Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Honored to be Related

We had learned during our visit yesterday to the Great Ape Trust of Iowa that vision is a primary sense of the great apes, with hearing as a weaker faculty. We had been told about their intellect and seen videos of their ability to invent and implement tools to accomplish desired tasks, and even make music. Indeed, we were told, most of the DNA of the great apes is identical to humans. And by the time we had observed the researcher interact with one of the bonobos utilizing a computerized touch screen, we could begin to comprehend the wonder of what was taking place. But it wasn't until the formal program ended and our group of 30 was permitted to informally watch and interact with a different pair in a second area of the room that our universe tilted.

The bonobos, in this international research center, communicate via symbol boards, called lexigrams (one of which is pictured above, copied from the GAT website) developed by Dr. Duane Rumbaugh, one of the resident scientists at the trust. Sometimes the lexigrams are computerized as on the touch screen; sometimes printed on a laminated, poster-sized card they carry around. Filled with rows and rows of simple, somewhat abstract symbols for objects and actions that have become a part of the vocabulary of the apes, the educated apes have become quite adept at pointing precisely and rapidly at various symbols to construct sentences and communicate with the researchers with whom they share the visual vocabulary. It is a marvelous, if somewhat humbling, invention -- "marvelous" because it enables an interaction almost unbelievable; "humbling" because bonobos can learn English, but we, the supposedly "superior" animal can't seem to learn the bonobo language.

And so we watched and marveled. And then a female bonobo named Panbanisha pointed through the glass at a woman from our group standing near the front, and pointed, according to the researcher, at the symbol for "hurt." Indeed, the woman had a disfiguration on her face, and I thought to myself, "this could be embarrassing -- the ape calling attention to something the woman might prefer to keep hidden." The rest of us had noticed the woman's marring, but of course had had the courtesy to overlook it. But not Panbanisha. Once more she pointed at the woman and then to the symbol board. "Hurt." And then at the symbol for "groom."

"She is concerned that you are hurt," once more explained the researcher, "and wonders why we aren't grooming you. That's what they would do." The woman chuckled and explained to Panbanisha and the rest of us that the day before, she had tripped over her husband's suitcase, fallen and cut up her face. It wasn't, after all, a birthmark or plaguing illness, but rather -- just as Panbanisha had discerned -- a "hurt." And that is when the universe began to tilt. While the rest of us had simply and "tastefully" ignored the woman's injury, the bonobo had noticed, cared, and elicited her story. And while we stood around, an occasional chuckle at the fascination of it all, the bonobo continued to point at the wounded woman and the symbol board, wondering why we weren't doing anything to help her.

Finally, it seemed as though Panbanisha gave up on us. Different symbols were identified and our guide smiled and told us, "She is ready for us to leave and go outside." Perhaps she was simply tired of the interaction and was ready for some private time. More likely it was frustrated dismissal, as if to say, "if you can't even help someone when they are hurt, I don't have any time for you." Indeed.

We navigated our way back toward the entrance, handed our visitor badges back to the guard, and drove back out into a world that will never quite look the same again. Lowered somewhat -- and trivialized -- are the walls that, just a few hours before, had seemed so significant dividing the various expressions of life; divisions like "animal" and "human"; like "primitive" and "intelligent"; like "alien" and "native." I couldn't help but think about our typical thought process when encountering a "foreigner" who doesn't speak English. First we speak more loudly, as though the problem were hearing. Then we "dumb" it down, as though the problem were intellect, when all the while the barrier is simply one of language and our egocentric disposition toward superiority.

Meanwhile, the only one in the room to genuinely observe, empathize, and extract a wounded woman's story was the "beast." I hope the evolutionists are right, because I would be honored to count Panbanisha a part of my family.

What would the world be like, I have not ceased wondering, if all of us could be that primitive?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Keeping Quiet in Nashville

"It's not about you." That is the amazing message reinforced everywhere you look in Nashville's Bluebird Cafe. "Shhh!" It's their trademark. It's not only posted everywhere around the room, we learned it the moment we walked in the door of this haven for singer/songwriters who audition for the chance to try out their material. We started to tell the hostess we didn't have a reservation when she put her finger to her lips and hissed, "Shhhh!." She motioned us to follow her to a couple of seats and an evening of charades ensued to order , to ask for a refill -- anything that happened to come up. Sign language. Pointing. Nodding. Anything that would work. Because it wasn't about us.

What's "going on" is the music, and patrons -- while obviously welcome -- are there to listen.
This, according to their own description, is a listening room," where "quiet is requested at all times during a performance - which is why our slogan has become "Shhh!" You are welcome to drink and eat with us at any time, but if you are looking for an evening of conversation there are more appropriate places in Nashville."

It's almost shocking in this self-serving, self-absorbed culture that such a place could survive. Everything, after all, is always about us. Me, my needs, my desires, my convenience, my rights. If I want to talk on my cell phone while standing in line behind you, get used to it. If I want to change lanes where you happen to be driving, move over. If I want to talk...

...well, not at the Bluebird Cafe. This is about music and those who make it -- or at least trying to. Some, over the course of the two evenings we left our conversation at the door, were better than others. Some I can't wait to follow their careers. Others are not quite ready to give up their day job. But all of them deserved -- and received -- our listening ears. They are what it is all about: imagination and emotions and poetic turns of phrase; putting ideas together and melding them into melody, threading the mixture through a voice and a guitar and finessing what comes out. I envied their courage, their determination, their lack of inhibition, and their discipline.

And if I didn't enjoy every song, I nonetheless stayed quiet. It wasn't, after all, about me. It was about music and dreams in the making. And if we had had another night to spend in Nashville, this is where I would choose to be quiet.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Moment of Musical Magic

We should have known that the “famous” place was not really what we were looking for when we saw the tour buses parked out front, the large gift shop inside, and the various groups of young teenagers from out of town with their parents or sponsors. This was a bit more “Disney-like” than we were after. So, after a little line-dancing to pre-recorded music, and sampling the overly slick live act that followed, we headed down the street to the “legendary” hole-in-the-wall we had heard mentioned by several. The night before when we had passed by it was too crowded to make it past the threshold, but tonight only a half-dozen patrons joined us in the space that only slightly bested an average walk-in closet. On the tiny stage near the entrance a drummer and a guitarist were lazily adjusting this and tuning that. The place, to put it gently, was dead.

After awhile, a few more patrons trickled in, and still the pair of musicians on stage aimlessly slow-motioned their way through a few more set-up routines. It was almost like they were killing time.

We had been there perhaps 30 minutes when a thin, guitar-case carrying man hidden beneath an acreage of black cowboy hat strolled in. A cheer went up from the crowd that had almost instantly swelled to choking proportions, and within minutes his instrument was strapped around his neck and music pounded the tiny space. Suddenly, joining the three musicians on the tiny stage, a thick-waisted young man in a brown dress suit with short, moussed hair who looked every bit like a game show host, stepped onto the stage with a fiddle that erupted in lightning bolts of sound. Fingers and bow scorched along the neck and strings with such ferocity I didn’t see how they could survive. It was breathtaking.

And he, it turns out, was simply a guest – someone connected with a reality TV show that was filming up and down the street. Perhaps he was something of a game show host, after all. Whatever else he is, he was last night a serendipitous spark that quickly caught flame. And in that cramped and smoky room, woven through the music and the magical moment and the captivated crowd, was something powerfully, creatively, electrically holy.

It was time to leave, but we couldn’t. The sleepy little space into whose back stools we had leisurely settled was now squeezed airlessly, impassably tight – packed with people, cemented with music. And it was good – indescribably good. Ah! Nashville.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Dancing for the Pure and Delightful Obligation of It

We danced last night, at least in part to keep a promise. On the way out of church yesterday Lori told a friend – newly widowed after 65 years of marriage – that we were headed to Nashville for a conference related to Lori’s work, and that she hoped we would get to hear some music and do a little dancing.

Dancing, after all, has been one of our commitments ever since our dating days when Lori’s grandmother called to recommend that she, “dump the preacher.” Among the reasons – and there were multiple – was the sad and numbing prediction that, should we marry, her “dancing days would be over.” Ever since, and in her honor, we have made it a point to take a turn or two on the floor. We aren’t very good; it’s primarily a matter of principle.

Hearing this story after church, along with our Nashville plans – and no doubt deafeningly mindful of her own closeted dancing shoes – our saintly friend elicited from Lori a promise to not simply dance, but to dance every night. In our first foray, then, into downtown’s historic honky tonk corridor last night, we picked one, and danced.

We enjoyed it – immensely – but that wasn’t so much the point. No matter how much we laughed, no matter how many times we apologized for misplaced feet, no matter how far from our awareness receded the presence of others in the room leaving only the radiant joy of each other’s face in view, it was all about obligation. We were keeping a promise…

…to dance. Every night.

One down; two to go.

Thanks, Grandma Roose. Thanks, Irma.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Reverting to Paying Attention

"Early in the game the child is asked to shift from experiencing life to preparing for it."
(Peter Block, The Answer to How is Yes, p. 54)

And when, I have begun to wonder, do we ever get the signal that it is time to experience life again? I remember living high school as the preparation for college. I remember living college as the preparation for "real life." I remember living seminary as the preparation for full-time ministry. And then I remember living each setting for ministry as preparation for the next one. And then I remember living my doctoral program as the preparation for still more significant ministry.

What I don't remember is living -- or even knowing enough to seek permission from anyone, or even the depths of myself -- any of those moments for what they were.

And so it was strangely odd -- and even more strangely satisfying -- a year or so ago to come to the conclusion that I wasn't preparing for anything any longer. At first I wondered if that made me dead. Then I wondered if that made me lazy. But then I realized it simply made me...


It isn't to say that I'm not still hungry to learn and grow and stretch and dig. It isn't to say I've turned my back to the world. Quite the contrary. It is, rather, to say that I have turned full frontally to face the faces, patiently hear the jaunty allegros as well as the lumbering minor keys, and inquisitively touch the rough, the prickly, the soft and the smooth that is the life surrounding me. And it is fascinating.
  • I simply hadn't noticed before how the grass sloping alongside the overpass moves in the wind like ocean waves.
  • I hadn't noticed how deafening the air conditioner compressor can sound as it cycles on and off.
  • I hadn't noticed the difference between arrogance and fear in the sullen shades of a teenager's facial expression.
  • I hadn't noticed how many different colors are expressed in a sunset -- and how different they are from night to night.
  • I hadn't noticed that a dog, fully relaxed and massaged in just the right place around his neck, purrs and groans in satisfaction.
  • And I hadn't noticed how good it feels to notice.
I've been too busy all these years...

...getting ready.

Some now-forgotten voice once observed to me a truth that I have taken too long to remember:
that life is not a dress-rehearsal.

Perhaps it is never too late to shift back, from preparing, to experiencing.

That said, I need to stop. The sun is setting, and I have colors to count.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Risking a Vulnerable but Colorful Leaf

It is, I suppose, a fool's errand. I've planted more hostas outside the basement window. We had invested considerable energy last summer in creating a scenic garden area below the retaining wall, but the necessity for foundation repair made short work of that. If I was annoyed at the floral destruction, it was a happy enough trade. It was secure the foundation or see the house continue its slide down the hill. Farewell fair flowers!

But this spring, we've begun the recreation -- smoothing the mountain of soil, recreating the edging, re-imagining the plantings. Lilies, hostas, peonies, ornamental grass, iris, a few more perennials, and a variety of annuals. And it has all thrived. But there was this tree across the way where our outdoor chairs had been clustered. Wouldn't a few hostas around the base look nice? Yes, but won't the deer consume them? And the rabbits? And the squinties? Why bother?

Why bother indeed? The odds are even at best that any of it will reach maturity. It is, as I say, something of a fool's errand -- all this horticultural undertaking. The woods are on both sides of us, and the various nibblers who live there. I have every reason to expect it to be money and energy -- and garden dreams -- down the drain.

But still we plant. It is, it seems to me, a defiant -- or merely faith-filled -- metaphor for all the ways we seek beauty, attempt valiance, commit optimism, or invest in the best, even when the worst shadows and thunders. Why? Because while the odds are not always good, little could be worse than acquiescing to bleak and colorless certainty.

A bright, calculated risk can make all the difference in the world.

Dare on.

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Saturday, June 9, 2007

Losing Petals, One at a Time

There was another funeral yesterday. In a congregation with a large percentage from the "World War 2 Generation," funerals aren't uncommon. But the ones we have been having lately have been for pillars -- ones on whose shoulders the congregation is supported, if not actually the building. Yesterday's service was in that category -- a faithful disciple who was on the search committee when I moved here 14 years ago, who has participated in every Bible Study I have ever taught, who has served as an elder, spiritual mother, organized countless funeral lunches, and whose devoted volunteer contributions to the administrative side of congregational life can be fairly represented by the fact that she had her own office. She came to staff parties. She had her own set of keys.

And hers is only the most recent in a string of deaths in our congregation the pain of which is too numbing for tears.

It is, I am discovering, one of the great liabilities of a long pastorate. It would have been emotionally simpler to move on after a few glad-handing years -- before I fell in love with so many people; before I allowed them to work their way into the very cellular structure of my heart. But it is much too late late for that. I came. I grew roots. I fell in love. And as a result, I have been here long enough to feel whole pieces of myself go away as caskets are lowered in the ground.

There has to be some mental, emotional, spiritual adjustment to make that would change this net effect. Surely there is a way -- short of disinterested aloofness -- to react to these deaths (what, after all, are perfectly natural eventualities) in a healthier, less traumatic way. Surely there is a way to find grateful reverence in these grievings to such a degree that what remains is a celebration of the gifts they have brought to my -- and our -- living and serving; that what is internalized is a holy appreciation for, and integration of, the contributions they have made to my experience of the world, rather than this silencing, debilitating sense of depletion.

Surely there is a way.

I just haven't yet found it.

And as a result, with every death I feel more and more like a stem whose flower is one-by-one losing its petals. How long before I become merely a thin and naked strand?

What I am expressing is not despair. Only grief. I am not hopeless -- about myself or these beloved dead. They, I trust beyond a sliver of doubt, rest secure. And I know -- and experience -- myself to be held secure, with human hands and divine ones. Theology is not the problem. It's my heart.

How often can it survive the breaking?

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Blessing the Market

The farmer's market opened in the church parking lot last evening, cutting the ribbon on its eleventh season. An idea that sounded silly to me when it was first suggested, the market has grown and matured over the years to such an extent that the only thing silly about it has proved to be me. Because of devoted and diligent leadership, the market has become something of a model in the state, used to pilot various county and state programs eventually implemented in markets throughout Iowa. Our manager even spoke at a national conference last year. The market isn't large. While the Downtown market has hundreds of vendors and tens of thousands of visitors each week, twenty or so faithful vendors pull into our parking lot every Wednesday afternoon throughout the season to serve a rebirthing neighborhood.

So why would a church sponsor a farmer's market? That was the question I couldn't initially get my mind around. Part of the answer has to do with access to quality food, which in our neighborhood hasn't always been easy. But the larger part of the answer has to do with community -- creating the space in which people from a dizzying array of nationalities, a cacophonous mixture of languages, the full life-cycle of ages, and a wide spectrum of economic means can come together, shop, eat, sit and enjoy the music, or simply walk around and "window shop" on a lovely summer evening in safety. Again, that last part -- safety -- hasn't always been easy to find in our neighborhood through the years. Which is finally to say that what gets sold is secondary. What gets experienced is sacred.

And so we began yesterday with a blessing. It is, after all, a part of a church. Just before the opening whistle, vendors poised and customers pacing, I took up the DJ's microphone, called for attention, and began...

"The opening words of scriptures sacred to many speak of God’s creative authorship and ingenuity; of God’s Spirit sweeping through great nothingness and calling into being this great, wonderful “is-ness.” All that is – the soil and all that grows from it and rains down on it; the seas and all that swim in it; the bugs and birds and finally us. And God looked over it all and declared it very, very good.

And turning to us, God said, “here is beauty and nourishment, enterprise, community and joy; and you are responsible for it.”

I like to think of this market as one way that we are carrying out that assignment – honoring the fruitfulness of the earth and the creativity of our hands that must, I’m convinced, have something to do with what it means to be made in God’s image; and celebrating the community of one another by creating the space and the occasion for it to flourish.

As we cut the ribbon on this 11th season of the Drake Neighborhood Farmer’s Market, let us offer a word of blessing:

God of Sower and Seed, of artisans and cooks, of vendors and buyers, we give you thanks for the soil and all that grows from it. We thank you for those who cultivate it and tend it and beckon from it the staff of life. We give you thanks for those by whose hands it is harvested and boxed and brought to market; those by whose hands it is turned into meals and snacks and served; and those who, so nourished and fed, turn their energies to creation in varied forms – basket and bread, soap and health, honey and song and art in varied forms.

We give you thanks for this market, and those on both sides of the stalls. We give you thanks for the community experienced, the intersection of colors and countries and appetites and hopes. May we see in each other the gift of your face, and so finding, and so receiving, know and indulge in the real of harvest of life.

Bless, then, this market and all who gather here, all who direct traffic here, all who manage and set up and tear down, all who shop and all who sell, all who come for supper and all who simply sit and enjoy the sun, the music, the company and the wonder of your manifold goodness. Prosper this effort, and through it, all those whose life it touches. Amen.

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Saturday, June 2, 2007

Comfortable with the Dessert Days

"I'm decades past my salad days, and even past the main course: maybe I'm in my cheese days -- sitting atop the lettuce leaves on the table for a while now with all the other cheese balls, but with much nutrition to offer, and still delicious. Or maybe I'm in my dessert days, the most delicious course. Whatever you call it, much of the stuff I used to worry about has subsided -- what other people think of me, and of how I am living my life. I give these things the big shrug. Mostly. Or at least eventually. It's a huge relief."

(Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, p. 173)

I do not say this proudly. And yet there is no embarrassment, either. I have managed to be included in an internet listserv group of colleagues who are commendably passionate about their topic. They write -- continuously, it often seems -- and they pose questions; they recommend resources and they exude seriousness and devotion and faithful determination. Except for that crack about the volume of their posting, nothing said here is meant to imply criticism. I admire them. Indeed -- and here is the part that feels odd to say -- I remember when I was one of them.

I remember attending a conference several months after graduating from seminary and reconnecting with several of my classmates. Some months now out in the "real world," we reflected together on what we had experienced. Generally, we were happy and committed to what we were doing. But we had frustrations -- and some evaporation of what could have been the naive conscientiousness of beginning ministry.

Returning home and mentioning this gathering to a colleague, he asked what we had shared with each other. "We commiserated that we had spent all this time in seminary wrestling with, learning about, dreaming into some comprehension of what the church is called to be, and then we get out into the church and discover not only that the church isn't what it is called to be -- that part didn't surprise us -- but that no one in the church seems to care. That part has been hard." "Yes," my colleague responded, "how do we communicate that to the seminary?" I replied, "We were wondering how we communicate that to the church!"

But years have passed. And it's not that I no longer care -- I do, at least as passionately as I did in the midst of that conversation. It's just that having those conversations doesn't get me out of bed any longer. They are important discussions, and I am glad that my friends on the internet are having them. But I have yet to enter the fray. It just gives me no sizzle.

It may be because I am older, although I don't think that fully explains it. I could have become cynical, and there probably is something to that. I have given up on some of the idealisms I once tried to shove down the throat of this committee or that board. I have less optimism about the salvific effects of this strategy or that innovation. It could, I suppose, be burnout, but I don't feel burned out. I feel joyful, humbly grateful for the opportunity to stretch my soul in the direction of God's imagination.

Finally, I think I've simply relaxed in these dessert days of my life and life work. The manifold ways the church continues to disappoint doesn't distress me nearly as much as it used to, at least in part because I have gained a deeper appreciation for the ways the church, in subtler and less obtrusive ways -- in the person of countless and precious individuals I have the privilege of visiting in the hospital, attending as they die, celebrating with as they marry, gasping with as they emerge from baptismal waters, and arguing with at Board Meetings -- actually does thrive as a sign, a foretaste, and an instrument of God's coming reign.

Grateful. Humbled. Sometimes -- often even -- inspired. Imagine that.

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