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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