Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sustainable Cooking and Living

"You are fortunate that your chef has stayed with you," I commented to Innkeeper Dave as we finished coffee after breakfast. Jason, the chef, had come to this Vermont inn from Napa, having already cooked for royalty in the Colorado mountain resorts, according to Dave.

"He's doing what he loves to do," was Dave's simple response.

What he went on to describe was a network of relationships the chef has developed with local farmers, ranchers, distributors and customers. He has come to know the preferences of repeat guests -- no salt for this one; extra spicy for that one -- and visualizes the faces of those for whom he prepares each plate. Different from cooking for a series of tickets the machine spits out in the large restaurants, this is personalized cooking based on the people involved. He knows exactly where his food has come from and by whose efforts, and onto whose place-setting it will be handed, and assumes respectfully the sacred part he plays as creative culinary intermediary.

He could be in a "mega-restaurant," but life and satisfaction for him are apparently in the personalization made possible in this more intimate setting.

It reminds me of a comment I recently heard made by Sam Wells, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University. After introducing us to the story of a couple facing significant challenges, he concluded that "what they need is the church. And I pray they find one small enough to meet their needs."

Not one large enough, but one small enough.

Like the kitchen of a small inn in Vermont, where the chef knows the farmers, the food they produce, and the stories of those who will eat it. I'm thinking that Chef Jason could teach a few things to churches, businesses, civic leaders...
...and, of course, me.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

"...softly and tenderly falling down."

It snowed last night -- a dusting, is all, that whitened the road but little else. Still, in a season when the ground should be covered with it -- in our own Iowa, to say nothing of here in Vermont -- any glimpse of it in this globally warmed era is welcome. I recognize that mine is a plaintive voice in a rather small choir. Not everyone loves snow and the chill that accompanies it. But I have yet to know anything as calming, quieting and strangely beckoning as a blanket of new-fallen snow; anything as magical as standing beneath the falling flakes with palms and tongue out-stretched, catching, tasting, just for the joy of it.

Besides, it is a part of creation. If I wanted desert I would visit Arizona; rainforest, Brazil. Geography is supposed to be diverse. I have no interest in the mall-ification of the world, where one part looks pretty much like another, like Gap stores and Chili's restaurants no matter the local style or cuisine. I've come to Vermont for snow. OK, I've come to Vermont for the romance of it, the mountains of it, the evergreens of it, and the nostalgia of it -- but also the snow.

And during the night it acquiesced.

And as if to compound blessing, it decided to have fun with the entire day, with flakes thickening and the sky whitening throughout the hours. And now nearing sunset, that longed-for blanket is laid.

And here, like nowhere else quite like it...'s Vermont

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

...And the darkness has not overcome it.

It is quiet, though both the glow and the detritus of the season are still in evidence. Bits of wrapping paper still litter the living room floor; fragments of late-night bulletins remain scattered on the sanctuary pews. Housekeeping at both home and church will require a little extra attention. Boxes are mostly gone from beneath the tree, and candles, for the most part, are now similarly stowed at the church. Visitors to our house have returned to their own environs, and my guess is that Sunday's worship crowd will look much more familiar than did the attendees on Sunday past. It was Christmas Eve, after all, and both morning and night presented friends I hadn't yet met.

But suddenly, like the candles on Christmas Eve that were quickly lighted and just as quickly extinguished, it is over. "Sleep in heavenly peace." Left, now, to ponder the affirmation that "the light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it."

  • the light of extended family crowded onto sofas near the warmth of the fire;
  • the light of a worshipping family crowded into pews, holding candles high with one hand and brushing away a tear with the other, singing of "Jesus, Lord, at thy birth";
  • the light of stories told and memories warmed;
  • the light of lives held tightly in each other's care;
  • the light of plans and possibilities beckoning us forward;
  • and yes, the light of grace made plain, personal, compelling, and enlivening.

It is, indeed, quieter today and our common spaces are messier. Yes, there are fresh bills to pay and things to put away. And while it remains to be seen exactly how much, at least some of Christmas this year won't soon be boxed or tossed or sucked up into the Oreck. Hopefully, in fact, never. I have a hunch that every time I pull on one these new shirts, the gift will be worn more visibly on my face. Everytime I read one of the pages I unwrapped, the words will be accompanied by carols. And at least for some time to come, when I stand in the midst of a worshipping community, their faces will glow, as if with candles -- shining on in the darkness, in a way that the darkness -- or the more usual routine -- simply cannot overcome.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Evanescent Plans and the Blessed Curse of Holiday Travel

And suddenly there is time on my hands. The airplanes that were supposed to deliver my parents and my daughter into my welcoming hands this morning did not deliver. Weather problems in one distant part of the country meant pilots and equipment out of place in another (grounding my parents). Weight restrictions and excess luggage meant bumped passengers for safe flying (grounding my daughter). It is, I've been reminded, the busiest travel day of the year, and while I might quibble with that designation it is, I recognize, hectic. In our annual holiday "fruit basket turnover," everyone seems to be trying to be somewhere else. Add on to that the reality that we are talking about a system built on mechanical equipment (that breaks), human beings (who get sick, need time off, or behave, sometimes, irresponsibly), and weather (enough said!). It's a bit amazing that anyone ever gets anywhere.

So, with no one to pick up at the airport and entertain for the afternoon, how shall I use my suddenly available time? Lamenting the loss of time together will no doubt consume some of it. Commiserating long distance with those delayed will certainly take its bite. But what then?

The truth is, I still am blessedly surrounded by people I love, and meaningful work to pursue. It's not like I am bereft. The planes will presumably fly tomorrow making the reunion merely delayed. Although that, too, could change. Travel and circumstances and weather and well-being do not happen like clockwork -- and even clocks run slow, and sometimes down. So, I'll give thanks for the family who actually wants to get together -- for the heart's desire that seeks each other -- and ask God's blessing on all those similarly, indeed more greatly stranded, disappointed, and inconvenienced.

And, thusly and effectively reminded of the vulnerabilities and vicissitudes of life and our plans for it, I will reengage this day in the gratitude that I am able to do so -- that however much time I may ultimately have, I do have this time now to use faithfully, responsibly, kindly, attentively.

And, in the midst of it all, remember afresh that we are not in control...
...and pray that the planes are on time tomorrow.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Discerning the Music and One's Place Within It

The CD player malfunctioned. It happened Sunday evening during a Christmas program while a visiting liturgical dance group was performing. Propped up on the organ bench, the operators had labored with some difficulty to get it to play in the first place, and then scurried to find a microphone they could lay nearby when the volume proved inadequate. But then halfway into the routine, the music simply stopped.

I wasn't familiar with the song, but had noticed that I was in the minority. Most of the congregation had started singing along. So when the technology failed, several supportive onlookers tried to undergird the dancers from the pews. But it limped. Then, out of the corner of my eye I noticed movement from the guest musical director who had been leaning against the wall beside me. Precariously he threaded his way between the music stands and the microphone cords, the extra chairs and the guitars leaning nearby and took his place at the keyboard where his hands stopped short, hovering above the keys.

And he listened. He listened to the handful of people still singing the song. He listened to the fading memory of the melody through the speakers. And after patient attending, his hands adjusted over the keyboard, landed, and began to play...

...exactly on key. Exactly on melody. Seamlessly. Beautifully.

I never knew quite when, but eventually I realized that the CD player had revived, and the keyboardist gradually withdrew to the background of the music -- while remaining involved, just in case. So deft had been the musician's finesse that the line between his involvement and the recording was almost indiscernible.

It was, I'm sure, musical excellence and expertise. I commend his training and his craft. But I am just as sure that the artfulness of the moment emerged from his patience between the fall and the rise. He waited. He listened. He paid attention. And only then -- only after discerning the moment, the music, and his place within it -- did his fingers begin to play.

As one too often impetuous, too often quick to fill the silences and the gaps with words or motions any one of which will do, I learned something Sunday night about pausing, listening, and discerning the key.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Responsibility and the Puppy's Classroom on Communication

Barrington, our Welsh Corgi puppy (still puppy to us, though now 8 years old) is not shy about asking. Unencumbered by the protocols of timing or hospitality, if he has a wish, he communicates it. When craving the blessing of affectionate touch, he whirls over on his back, white tummy fully exposed, to convey the unmistakable plea, "rub me." When it is meal time -- even when it isn't though hunger encourages the deception -- his herding genetics have a way of nuzzling and circling us toward the kitchen. Bathroom breaks are similarly reminded. And it isn't at all uncommon, in the midst of a conversation with friends or a stolen moment with a book, to find his gnarled tennis ball silently but assertively nudged into my lap. Barrington takes his needs into his own hands and pursues them with, well, dogged determination.

It reminds me of a community organizing training program I traveled cross-country to attend in recent years. Arriving at the conference center I found no signs with information posted, no instructions displayed on tables, no hosts to welcome or direct. What I mistook for carelessness I soon learned was the first aspect of the teaching: "if you want to know something, ask; if you want someone else to know something, tell them."

Whether it is timidity or some convoluted sense of "politeness," I have a difficult time learning that lesson -- with assuming responsibility for my own needs, thoughts, hopes and wants, instead of assuming that those around me will magically or mysteriously or mystically know. Perhaps it would help if I understood that clarity is not an affront, but a gift, and responsibility is not an arrogance or a demand, but a contribution.

The world and those inhabitants of it closest to me are not obligated to meet my needs or grant my wishes, but they have a right to know what they are. Across the room I see that Barrington has flipped over again and is looking my way. "Good boy," I call to him as I set aside this computer and rise from my chair, "thanks for the continuing education."

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Christmas letters from the heart

Isn't it ironic that the metaphorical setting of Advent is the wilderness -- that place where there is very little to "do" physically; it is, rather, the place to "be." It is the place for spirit work -- for listening and watching and, of course, waiting. It is in the wilderness places of life where the words of the prophet Isaiah become poignant: that "those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength..." (40:31).

But if we are not very good at waiting, we are even more challenged when it comes to spirit work. I think of all this as we both receive and struggle to write Christmas letters. What do we say? How is that we characterize and reflect upon a year in a life? Most of our efforts suggest a conclusion that "life is doing" -- measuring our months by the pace we keep, the trips we take, the activities on which we expend ourselves. It is almost to suggest that if it has been a busy year it has been a good year. In our letters we recount to loved ones the report of our outer lives. And to some extent we are interested.

But wouldn't it be more interesting if, instead, we could somehow share in our Christmas communiques some representation of what has occurred in our inner lives this year?

Ralph Waldo Emerson supposedly greeted old friends with the question, "What has become clear to you since last we met?"

Now that would be a Christmas letter: reflecting on and sharing with family and friends what we have learned this year, what insights we have gained, what big or little thing has become clear to us since last we met or corresponded -- our internal living as well as our external -- and inviting them to do the same.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Better Angels of our Nature

A fat book loaned to me by a friend has immersed me in Lincoln of late. Though my reading schedule has allowed steady but only slow progress, every page has brought an education; and here and there, an awakening. For example, how did my education – or my retention – overlook the closing lines of Lincoln's inaugural address? Spoken at a time when at least one state had already seceded from the Union – spurred on by Lincoln’s own election – and rumors of assassination forced his covert arrival into the capital city, Lincoln strove to address the concerns of both North and South. And then this conclusion:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

“We are not enemies, but friends. …the better angels of our nature.” The recent years of electoral combat, the polarization of progressive and conservative Christians, the strident arguments over bullying and civil rights for those of varying sexual orientations – to say nothing of warfare in the global community - make Lincoln sound like a contemporary. According to playwright John PatrickShanley (Doubt), Americans have shifted into a "courtroom culture." "It's evident in political talk shows, in entertainment coverage, in artistic criticism of every kind, in religious discussion," he writes. "Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills."

The Des Moines Register (12/12/06) recently cited Deborah Tannen's best-seller The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words, "When you're having an argument with someone, your goal is not to listen and understand. Instead, you use every tactic you can think of — including distorting what your opponent just said — in order to win."

His against hers. Hers against theirs. Theirs against ours. Us against them. We are not enemies, but friends, Lincoln wrote, and I pray we find a way to remember. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.

Imagine what we might hear if we were to take his words to heart, allowing the “mystic chords” of humankind to be strummed by “the better angels of our nature.”

Friday, December 8, 2006

More Questions than Answers

The Christian Century recently introduced me to a statement by Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. Fingering around the tension between spiritual conviction and hunger, he asserted that " be without questions is not a sign of faith, but a lack of depth." I've become so intrigued by the claim that it now follows my signature at the bottom of e-mails.

Why has it hooked me? I recognize its negative potential; one can read it as a put down. No one, after all, wants to be seen as shallow. But when did questions become grounds for dismissal -- symptoms of weakness, inadequacy, or benign simplicity? When did politicians or preachers or CEO's conclude that they no longer had permission to be growing and "in process," -- no longer able to honestly and boldly confess, "I don't know," -- required instead to possess every answer? When did we conclude that wisdom meant having all the answers?

The older I get the more convinced I become of my own incompleteness. As many have observed before me, "the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know." Nowhere is that more true than in my spiritual life. After all these years, all the Bible Studies and books and prayers and retreats, I am still trying to fathom the depths of God. If I passed over them at 25, now 50 I pause over Isaiah's words, lingering longingly, hopefully:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Perhaps discipleship, after all, is less about claiming the best answers than asking better questions.

Friday, December 1, 2006

The Chill Surrounding the Flame

Advent. Happy time. Cookies, lights, carols and friends; crackling fires and cider and cards; warm memories and promising hopes. It is a time to shiver with delight and burst with the good will toward the "all" that scripture directs. With all this focus on light it hardly seems the time to call attention to the chilly darkness that is so much a part of our reality.

But advent, which literally means "coming", is precisely the time to take full stock of the bleakness within our view -- the brokenness and the grief, the cruelty and malignant manipulation of resources and opportunities toward the benefit of the few, the aching need of the impoverished and the violent hatreds of those at war -- to have any appreciation for the grace that God has in mind and in store. Advent is the season of hope, but what use is "hope" if what currently exists is everything you can ever desire? Hope is only relevant in the context of absence. If life already contains everything desirable, anything "coming" can only be bad news.

We needn't concern ourselves with such speculation. The life that surrounds us, while certainly full of blessing and good, is anything but perfect. The gap between the way life is and the way God intends it to be is not only broad, but deepening. The level of American incredulity at the revelation of how much certain peoples of the world hate and resent our "way of life" following the attacks of 9/11; the gasping disbelief over what we could no longer help but see when hurricane Katrina ripped the roof off the poverty of New Orleans are some measure of the denial and ignorance within which we have insulated ourselves from painfully cold reality. Yes, there are good people. Yes, there are helpful deeds genuinely and generously enacted. There is joy around and abroad, and sacrificial efforts to make life better. But...

...we can celebrate and cheer the "Good Samaritans" we see making noble contributions, and we do what we can to lighten the burden and soothe the misery of those we encounter along the roadside. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. once noted, "One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life."

So let us commend the good works of the many, but in this Advent season let us not allow our appreciation for such episodic nobilities blind us to the dangerous roads that still criss-cross this life so far, far east of Eden, and so painfully remote from the New Jerusalem...

...for which we hope.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Present at the Airport

Sitting in the airport, people-watching the holiday travelers finding their way home, the space is crowded with absent people. Despite the occupied chairs and long lines, no one is really present; minds are cast forward to home and business-back-to-normal, memories are lingering over tables pulled out longer and lives reconnected and welcome home hugs too quickly become farewell embraces. No one is actually here, in the airport, in the uncomfortable seats, long lines and lugged luggage. With laptops whirring and ear buds entertaining, with an occasional book spread and ubiquitous cell phones dialing, with only an occasional eye flicked to the scrolling monitors on the wall, no one is really paying any attention to the people passing by, the weather outside, the person sitting nearby whose sagging carry-on is crowding your ankle, the service workers driving the beeping carts or pouring the overpriced coffee. That said, not even the service workers seem to be paying any attention, giving off every signal that they, too, would rather be anywhere but here.

It is transience in microcosm, hurried strides, panicked expressions, vacant stares, animated conversations -- some inane and others heartfelt and sensitive -- with some absent confidant, carried on in comfortable volume born of the assurance that no one else is around. And, of course, in a measure, they are correct. None of the bodies that crowd the space within easy earshot are really there. Faintly aware, perhaps, of a nattering and annoying buzz nearby, their minds are somewhere else. In every way that matters, they are simply not there.

Except, for one fleeting series of moments, me: present, if unwittingly so, to the woman sitting nearby talking too loudly into her cell phone to God knows who. I have now in my consciousness the name of the state in which she began her day, the different state where she would be spending her night, the business she would be transacting not only there, but in the neighboring cities as well. I can tell you that her travel schedule has kept her in the air and airports quite frequently of late, that she was surprisingly upgraded to first-class on her last leg, that she is weary, and that she looks forward to getting back home one of these days soon. And I can tell you that she is pregnant, with some kind of a stage 4 tumor that the doctors advise her not to have removed until the baby is born. “But I am doing fine,” she assured her telephonic confidant. “Really, I’m fine.”

I’ll take her at her word, but against my greatest wishes, I am present now with her and her reality. Present. And though she didn’t ask for my prayers – how could she? She had no idea that I was even present – I will remember her in them, praying that God bless her travels, her fatigue and renewal, her baby, and her health. Whoever she is.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reaching Inside Each Other

When Valley High School recently produced the play, "The Laramie Project", it generated animated public debate. Initial controversy focused on language in the play that many felt was inappropriate for a high school setting with student actors. Surprisingly, the playwrite approved revisions to alleviate these concerns -- which simply made room for other concerns. In the background of the play, of course, is the topic of homosexuality -- the very mention of which seems to render us incapable of having a reasoned discourse. Laramie, Wyoming is the town where Matthew Shepherd, an openly gay college student, was brutally murdered.

Though I was familiar with the Matthew Shepherd story, and though I had heard about the play, I had never seen the play nor read the script. Well publicized was the fact that the script was not a retelling or reinactment of the murder of Matthew Shepherd. Rather, it represented the fruit of interviews made with townspeople in the months following the tragedy. That said, I still didn't know what to expect when I sat down in the audience on opening night of the production. What I experienced surprised me.

Indeed, the subject of homosexuality is "background" at the most. The play is the story of a community struggling to adjust to a terrible experience, and the worldwide attention that tragedy now focused on them. Just as significantly, it is the story of a group of actors, prodded by their director, who agreed somewhat reluctantly to conduct the interviews. The resulting script brings to life those they interviewed, their own inner reflections as they anticipated and conducted the interviews, and the dynamic of community struggle, grief, discomfort, and healing. While the murder of Matthew Shepherd is certainly at the center of the story, the real story is about how a community looks at itself and attempts to heal. Along the way, audience members are "forced" to listen to a full range of perspectives -- neither simply their own, nor those they may abhor. That, it later struck me, is both the power and the discomfort of the play. Almost never are we exposed to such a full range of reactions and reflections, equally portrayed, equally respected. We prefer to have clear "good guys" and "bad guys," and this play simply would not accomodate us. Short of walking out, we had no choice but to listen to everybody -- those who offended us, those who echoed us, those who wanted to talk about something else altogether, and those who didn't know what to think; listen, as well, to the anguish of those who were reluctant to even ask the questions.

In the process, we were given the privilege of reaching inside a portion of each other.

That same weekend our congregation held a conversation about self-describing ourselves as "open and affirming" to gays and lesbians. It was a good conversation -- a caring conversation -- in which people genuinely tried to listen to each other. As we talked, a familiar question was raised: "why single out one group? Will we next be required to post on the sign that truckers, nurses and firemen are welcome, as well?" Later, as I reflected on the honest question, I thought about Arab travellers who are routinely subjected to searches at airports -- simply because of who they are. I thought of African-Americans who are are routinely shadowed in stores and pulled over by police because their "profile" makes them suspicious. Most of us have no idea what it is like to be "judged" or "suspected" or "rejected" simply because of who we are -- a part of our being that we have not ability to change. What I would now like to say to the questioner in our church gathering is that we will never need to reassure truckers, nurses and firefighters that they are welcome in our fellowship because it would not cross their minds that they wouldn't be. That's not their experience. In order to understand this dynamic of inclusion/exclusion, we will need to talk with those who, based on painful experience, have learned to assume they aren't welcome unless differently reassured. We need some capacity to reach inside another's experience and comprehend it -- otherwise we will rejecting, excluding, judging people for the rest of our lives out of ignorance, in the name of moral conviction.

And that, it seems to me, would be a tragic loss for ourselves, and for those whose gifts we haven't found a way to receive.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Pledging and Discipleship

It is the annual season in congregational life for preparing the financial forecast for life in the coming year. Budgeting. We are well underway. The "Sermon on the A-mount" has been preached, pledge cards are largely in hand, and the appropriate committee is busy trying to shotgun anticipated expenses and income into some kind of a legitimate marriage. One day soon, after the pleading and cutting have been completed, a budget will be adopted and we will move forward into flights of other fancies.

But what are we to make of this process -- this annual collision of the esoteric and the pragmatic, the prayerful and the pedestrian? Isn't there an inherent conflict of interest between the institutional and the spiritual? Spiritual disciplines, after all, which seek to nest the whole of one's life -- time, talent, money, etc. -- in the context of one's faithful and trustful orientation to the priorities of the Creator seem compromised by the institution's insatiable appetite for funding which sounds perennially something like the man-eating plant "Audrey 2" in Little Shop of Horrors coercing Seymour to "feed me."

Is it, finally, possible for spiritual devotion and institutional necessity to co-exist, or is anything a church does in the name of "stewardship education and development" finally tainted as mere "prettied-up, crass marketing" for the good of the bottom line? I'm more optimistic than that. Though it's true that stewardship can descend into mere spiritualized fundraising in the same way that evangelism can be debased by simple church growth schemes, how we spiritually view our personal assets is, indeed, a critical faith concern. That the church's fiscal necessities must tag along belong the church's responsibility to occasion stewardship reflections -- and sometimes repentance -- simply means that the church must be vigilant about its own integrity. Budgeting must be secondary -- indeed subservient -- to faith development. In the same way that therapists, teachers, preachers, counselors and others have the obligation to exercise special care due to the relational power and authority conferred in their relationships with clients, so the church must be cautious about the way it exercises its intrinsic influence. It must, likewise, submit itself to the same kind of stewardship expectations it asks of its members. How is the spirituality, the convictions and values of the church -- its own time, talent and resources -- utilized and offered as gifts from God and held only in trust? Is the church a model to its members about how to steward its own assets? The institution, after all, can be just as stingy, just as self-centered and self-indulgent as those members who comprise it.

Hard questions. For now, we'll count the cards and see how the budget comes out.