. By then we had heard sixty-six renditions of the song. I can do without if for awhile. I think we were fifteen versions in or so when Terry turned and said, “It’s kind of fun to hear the different takes and see all the different people here. I wish we could hear the stories behind why they showed up and why they want to sing.”

Yet all we were allowed to do was sing. There was no time for stories. The first woman, white and middle aged, offered a comfortable version, followed by any number of elementary and middle school students. The four older men did a precise barbershop version that was harmonious and somehow lacking in passion. The twenty-something couple offered their version with acoustic guitar and bluegrass harmony and gave the song new life. An African-American woman sang it like a gospel song and almost brought us to our feet, even though we had already heard it twenty-five times. One young boy picked it out on classical guitar, and then a teenager did an electric version without most of Hendrix’s improvisation. The teenage girl right in front of Terry was taken over by her nerves after the first line and two hours of waiting and handed me the mic as she walked away in tears.

It’s not an easy song. The range is wide and the lyrics are, well, a little foreign to us in these days. I think it’s safe to say the only time most of us use the word rampart is when we’re singing the anthem. The lyric is more militaristic than inspiring. I would much rather “America, the Beautiful” took its place, yet there I was on the field, microphone in hand, singing with all the power I could muster. The scene is not without its irony because I don’t have a nationalistic bone in my body. Being an American doesn’t always come easy for me. I didn’t grow up here. I don’t always know how to belong here. Yet, there’s something about baseball that connects me to my country in a way I only know how to describe as a “Field of Dreams” moment. Remember Terrence Mann’s speech in the movie?

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.
When I took the mic, there were no corn stalks to be seen, nor ghosts of players past. I looked out over the left field wall where the flag hung motionless in front of the Tobacco Road Sports Bar and the office building that houses it. I was singing due north, aiming my voice at our home which lies a little over a mile from the park, beyond the bar and the Performing Arts Center, and the prison, and the Farmers’ Market, and the old Bulls’ park where they filmed Bull Durham, and the skate park, and Fullsteam – my favorite pub. I sang because I love to sing, I love baseball, and I want to feel connected to my country even though that’s not always comfortable. I sang and, in that moment, I felt unabashedly American.

And when I finished, I wanted a hot dog with everything.