Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Every Season Has its Beauty

I'm not sure why the steady parade of ice patches, dislodged from the banks upstream and floating unawares down the river and ultimately disintegrating over the falls, kept me so focused through the windows of the restaurant overlooking the destruction. Perhaps it was the contrast between the gentle winter glide of the ice and the violent turbulence of the froth that ultimately consumed it. Perhaps it was some wordless lament for the winter warmth that was weakening the idyllic view and transforming it into bucolic flotsam and jetsam. Perhaps it was some subconscious connection with the larger bank, losing itself piece by piece to the inexorable flow of the river -- a metaphor of sorts that my soul understood but the rest of me dared not probe. Whatever, there was a feeling of melancholy as we watched them float by toward what seemed like destruction.

We had arrived the day before for what has become an annual New Year's retreat to Vermont. By now we have developed patterns -- touchstones to which we return -- and now on this first full day we couldn't wait to touch the first of them. Indeed, the first few of them. It is, indeed, warmer here than it should be this time of year, and though there is snow, there is dripping and slushing and mud now desecrating the white. But we have slogged our way around, nestling in to the leisure and reacquainting ourselves with the albeit more temperate splendor. Perhaps inspired by the melting, or simply the New Year's awareness of time and its passing, we have talked of aging -- aches and disappointments and hopes and exhilarations. We have talked of losses, but also of gains. We have talked of transitions and perspectives; fears and apprehensions; possibilities and resilient aspirations -- of what we've done, but all that we still yet have to do.

As if to practice, yesterday we took a new drive. Westward through the state along roads we hadn't traveled -- beautiful turns and nourishing mountains and beckoning streams. And as the sun began to settle, we turned for the drive back east, and there an entirely new education enrolled us. Mountainsides presented themselves before and around us -- whole panoramas of tree-covered slopes with the afternoon sun spotlighting them as if in a gallery. There was snow on the ground, but the trees rising above it glowed with a color I hadn't expected and can scarcely describe. Who knew that winter splayed this kind of palette? Copper and bronze and a muted rust -- not the riotous blaze of autumn's red and gold, but an earthier, quieter, fleshier beauty. We spoke less and less as the mountains in this wardrobe drew us in -- turn after turn, vista after vista pressing upon us the wisdom that every season has its beauty.

And I woke this morning well before I wished to with the revelation that the ice pieces on the river weren't falling to their destruction. They were river to begin with, and nothing about that, but the form, has changed. Who knows, downstream, what current or froth or ice, yet again, it may still become.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Short and Magical Road From Resentment to Peace

I'll admit that the 11:00 pm Christmas Eve service always begins on a note of annoyance.  The earlier service gathers the multitudes, and there are always hands to shake and holiday hugs, there are annual faces to recognize and welcome and the inevitable foot tapping waiting for the last to leave.  And then we rush home to celebrate Christmas with the kids.  They are old enough now to beat us home from church and take charge of the eggroll assembly.  We fry and visit and set the table and eventually sit, ourselves, amidst a lively chatter of worship critique and the news of the day.  Eventually we migrate to the living room, in front of the fire, and allocate the packages to their intended hands.  And it's wonderful -- the playful comments, the gasps and appreciations, the remembrances and affections.  And it is always cut short.  The late service beckons.

Shooing the kids out the front door, Lori and I hustle our way out to the garage and make the quiet drive back to the church, to unlock, to straighten up, to rearrange, and to wait to see if anyone appears.  And, as I say, it's always stained with a gentle resentment that our family time has been abbreviated. 

But the 11 pm service has its own special magic, and before long it has worked on me.  This is  never a large service -- a few hands full of folk at best -- and I am always surprised by who they are.  A stranger or two -- one for whom a stable might be a step up. Former members from years ago, visiting, with a touch of melancholy at their distance.  An extended family from the neighborhood who attend every year.  Several from the church.  Some repeaters from the earlier service. 

And the story.  "A decree went out from Caesar Augustus..."
And the carols.  "O Little Town of Bethlehem..."
And the candles.  "Silent night, holy night..."
And the pregnant moment, flames held high in an awkward but somehow reassuring circle, when it's possible to believe that the light indeed shines on in the darkness -- just as it does in this darkened room -- and the darkness will not put it out.

And these moments that began stained with resentment I find myself just now not bearing to let end.

"Jesus Lord at thy birth.  Jesus Lord at thy birth."
  Strangers, for the most part, become somehow soulmates in that circle, we stand there as the notes fade into silence, the flickering candles the only movement. 

"Merry Christmas," I say, when I can delay the inevitable no more.
"Merry Christmas," the little huddle of folk respond.  And after a moment's pause, the spell is broken and feet begin to shuffle toward the door.  But the spell is not really broken.  The glow from the candles has now moved to the faces, as the room quickly empties and returns to silence. 

We unplug the tree, extinguish the rest of the candles, close and lock the doors, and crunch out into the snow -- glowing a bit, ourselves.

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace..."

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dinner is the Priority

Yesterday was one of those "pastoral duty" experiences. It was my turn to lead the afternoon worship experience at a local assisted living facility. If my tone here is less than pastoral, let me hasten to reassure that my negativity implies no denigration of the residents there, nor on the service the management of the facility provides. I deeply revere the residents in this and other care centers, and by my observation they are, at least in this particular facility, well cared for.

It's just that worship there is – and I mean this with all pastoral sensitivity – a little slice of Hell. For one thing, the location for the weekly services has been itinerant over the past few years. Once held in a lounge area removed from everyday traffic, that space was transformed into a dining room and worship was relocated to the "activity room" – read: TV room. Housed there, the worship leader's first order of business was to negotiate a temporary black out with the residents who were ensconced in front of the giant screen watching a Lawrence Welk rerun. Assuming success in that bit of diplomacy, the service could proceed with only occasional interruptions.

But now, alas, that space has morphed into the therapy room, so "worship" has moved to a "dining room", which in reality is a wide space in a hallway where tables are pushed aside to temporarily accommodate the chairs and wheelchairs of worshippers. But life, in that hallway/dining room, does not pause. Visitors and staff alike must make their way through on their way to the elevator or other parts of the building; carts are routinely and clatteringly pushed through the area with food or water or medicines onboard; and of course there are preparations for the evening meal. In the midst of the Pastoral Prayer – I'm not making this up; my source is my wife who first heard the screaching marker and then opened her eyes to identify the distraction – a staff member came in and wrote out the evening's dinner menu on the whiteboard located just beside the communion table.

"Worship" (and I use the term charitably) is clearly an afterthought here – an obligatory social activity to list among the residential amenities, but hardly an experience respected or dignified with any deference. But there is, I suppose, some benefit to those who attend. While they may not experience anything remotely reverential, they at least get to be the first to learn what's for dinner.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

They Don't Take Long to Read

I get that the economy is challenging. I understand that advertisers are cutting back, and that readers are even dropping their subscriptions. It is a difficult time for newspapers -- those stalwarts of public information. All across the country newsprint is shrinking, newsrooms are laying off staff, and one recently announced that it will reduce home delivery to three days per week. The affliction has even struck close to home. This morning, unsleeving the Sunday edition of the Des Moines Register and settling in for a few precious moments of inky reading, I found myself exerting more energy turning the pages than reading the text. What used to be a mountain of journalistic endeavor has become, alas, a molehill of wired stories, obituaries, and inserts. They've even laid off the editorial cartoonist. Less and less to hold, and still less that is much worth reading, it has become more the appearance of a newspaper than the reality of one.

I don't mean to suggest that the populace is suddenly bereft of news. Indeed, with customized computer homepages, media websites constantly updated, YouTube videos and 24-hour cable channels it's hard to get away from it. News has become one of the molecules we breathe.

That said, there is something sad to me about the decline of the printed page. I love the layout of the headlines and the smell of the ink, the rattle of the page, the kinesthetic quality of the stories. I love the sense of depth when a story carries over to another column and even to another page. I love the amalgamation of breaking stories, analysis, editorial, image and sidebar; I love the juxtaposition of the history making and the whimsically mundane -- a profound editorial reflection just an ink spot away from an irate reader's ranting letter; a sobering news report alongside touching human interest. I know all those things can happen on the internet and on TV, but there is something about holding it all and savoring it all and setting it down to pick up again on your own time.

I know that newspapers are businesses more than public service, and lots of us are needing to cut back. I know for all their talk about journalistic integrity, they still have to make a profit. But I feel like something solid has crumbled from my hands. Who knows, maybe the economy will shortly turn around and papers can hire real people again. I already miss the smudged fingers, the stretched point of view, and the paper that used to be.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

The phone rang about 5:30 a.m., and rightly assuming it wasn't for me I scarcely cracked an eye. We had gone to bed expecting it. Once upon a time it would have been the minister of the household who was more accustomed to off-hour interruptions, but parishioners have become more self-sufficient over the years -- or at least have lowered their expectations. When death arrives at inconvenient hours, fewer and fewer grieving request the companionship of their clergy -- at least until the clock reaches a more civilized hour. While I enjoy the uninterrupted sleep, it is, I recognize, a mixed blessing. Clergy, after all, are bothered for less and less these days. No, the ringing phone was not for the minister, but for the educator. School was canceled because of the weather.

There was a time when I would have died for one of those phone calls. Snow days were, once upon a time, as good a gift as a kid could get -- though they were few and far between in my West Texas childhood -- and to be among the first to know would have seemed like royalty. Smugly I would have snuggled back into bed and only later settled in for an extended indulgence in daytime TV -- until I rediscovered that even back then daytime TV didn't offer much to indulge. An obligatory attempt at a snowman would sooner or later be on the agenda, but more than anything else a snow day simply engendered a spirit of abundance -- of time that wouldn't otherwise exist; of profligate moments and options and personal discretion that hadn't been there before. Snow days spun at least the illusion of legitimated laziness in which the day, unlike those more routine, was absolutely and wonderfully one's own.

I thought of all those memories and all those emotions as I listened while Lori confirmed the reason for the call. And even though it was almost time to get up anyway and let Barrington out; and even though it's Friday and already my day off; and even though all my work projects were already completed and the day was already free, I closed my eyes for a few minutes more and nestled a little deeper under the blanket and smiled and contented smile. Just for old time's sake.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

When Mattering is the Message

It's an embarrassing admission – one that feels almost shameful to make. The truth of the matter is that I fell asleep watching It's a Wonderful Life. I could chalk it up to fatigue, though that hardly seems justification. I could point to my week-and-a-half-long cold and all the medicine I've been on, but that sounds whiney and petulant. The truth of the matter has more to do with confidence. I didn't doubt for a moment that George Bailey's life was significant, and I had every confidence that despite his momentary business reversals he would come to see it, too. Sure, some of that confidence stems from countless viewings of the movie prior to last night. I've been watching Jimmie Stewart play this memorable role almost as long as I have been watching Bing Crosby play Bob Wallace in White Christmas. For decades I've watched Clarence, the loveable angel, interrupt George's suicide attempt and lead him through an examination of what the world would be like had George never existed. In my own playful way I have tried to imagine the same with regard to me – what if I had never been born? I know how the movie comes out. In that sense I didn't need to stay awake through the closing credits.

But I also like to think that confidence of a deeper sort gave me unspoken permission to close my eyes.

This is, after all, the advent season. This is the season of confident expectation for what God is doing in our midst and already making plain. This is the season, not merely for getting ready for Christmas, but for sharpening the senses for all that God intends and is determinedly bringing about. This is the season for tracing the lines of God's affirmation and new creation and recognizing the patterns for myself. This, in other words, is the season for seeing all of life through God's own eyes and pronouncing God's ultimate estimation: "very, very good."

Which isn't to deny the problems that exist – the gap between "is" and "ought to be" – but it is to be re-grounded in the faith that the brokenness of creation is not the final word. George's life mattered – was "wonderful" – alright, but I didn't need to watch the end of the movie to comprehend that truth. It's advent, after all – when the "mattering" of men and women, no matter how ordinary, is the loudest message of all.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Following the Cardinals' Example

A trio of cardinals flits from branch to branch on the wintry tree outside.  The just-lightening sky mutes their color, but as living ornaments their presence is a happy beginning to the morning.  Midway through the season, most of the "events" in which we are involved are completed, leaving the days in front of us available for simply living into the season.  Christmas cards have begun to stack up that need more careful reading, and though the tree has been decorated for a couple of weeks now there are more than a few of the ornaments that have special stories waiting to retell.  We dug out the Christmas music books, but we have yet to sit down at the keyboard and finger through the duets or sing through the favorites.  We really haven't given much thought to the gift-giving that, if we aren't careful, will become quickly urgent, and perhaps tonight will afford the first occasion to nestle into Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, or White Christmas with Bing and Danny and Rosemary and Vera.

There is this perennial tension between the experience of the Christmas season and the sometimes-distracting mechanics of the celebration -- between the spirit and the demands.  The tension is nothing new, and the demands are hardly onerous; the challenge is simply keeping them in balance.  The mechanics -- decorating, cooking, shopping, writing, mailing, even partying -- should animate the experience, not suffocate it, but it is a ratio unfortunately easy to invert. 

The cardinals outside have settled for a moment.  No longer flitting from branch to branch, they seem content to simply sit and survey the view around them, peck around on something interesting, and enjoy each other's company.  Having done our share of flitting around, ourselves, that wouldn't be a bad example for those of us on this side of the window as well.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tugged Between Lethargy and Life

We'll see if it all gets done.  We have things to do today -- a Christmas letter to write and reproduce and preparations for the neighborhood party that will pass through our house, just to name two -- but the day is hardly inviting.  The brown leaves remaining on the tree outside are blowing horizontal with a cold wind that makes the 30-degree temperature feel like 15.  The inches of snow from earlier in the week have already adopted that "winter tired" look from the sand and melting and refreezing cycle.  And I have been sick most of the week -- the cold outside having turned into a cold inside my head and throat and chest.  

We have been looking forward to the day.  We enjoy the annual pilgrimage to the tea shop downtown, journal and pen in hand, to sit by the window and reflect on the year -- what we've experienced; what we have felt; what we have learned.  We love thinking about those distant family and friends to whom those letters are eventually addressed, anticipating their reconnections in return.  And we have looked forward to spending the afternoon in the kitchen together, trying out a few of our Italian recipes to share with our neighbors who will spend their 40 minutes here tomorrow before being whistled to the next stop down the way.  

But the morning, thus far, is forbidding -- the frigid wind, if anything, blowing stronger -- and the warm glow of the fireplace and the soft twinkle of the Christmas tree are inviting.  Wouldn't this be a nice day to stay in -- maybe finish a book that has dragged on too long, or just curl back under the sheets and down comforter?  

We'll see if it all gets done -- which end of the tug-of-war rope wins out.  Did I mention that it's supposed to be 8-degrees tonight?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Giving the Turkeys a Break

It's too early to tell yet what may come of it. In deference to the kids' need to celebrate Thanksgiving twice, in two different households -- and to liberate them from duplicative menus -- we agreed to try something different. It was Christopher's idea, as these things often are. Recalling that years ago we developed the tradition of making eggrolls on Christmas Eve, he suggested creating a new tradition of making tamales on Thanksgiving. After all, hadn't the kids gifted me with a tamale making lesson from a chef a couple of years ago?

We agreed to a test. I picked up the cornhusks and the ingredients, enduring the skepticism of the lady at the Mexican grocery who clearly didn't see me as the tamale-making kind. The kids each brought accessories. Lori made a side. Then, rolling up our elbows, we dove into the masa and began to spread, fill, and roll; and when they were all ready, to steam.

From a culinary point of view, the results were only fair. The masa was a little thick and rubbery, and the filling was a little bland. Tamales, I realized long ago, are an art form that we have only begun to practice. As art forms go, what we made were the Tex-Mex equivalents of stick figures.

But from a family point of view, it was a wonderful evening. Together we shared a common project; together we collaborated toward a common end; together we spent the evening working with our hands, which freed our lips to tell all kinds of stories, process all kinds of news, ruminate on all manner of dilemmas, prognosticate on various possibilities, and give freee-reign to our imaginations.

I don't remember that we undertook the traditional activity of one-by-one listing an inventory of our blessings; I'm not sure we ever got around to verbally giving thanks. We simply spent a few hours together creating an evening to be thankful for. We'll have to wait until next year to see if it becomes a tradition, but as far as I'm concerned it is "a keeper". There was something perfect about it all -- even if the tamales weren't.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Fluttering Wings of our Better Nature

So now it's over. The contest (also read "slug/slime/mud-fest") that began in Iowa and New Hampshire in the depths of winter has now reached its denouement in the brilliant colors of autumn. The election returns are in. What now? Statistically, there are more delighted voters this morning than in 2004, when the President won reelection with 50.7% of the popular vote; and certainly more than in 2000 when a President was elected with only 47.87% of the popular vote. President-elect Obama's apparent 6% margin of victory in the popular vote, while certainly no landslide, suggests, if nothing else, that our nation's intransigent division is – at least for the moment – thawing.

So, again, what now? How might we seize this moment? Will we rediscover a different way of talking with and about each other that is less demeaning, less pejorative, less dismissive? Will we dredge open again long-silted channels of communication that reverence the intrinsic value of each other? Or will we continue to simply talk at each other – retreating and descending still further into our bunkers of political and intellectual isolation where words are less instruments of communication than incendiary explosives that we lob across the aisle without regard for where they land; where "dialogue" is little more than alternating monologues designed to overwhelm rather than understand or persuade; where "debate" is less about the victory of our ideas than about the mockery of our opponents?

I am tired of hearing us belittle each other. I am weary of assuming the worst about each other. I am exhausted by all the innuendos and melodramatic pronouncements about why we should be afraid of each other. Surely there is some alternative between naiveté and paranoia. Surely I am not the only one who is worn out by all this attention to each other's flaws and the determination to grind them brutally, laughingly, publicly under our heel.

Perhaps that is an unrealistic hope, but I want to believe that we are better than we have been behaving. Abraham Lincoln, on the occasion of his first inauguration, referred to the "better angels of our nature." I hope this morning finds us stopping long enough, listening carefully enough, to hear the quiet flutter of just such angelic wings. The demonic side of our nature has enjoyed free play long enough.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Odd Sentiment for Absence

It is election day, and like every good citizen, I have cast my vote.  In a matter of hours this long national travail will be ended.  Or only begun, depending on the outcome and your particular political persuasion.  At least the electioneering part will be behind us for awhile.  No human being -- at least not the kind of human being who is likely to run for the Presidency -- can wear well through all the years of campaigning that now seem to be the norm.  We weary of that much exposure to anyone.  Obama?  McCain?  Nice enough folks, I'm sure -- both of them -- but I need to see a little less of them for awhile.  

That said -- and I feel a little perverse in saying this -- there is a part of me that will find the absence of the race unsettling.  Like having a wart removed, the absence of something that has become so familiar, so reliable a part of one's experience -- even something negative -- leaves a sort of psychological limp.  Don't get me wrong:  I will enjoy the limp in this case.  But I will also notice it, and think repeatedly about what it is that is suddenly absent.

I know it won't be long before the herbicide and seed ads begin to cycle with as much competitive frequency as the political ones they have replaced, so I need to enjoy the ever so brief space between.  Rejoicing with the outcome...

...or lamenting what might have been.  Hours will tell.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Sanity of a Longer Walk

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Albert Einstein

I'm not sure how long the impasse continued. I eventually backed out and looked for another parking ramp deeper into the complex. The problem a few cars ahead of me was that the barricading arm at the entrance would not lift to permit entry. The driver in the car at the entrance vigilantly pressed the green button but no ticket was printed and the arm refused to lift.

The reason, of course, was reflected on two neon signs -- one beside and one above the entrance: "FULL." But whether so obvious of simply untenable, we paid the signs no attention.

"Never mind," the lead car seemed to say; "I would prefer to come on in and drive around, level by level, and see for myself."

Or, so accustomed to driving up, pressing the button, and driving on in, perhaps the driver looked right through the signs without registering their courteous rebuff.

Insanity, either way. Mindless repetition, that in this case built a trap: she couldn't go forward, and now, because of the line of cars accumulated behind her, she couldn't back up. So, she just kept pushing the button.

Finally comprehending the conundrum myself, I put my car in reverse, partly to alleviate the blockage, but also, as my personal attack on insanity, to attempt something different; try a different course.

In short order, and a little further down the road, I was parked and making my way. It is a beautiful autumn day, it turns out -- a fact my shorter walks had obscured -- and I caught a falling leaf on a floating breeze. The sun is bright and, after driving, the stretching stretching walk felt good.

Passing by the original parking ramp entrance, I notice the driveway now clear of cars. Hopefully the cars ahead of me had themselves found a place far enough away to notice the sun, to catch a leaf of their own, and, perchance, a new grip on their own sanity.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Different View of Moderation

mod·er·a·tor /ˈmɒdəˌreɪtər/ [mod-uh-rey-ter]



a person or thing that moderates.


a person who presides over a panel discussion on radio or television.


a presiding officer, as at a public forum, a legislative body, or an ecclesiastical body in the Presbyterian Church.


Physics. a substance, as graphite or heavy water, used to slow neutrons to speeds at which they are more efficient in causing fission.

"moderator." Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 16 Oct. 2008. <

Last Saturday I was elected Moderator of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Upper Midwest – a denominational sub-group geographically including 157 churches scattered around Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, although in response to one of the business items approved during the Assembly that number could be reduced by ecclesiastical divorce. How shall I say it? Not everyone approved. That said, we were a kindly lot; disagreeing, but disagreeing agreeably. I might like to point out that the vote on the election of a new Moderator was unanimous, but I am fully aware that most people voted "yes" to my nomination out of fear that if disapproved, the Nominating Committee might next come knocking on their door.

So, what am I? Of the available definitions, I rather like the fourth one. The prospect of slowing neutrons to speeds at which they efficiently cause fission somehow appeals to me, although I'm not sure what the implications of such fission might be in the church. Whatever, it's hard to imagine it doing any more damage than other dubious actions routinely undertaken in the spirit of good Christian love.

Of the remaining definitional options, the most unappealing to me is the first. Aristotle might be confident that "moderation in all things" is a virtue, but that can go too far. And while Oscar Wilde may, himself, have gone too far in asserting that, "Moderation is a fatal thing; nothing succeeds like excess," Thomas Paine might get nearer the truth when he observes that, "Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice."

The church, it seems to me, has historically had difficulty discerning the right things to moderate, and the right areas in which to cause fission. While there is nothing intrinsically noble about blowing things up, neither is it always the faithful, let alone salvific, course to merely try and "keep the lid on." I have no reason to believe that as Moderator I will fare any better, but it is worth considering the possibilities – for both shaking things up, and holding things together.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Simmering and Savoring the Soul of Vacation

Unpacked, if not entirely put away; rid, with a shower, of the coating film from airports and busses and the scent of travel; and a few groceries restored to the pantry, we are beginning to unfold into home.  There were a few telephone calls to make, Barrington to pick up, dinner to prepare (a salad recipe we brought home from Italy), one camera disk of pictures to enjoy, and then, we could delay it no longer, sleep.  

Saturday had begun with an alarm in Montefollonico, followed by a taxi ride to Chiusi, followed by a train trip to Florence, followed by a cab ride from the train station to the airport, followed by a flight to Amsterdam, followed by a shuttle bus ride to the hotel, followed by dinner and a little sleep.  Yesterday (actually, Saturday night, Des Moines time) began with an early alarm, a shuttle bus ride back to the airport, re-checking luggage, a long flight to Detroit, Customs, re-checking luggage, a shorter flight to Des Moines, and home.  

And now the next morning, earlier than I had intended to wake, I am only beginning to negotiate the transition.  Already I hear the demands of ordinary life scratching at the doors and windows of my consciousness, though we won't actually open those doors until tomorrow.  But I'm not at all ready to put away the suitcases and allow the vacation to end.  My mental context -- as well as my body clock -- is still Italian.  Somewhere inside I'm still cloistered within those medieval walls, walking those brick paved roads, hypnotized by the rolling hillsides, and awed by the rows of hanging fruit.  Still I am responding "Grazie" to niceties tendered and greeting strangers with "Buon giorno" and "bueno sera." My system, two weeks surrounded by enchantment and nourished by discovery and blessedly stretched by the unfamiliar, is still set for absorbing and drinking in; it hardly feels capable of pouring out again at work.  

But my sense is that vacation is less about escape, and more about the creation of protected space in which to allow basic, holy practices and values -- sedimented by the routine of every day -- to re-emerge.  Things like rest; like curiosity; like paying naive attention to one's surroundings ; like listening to unfamiliar voices and noticing unfamiliar practices; like learning something new and being vulnerable to the strange; like playing and laughing and intentionally putting oneself in the company of different people, and not needing to be correct -- all of which can just as well happen here as there.

The task, then, is not to close the book on this vacation and go back to work until the next one; it isn't to turn off the stove of these past two weeks and put away the pans, but rather to savor, and simmer, and gradually season whatever is fresh, whatever is available, whatever is endemic to the immediate environment, allowing the soul of vacation to enliven the forms of routine.  


Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Kitchen Debate and What Finally Matters

The greenscape of the valley floor sweeping below is just emerging from the last of the pre-dawn haze, and the sun peeking over the hilltop in the far ground silhouettes the points of the cypress trees in the forground. A rooster crows somewhere in the countryside, and the village church bell strikes the half-hour. The sheep, usually grazing beneath the trees in the afternoon sun, have apparently found bedding in another pasture through the night. Montepulciano crowns the hill across the way. It's early morning in Tuscany -- the opening of our last full day. I haven't been getting up this early, but this morning the balcony lured me.

I am grateful. This is a tiny area, but like all of Italy, it's size is in it's depth rather than it's width. Customs are generations practiced; the small family winery we visited yesterday just up the street was built in the 14th century and the family operating it goes back with it almost that far. What the soil here may lack in nutrients it more than makes up for in wisdom and experience and character and story.

Yesterday we were party to an animated debate. It had nothing to do with foreign policy or the economy, and its contenders were not candidates for political office. It was between two Italian women gesturing broadly and arguing above a stove-ful of simmering pots over whether the squash blossoms in their sauce were getting too dried out and needed more water. We asked the translator what they were saying, but she smiled and prudently demurred. Two women -- one in her 50's and the other in her 80's -- who have been cooking together for countless lifetimes -- at odds over something that matters: not so much the character of the sauce itself, but rather the integrity and reputation of the women. They knew full well that whatever else eventually came out of that kitchen, they would in reality be served on those plates, which meant that they had something precious at stake. It was undoubtedly the most beautiful argument I've ever seen -- and the most substantive debate.

I've witnessed and experienced and learned much else during these Tuscan days -- that some things can't be rushed, that some things need to be measured and some things don't, that some things finally are more important than others and wisdom and beautiful living are about spending time and energy and attention on what endures -- but I will ponder those lessons later. My last day in Tuscany is beginning and I want to pay attention

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Playing in the Dough

So, what have we been up to? Well, making pasta to understate the obvious -- pici, tagliatelli, ravioli, gnocci, farfalle, to name a few. A few other things as well -- stuffed squash blossoms, herbed duck, a sauce here and there. And of course we have eaten far too much and exercised too little.

And we have met some enchanting women who have demonstrated and shared the cooking habits they learned from their mothers who learned them from their mothers who learned them...

But mostly we have consumed the context -- the medieval gates, the Etruscan walls, the olive trees, the tidy and tied vineyards gridding the slopes, and the views; the panoramas; the quilted landscapes. And we have inhaled -- deeply -- with gratitude and awe.

And, let's be honest, a little bit of envy.

Today there is no kitchen -- just Florence. The bus ride is wearisome, but for Florence, no complaints. All that leather, all that gold and silk and gelato and art --

--in no particular order. Which is to play in "dough" of a very different kind.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Fresh Tuscan Arrival

An early start, some emotional farewells, a labyrinthian bus ride, one wrong train, an easy correction, two more trains and a meandering half-hour taxi ride and we are here: Montefollonico, a medieval walled village perched on a mountain above Montepulciano, just a few stones throw from Montalcino. We, along with Susan from California with whom we shared the final train ride and the taxi, were the last of the group to arrive. At the reception we met a dozen or so other aspiring Italian cooks from the U.S., Canada and Switzweland. Dinner begins in 10 minutes, during which we will also receive our orientation, our cookbooks and our apron.

The inn itself looks like a stone building renovated from the middle ages. Our room, complete with full bathroom and a Jacuzzi, even has a balcony with a classic Tuscan hillside view.

I think we are going to like it here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Abundance, To Say the Least

Abundance. That has to be the theme of the day. Not that every day hasn't spilled prodigal over the rim. We begin and end each day's adventures with a walk through a Villa garden. But today has been a waterfall into a thimble.

There was breakfast followed by a short ferry ride to Varenna, where we were met by Chef Moreno's wife who drove us, spiralling, above the village to the family home and restaurant. Three others were already asembled with coffee and biscotti. Shortly, the class that we only learned about yesterday by serendipity began -- making pasta for pizzocheri and tortelloni, and saffron risotto; folding, boiling, saute-ing, and ultimately eating. We laughed, we learned, we ate, and for three hours we pinched ourselves to convince ourselves that we weren't dreaming. And then the winding drive back down to the ferry, the short boat ride back to Bellagio, and the stroll through the garden home.

For anyone, that would have been enough. But Christian was waiting, and the boats and the nets and the fish. Quickly changing clothes, loading the trucks along with Silvio and Luigi, and donning the slickers, we headed for the "punta" where the boats are kept. There followed another hour of unspeakable abundance -- the two of us with Christian on the waves of Lake Como, up close and intimate with the spray, feeding meters and meters of net that during the night Christian will retrieve, this time laden with fish.

Dinner tonight was, among other things, fish -- still virtually dripping wet from this morning's catch. Tomorrow will be more -- the more that we helped to catch.

Amazing. Just another day in paradise -- with the life flowing over the rim.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Keeping Company With the Introverted Church

Completely isolated, impossibly high on the face of the mountain, we had been fascinated by it since the first time we noticed it from the boat as we arrived and labelled it "The Introverted Church.". Each day since, we gazed across the lake to that lone perch, high above the village below. At dinner last night we asked about it. "The Church of San Martini," answered Christian, and "Si" when I asked if one can get there. "Take the ferry to Cadenabbia," he instructed. "It's about an hour hike."

For someone, I suppose. An hour and a half after exchanging the village's streets for the cobblestone path, we pushed through the gate opening onto the grounds of Chiesa San Martini. The turns of each switchback up the steep incline were marked by artistic monuments depicting the stations of the cross -- until, that is, the switchbacks outnumbered the stations. No matter; by that point we were feeling crucified ourselves.

But it was worth it -- the views were magnificent every step of the largely unprotected path, the edge of which dropped precipitously off to oblivion; the wizzened old lady hollaring at her dog and goats from the gate to her yard; the cheese truck from which we purchased samples along with all the neighbors at the upper edge of the town that became our lunch/reward at the top of the climb in the church yard; trading photographic duties with the other triumphant climbers to commemorate our success; sharing the walk back down with the couple from Dallas. It was a glorious way to spend a beautiful day -- and one that earned our cup of gelato once back from the ferry ride and comfortably again in familiar environs.

Now ensconsed on the patio with a book and a gentle breeze and the sun beginning to settle, it feels good to prop up my feet, enjoy the zillion dollar view, and stare across the water, higher and higher, way up the face of the opposing mountain, and see "Introverted Chapel" up there by itself, and smile...

...Knowing that at least for awhile today it had some weary but happy company.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cartoons, Alps, Boats and Beauty

The Italian equivalent of "The Cartoon Network was blaring from 2 tv's, but we were hungry enough that even dubbed versions of "The Simpsons" couldn't deter us. Lingering jetlag, coupled with a late dinner with new friends Stuart and Lorine translated into an oversleep that extended past breakfast. An overcast, drizzling sky invited a change of plans away from a tour of villa gardens, so we purchased tickets for Colico -- the northermost community on the lake -- and boarded the boat. The guidebook referred to the village as "forgettable" but we tend to remember such places.

It is a small and quiet little burg with little but the laundry open before evening -- hence the less than ambient lunchtime setting -- but we enjoyed a pleasant walk back into town, a kindly old lady unlocked the door to the church -- as if by magic or revelation discerning that we were standing outside -- and the views of the surrounding snow-capped Alps were breathtaking.

Now back on the "Rapido", we are headed back for Bellagio where I predict some gelato is in our future, a little more strolling among the steps and the flowers, and some quiet time before dinner. After all, Christian told us last night that if he caught the right fish this morning he would make us something special tonight -- as if it all hasn't been so far.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Delighted to be Told I Was Wrong

He corrected everything I ordered. Thank goodness. Having successfully navigated the flight to Milan via Detroit and Amsterdam, and benefiting from the kindness of strangers (one who helped us find the train station below the airport, another who alerted us at Saronno that we were waiting at the wrong track platform, and James and Kim, relocating from London to San Francisco to help with Barclays absorption of Lehman Brothers, whose moral support and diligent navigation got us to the dock and onto the water) we arrived without incident in Bellagio. Three planes, two trains, one hydrofoil, and about a mile walk later, we found our hotel. Amazing. And still on our feet after 29 hours of transit.

Checking in, settling in, and strolling around we paused on the patio to survey the panorama: sloping village in the foreground, the lake stretching out before us, met on the far shore by yet another village creeping up the mountain on the horizon. We thought to sample the local fare, ordered, but were dissuaded. "No, not that at this time of day. Try this."

It was to become a familiar response. Later, after a shower and a fresh change of clothes, we descended to the dining room for dinner. Our waiter -- the same culinary counselor from the afternoon -- corrected every single order I placed. Without exception. He allowed Lori the 2nd course we had both initially selected -- a fish with which we were unfamiliar -- but he redirected me to the grilled sardines. That way, he seemed to suggest, we could share. Later, after the minted eggplant appetizer accompanied by fresh mozzarella so fresh it virtually oozed its way onto the fork, and the 1st course risotto with perch (not to be confused with the risotto with the catch of the day in which I was initially interested) and after we had just stepped across the threshold of heaven with the main course, Christian -- the waiter, who we ultimately discerned to be the son of the owner -- went on, with a proud smile, to confess, "I am your fisherman." No wonder he knew what he was talking about.

I am not sure if it represents a weak ego or a strong one, but pushing back from the dinner table, exhausted and absolutely satisfied, I have never been so glad to be comfortable with correction. I think tonight we will simply arrive for our reservations with one question: "Christian, what shall we have tonight?"

Molto bene!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

“A real disdain for moral hazard”

"We are witnessing what I think is the final cathartic rehabilitation of the financial industry. It is violent, and this is something everyone feared but many expected would come, and I think it is the result of years of excessive risk-taking, cheap credit, a sense of invincibility among lenders and a real disdain for moral hazard." Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist for the Economic Outlook Group in Princeton, New Jersey

I know precious little about "risk taking" when it comes to financial planning. I understand even less about "cheap credit." But I have some familiarity with delusions of "invincibility" and "disdain for moral hazard." Exactly what choices and practices the speaker was referring to with that last condemnation I can only guess, but his comments helpfully liberate the notion of "morality" from the prison of personal sexual behaviors. That's not to suggest that our sexual behaviors are somehow exempt; it is only to admit, perhaps sheepishly, that morality is finally about that broad and old-fashioned notion of "right and wrong" – applicable to every aspect of personal, but also corporate, behavior. Faithful people have understood for generations that how we use our assets – how we buy and sell and borrow and lend – has moral implications, but we demonstrate an amazing penchant for compartmentalization when it is convenient. "That's religion; this is business." Or politics. Or war. Or whatever else we don't want to be inconvenienced to think too deeply about.

Earlier in the summer, when a "kosher" meat-packing plant was raided by immigration authorities and subsequently cited for flagrant hiring and even of abuse of undocumented workers and minors, a Jewish opinion writer in the newspaper wondered aloud exactly what it means to be "kosher." Is it just about the way we handle meat, he asked, or does it also implicitly mandate the way we treat people? Is it, in other words, merely a technical issue, or is it also a moral one?

Jesus asked the same kinds of questions when it came to Sabbath keeping. Could it be, in some situations, that we end up violating the intent of the law by considering only the letter of it? Could immorality actually be the result of following the rules?

The financial markets and newsmakers have apparently done nothing "wrong." I haven't heard allegations that laws were broken. Everyone seems to have behaved quite legally – only, and unfortunately, immorally. Money is a seductive thing. We forget that what we do – whatever we do – has consequences. Life is never free of risk, and sometimes the risks are prudently taken. The hell of the present moment is that we are forced to sit in a front row seat watching the consequences of one of those "other" times – when the risks involved should have been told "no."

For financial reasons, to be sure…

…but for moral reasons, as well.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunrise, Sunset. Swiftly Fly the Years

There were pictures and balls and treats and a puzzle; there was cake and ice cream and party favors and a birthday honoree, but at the center of it all was not your average birthday boy.

 Barrington, our Welsh Corgi "puppy" turns 10 this week, and we couldn't let the occasion pass unnoticed.

Barrington, after all, loves company – eagerly waits for it when we tell him that friends are on their way.

And if food is somehow involved...

all the better.

We sang to him, and he either loved it or hated it – it's not that easy to tell. But all in all, the party was a success.

As has his very life among us. Friends will remember that the early days and even weeks of our life together didn't hold out much promise. Having him at all was the interest of only half of our household. But the second half loved the first half and after a whirlwind courtship this tailless little hairball with one flopped over ear took up residence among us – first in the basement where we wouldn't hear him crying, and then in our hearts, and now virtually anywhere else he chooses. Except on the blue furniture. Except when we aren't watching.

Now ten years on, it's hard to imagine life without him – hard to remember life before him; hard to picture life, or even entertain the thought of life, after him. Adorable, brilliant, amusing and endearing, ingenious, winsome, playful and forgiving, he has cuddled and nuzzled and shed and herded his way into the very core of our lives. And we are grateful. Both of us, it turns out.

Happy birthday, Barrington. Thanks for being patient with us; for teaching us well; and for loving us into a whole new way of seeing life.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Miserably Wonderful Virtue of Patience

Ever since 1971, singer/songwriter Carly Simon has caused us not simply to feel anticipation, but to sing it as well.
"We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway...
Anticipation, anticipation
Is makin' me late
Is keepin' me waitin'..."

And so I am singing. Anticipating. Waiting. Waiting, just now, for the real advent of Autumn after these tantalizingly cool few days. Waiting, just now for the buds to break open on the mum that has replaced the geraniums on the front sidewalk. But mostly waiting, just now, for Italy -- nine days and 17 hours from now (but who's counting?).

I've never been expert at delayed gratification, but patience seems to be a virtue more readily in hand as time seems to accelerate the older I get. Whereas Christmas, as a child, seemed to remain forever on the far side of the calendar, now it seems hardly worth it to pack away decorations. It's always right around the corner. Birthdays never seemed to come, but now they seem almost weekly -- rather like my Dad's observation about the way Sundays come around "with ruthless regularity."

But this time, this impending vacation -- even at my age -- I'll admit to childish impatience. We packed almost two weeks ago -- even our quart-sized zip lock bags with their carefully measured 3 oz. bottles. Our passports are as ready as we are. The only thing holding us back... the calendar. It isn't quite time, our eagerness notwithstanding. But that's OK. Once the trip begins I'll be begging time to stand still.

So, I'm watching the buds for practice. Intricately beautiful in their own right, they will open in their own time... the same way that the plane will board. In its own time.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Flip-phone Worship with a full Qwerty Keyboard

The intent this morning was to claim a "common view of reality -- what is the "is" that surround us.  And while we had varied ways of describing it, we similar themes kept popping up -- mobility, for one, which undercuts most familiar calls for commitment; community built on and nourished more by technology than proximity; constant multi-sensory stimulation; behavior motivated more by need than obligation; the recognition that no one is simply looking for one more thing to do; etc.

But a common view of reality did not lead to any commonly agreed upon response to it.  The answer, for some, was "get in line."  At its worst, this is "going along to get along."  "Fit in."  "Emulate your environment."  At its best it is the recognition that "connection" requires a common vocabulary.  "Get wired or get lost."

But others suggested just the opposite.  In a world of constant motion, where might one find a place of stillness?  In a world of thumping sub-woofers pounding out of car windows, televisions never muted, cell phones ever on the belt, iPods constantly wired to the ears and 24-hour news cycles constantly updating us, isn't there yet some need for silence?  In a world of chrome and wire and battery and keyboard, isn't there some hunger for human touch?  If there is a need for music that enlivens our toes, could there also be a need for music that enlarges our soul?

We reached no consensus -- only an agreement to send each other a text message containing instructions for downloading the video podcast developed to argue our particular point of view, soundtracked as we prefer, that we can individually watch at the same time as our favorite cable show we TiVo'd last week.

Right.  Ah!  The intimate warmth of church and community in the 21st century.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Pot-luck Dinners and the Rhetoric of Politics

Growing up in a minister's family it seemed like half my meals were eaten at church pot-luck dinners. Tables sagging under platters of fried chicken and bowls of jello; plates crowded with potato and pasta and green bean salads, spaghetti, beanies and weanies and a deviled egg, with a wedge of pecan pie balanced on top. It was glorious! But here was the thing: the planners never really knew how many would come, and how much -- or what -- they would bring. There was always the latent fear that nothing would appear but desserts. This particular prospect, I'll confess, never alarmed me. Moreover, there was always this concern -- despite centuries of contrary evidence -- that there wouldn't be enough. The worst possible dread of a church pot-luck dinner was that someone would not get his or her share (particularly in light of the odd little elderly woman in our church who routinely went through the line with a plate and an open purse into which she deposited enough food to feed her neighborhood). It was this persistent fear, along, I suspect, with an appropriate measure of pastoral etiquette, that my parents always cautioned my brother and me to wait until the end of the line. "Go last," was the reliable message, "in case there isn't enough."

It was the same message around the table at home -- spoken with the eyes more than the lips -- when guests would join us for a meal: "Serve yourself last, in case there isn't enough."

I've thought about those pot-luck lines this week watching political convention coverage, seeing all those signs exclaiming "America First." Parsing various interpretations of that idea, I've wondered about the planners' intent.

If the idea is that, as Americans, we should think less about our partisan successes and more about the good of the country as a whole, I commend the idea. If the idea is that we should spend less time fretting over the particular advancements of one particular gender or race or state and more time encouraging the equal opportunity for all persons, I'm all for it. If the intent is to recall us all to a greater commitment to our common, rather than our special, interests, then I think we should print up a lot more of those signs.

But if the intent has been to inflame our nationalistic assertiveness and air of superiority above all else; if the idea has been that we should promote American prosperity, priority and security above the needs of the rest of the planet -- above the well-being of all people, regardless of where they live; above the values of justice and compassion and the stewardship of all creation -- then I think the prospect is misguided, contrary to the core values that gave our nation birth, and ultimately self-destructive. To say nothing of sinful.

Can't we, as a country, be proud without being prideful? Can't we, as a people, be grand without being grandiose? Can't we be patriotic without being dismissive and ultimately blind? God knows the world needs leadership, but it simply can't tolerate any more arrogance. It needs strength, but it cannot survive any more swagger and muscle. The world desperately needs imagination and productivity, but it can't sustain any more consumptive self-indulgence. The world has had to put up with too many tyrants and bullies, arrogant and self-righteous and even well-meaning nations who have put their needs, their appetites, their comfort, their satisfaction and their rationalizations first, and it is quite literally sick of it.

I don't know if the double-entendre of the signs was intentional, but if any of this latter insinuation soaked in with the ink, I think our country could be better served by a few less conventions and a few more pot luck suppers.

"The last will be first, and the first will be last" (Matthew 20:16).

"Whoever wants to be first among you must be the servant of all" (Mark 10:44).

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Days of the Funk are Numbered

So Sunday evening Dennis told me I needed to get busy or the blog company was going to close me down due to inactivity. True enough. I could excuse myself for being busy, but I doubt I'm busier than anyone else. I could claim sleep deprivation from watching too much of the Olympics, or brain numbness from watching far more political convention coverage than is healthy for any American. I could lament that everything in my daytime calendar has lodged in the "URGENT AND IMPORTANT" category, instead of merely the "Important," but that sounds like whining. Don't get me wrong: I do my fair share of whining, as anyone around me can testify. It's just that no one would want to read about it as well.

The truth is that I have plainly been in a funk. Perhaps it is the sourness of the mortgage market or the wincing price of gasoline. Perhaps it is the thunderous silence of bankruptcies looming or announced for companies or people few dreamed could find themselves in such a predicament. Perhaps it is the miserly interests rates that signal a retreat in the prospects of leisure rather than the advance I would rather see. Perhaps it is the flooding in our state earlier in the summer or the new round of storms this week in the Gulf of Mexico. Perhaps it is that vague, diffuse sense that all is not right with the world -- that too many things are terribly wrong. Perhaps it is simply my own internal weariness. Or, more likely than anything, bad moods just happen. Unlike most people, summer tends to have that effect on my affect.

But the temperature has been dropping -- autumn is in the air. Scattered occasionally under nearby trees even leaves are starting to fall. Hardy mums will soon be taking the place of geraniums around the neighborhood, high school football scores already dominate the late-night Friday news. Gas prices at the pump have been dropping in recent days, the dollar to Euro exchange rate has been steadily improving over the last week or so...

And Italy is only 16 days away. But who's counting?
So maybe the days of the funk are numbered...
...and I'll trip, again, over something worth blogging about.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Hearts Behind the Voices

It is one of the casualties of the digital download age for music: liner notes. Inside those cardboard album covers in days long gone, LP’s were routinely slipped into paper sleeves on which were often printed details of the album tracks – lyrics, sometimes, performing musicians, studios used, producers, and perhaps most interesting of all, the actual songwriters from whose heart and mind and pencil those songs had actually sprung. Sometimes the name of the writer was also the name of the performer printed on the cover of the album, but only sometimes.

When CD’s replaced LP’s, the print got smaller but the information often expanded. Those little booklets frequently jammed into the jewel case cover added pictures, stories, expressions of thanks from the artists and all kinds of things. And through the years, through the morphing media, I have gratefully read it all.

But digital downloads only rarely bring with them this supportive background information. What you get is the song, the performer’s name, the name of the album, and some genre classification that is usually worthless. Who the musicians are who actually make the music; whose technical hands have crafted the finished product, and whose musical passion and genius actually spawned the song are invisible.

I thought of that again last night as my brief trip to Nashville afforded one more chance to get to the Bluebird Café – that somewhat legendary “listening club” that showcases songwriters singing their creations. On two of the three evenings I’ve spent there in the past year and a half I have heard songs I recognized, though I recognized none of names of those performing. Top forty songs; country and pop.
One of last night’s performers has written movie songs, TV theme songs, and a laundry list of miscellaneous pop. Both of the others have clearly had their share of radio exposure as well, though through songs less familiar to me.

Listening to them – appreciating their music if not always their rather pedestrian voices – I was reminded how 2-dimensional I tend to see the features of life around me. I forget that these people even exist – the ones who actually create this stuff I come to love. The recording artists get all the attention – and I do not begrudge them their fame. They, after all, color the notes and shape the sounds in all the ways I come to like – and purchase. But without the likes of those I heard and appreciated all over again last night the “stars” would look and sound pretty silly. There is a reason, after all, why they buy someone else’s songs. And, of course, there is a reason why these writers are selling their songs to others. Theirs are not typically the voices we routinely want to hear.
There is, in other words, this wonderful synergy. Three-dimensions – the width and breadth of the sound, but also the depth of all those factors and talents underneath. Singers – songwriters – sometimes the two combined – producers – technicians – etc.

And it was a joy last night to honor and treasure those foundational ones – ordinary looking and sounding people quite different from the flash and fizz on screen and video and major contract – more routinely behind the scenes. Thanks for the songs given birth in your hearts, and for the many ways they come to grow in ours.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Theological Shock and Awe

Originally established in the early 1920’s to train young women missionaries, according to the brief history found in the room, the Scarritt-Bennett Center is now a non-profit conference, retreat and educational center in Nashville, Tennessee. The Gothic-style buildings, reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School of Wizardry, give the campus a monastic feel – gray stone columns reaching skyward, while arches and courtyards beckon pedestrians inward – hinting that something larger than this life is holding our movements.

One archway, connecting the Refectory and the Administration building (as if linking nourishment and organization?) and leading into and out of the labyrinth courtyard, is inscribed with the admonition to “Expect Great Things From God” on one side and “Attempt Great Things For God” on the other. Passing through that portal several times today, those inscriptions have given me pause.

In my experience, the church – and, confessionally, my own ministry – does too little of either. I remember several years ago reading an article by William Willimon critiquing the church as being “functionally atheist” – offering up our “perfunctory invocations” at the beginning of our meetings, but then proceeding through our agendas and actions as though God didn’t exist. We hope that every now and then God might show up at some point and twitter us with warm feelings, but “expect great things”? I’m not sure when we gave up on the expectation that God might actually do, in our midst, something great, but my sense is that it has been a long while. “Mighty acts of God” sound so “Old Testament.”

And as for attempting great things for God, such aspirations would require more comprehension of divine desires than most of us bring to the table. We know fairly well what would make us happy, but I’m not sure when we last checked God’s Wish List. We attempt great things on occasion, but they seem to bear conspicuous resemblance to what we would like, whether or not God has shown any interest.

If, just for the sake of conjecture, we were to honor that voice of the archway, what great things might we be led to expect from God? And what great things might God wish us to attempt on God’s behalf? The former might very likely terrify and surprise us; the latter would almost certainly humble and sober us. Combined, the two might just represent the only kind of “shock and awe” we children of God have any business seeking.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Conversational Team of Rivals

After acknowledging the many and formidable obstacles – indeed, hazards – confronting a modern President considering the appointment of a “team of rivals” as did Abraham Lincoln, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin closes her New York Times Opinion Page essay with a warning. “Inviting such in-house dissent may indeed pose greater challenges today than in earlier times, but it’s hard to see that we have any other choice.” Americans, she writes, “have seen the damage caused by the creation of like-minded ‘echo chambers’ in Washington.” Moreover, “history…reveals how dangerous it can be for a president to surround himself with like-minded people. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, deliberately chose men for his cabinet who thought as he did and, with the agreement of those around him, did nothing to prevent the secession of the Confederate states. He is now considered among the worst of our presidents (“Defeat Your Opponents. Then Hire Them”. New York Times, Sunday, August 3, 2008, p. wk 11).

Lincoln, Goodwin observes, was strengthened and polished by the debates within his cabinet. I am reminded of the polishing effect that agitation has on rocks. I am reminded of the strengthening effect that resistance exercises have on muscles. I am reminded of the broadening, deepening, integrating effect that tests – well-constructed tests – can have on learning.

I know these things, and I hope – indeed pray – that both presidential candidates will think outside their own “echo chambers” when selecting their respective running mates.

That said, I confess that it is counsel I comfortably, even vigorously give but rarely receive. In the books I read, the television I watch, the podcasts I hear, and the friends with whom I hang around I have constructed something of an echo chamber of my own. The sound of Rush Limbaugh’s voice makes me nauseous. The prattle of Fox News turns me green – or yellow, or whatever their combination that looks like mucous. While some part of this revulsion is reaction to their intellectual thuggery, I have to admit that I enjoy turning off their contrary point of view. Thence is occasioned my own spongy mind, my own flaccid logic, and my own silent voice. Unsharpened, unpolished, unexercised by the marketplace of differing ideas, I have grown intellectually flabby and persuasively impotent.

And I am now the norm – not in the sense that everyone thinks like me, but that the majority of people behave like me; taking cover within the comfortable environs of their own entrenched positions; retreating into the confirming company of those who already believe the same.

While I don’t think there is enough Pepcid and Tagamet in the world to get me through a broadcast of Rush, there are certainly more palatable conversation partners around who could stretch me and, with time, polish. It isn’t so much about changing my thinking as it is improving it.

What’s the familiar lament? “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Kicking up Whatever Dust I Have Left

I'm not old enough to be this nostalgic. Maybe it was going to see the new Get Smart movie and all the other "old" TV shows it made me think of and want to watch again. Maybe it is fed by the old Lone Ranger radio episodes I have been listening to on my iPod. Maybe it has something to do with the old reel-to-reel tape of David and I singing together in high school I found in the box of memorabilia brought back from my parents' move. Maybe it has to do with the old slides I have been scanning into digital form. Whatever is the explanation, it seems that I have been spending an inordinate amount of time lately looking backwards rather than forwards.

Perhaps it is the inevitable challenge that grows increasingly complicated the longer one lives: integrating a constantly growing number of experiences and memories and relationships and accomplishments into the ongoing opportunities and demands of the present and the future. However large may be the mountain of sand representing the whole of one's life that starts out on one side of the scale, every passing day moves some of that sand to the other side. Before you know it, the arms of the scale begin to tilt in a different direction.

Maybe that's what's on my mind -- less nostalgia than a nagging sense of mortality. Shifting sands. No amount of rerun-watching is going to obscure the fact that life, regardless of how long it turns out to be, is short. Which is to say that I had better quick sulking around, wake up, and plunge into however much I have left -- kicking up a little dust instead of simply watching it shift and settle.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jesus on the Tracks

Who knows the possibilities and desperate needs that await us down this very road -- and whether we will have the presence of mind to notice them, or the character of heart to respond? Who knows what compelled us to turn in this direction in the first place? Some of course, would say random luck. Brian has a different thought.

The man was stuck. What might have begun as frustration, this interruption on his way between unknown points, had since turned into agitated fear. He was quite literally stuck -- his motorized wheelchair was stubbornly, tenaciously caught in the gaps between the railroad rails. Nothing he tried was making any progress. This elderly, anonymous man was held hostage by the pavement and the steel and the gaps in-between. He jerked his body back and forth, wrenching the chair as best he could, trying to lurch a release, but whatever held him would not let go. He was stuck.

Having arrived early enough in town to exhaust the shopping possibilities before the train was to board, Brian and Michelle were, by this time, killing time. Strangers to the community, they were simply driving through the neighborhoods, enjoying the scenery until the "call time" to pick up their tickets. By his own admission and Michelle's confirmation, Brian isn't ordinarily the observant type. This time, however, inexplicably, something -- a bit of movement, perhaps, or maybe the flash of emotion -- caught the corner of his eye. A man, it turned out, his wheelchair stuck in the railroad rails. Steering the car out of the way, he parked, jumped out without a word, ran back to the prisoner and muscled the wheelchair free and safely beyond the rails. Wishing the agitated man a better evening, Brian returned to his car, stepped inside and immediately heard the powerful whistle, and the thundering sound of the train whooshing by that he had no idea was coming. How long ago -- a minute perhaps -- had the man been trapped on those very same rails?

Hearing the story later that evening over dinner on board what surely must have been a different train, we named the obvious with appreciative awe: "You saved that man's life."

So, we wondered together, how did it happen that these two strangers in this town came to turn down that particular street, at that particular time, especially given the fact that they had arrived with other plans in mind? How did it happen that this desperate situation caught this otherwise unobservant eye? Coincidence? That isn't a very compelling explanation for Brian, or presumably for the man in the wheelchair who is even now, thanks to Brian, telling his own version of the story.

What might be plainer is the recognition that every street has its desperate and precarious moments, and the lingering question to consider -- will we have the presence of mind to notice them, or the character of heart to park the car, get out and respond?

"Then," in the story that Jesus was telling, "the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’" When did we see you caught on the tracks and freed you? "And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'" (Matthew 25:37-40)

Just last Friday evening, for example, on the streets of Boone, in the wheelchair in which Jesus was riding.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Passing Through and Missing the Point

The iPod devotional I listened to on my way to church this morning considered the disciples’ question to Jesus about his use of parables. It turns out that we aren’t the first to find them at times…er…uh…inscrutable. Parables apparently seemed to the disciples like an uneconomical way to get your point across if half your listeners miss the point.

“The reason I speak to them in parables,” Jesus responded according to Matthew, “is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”

The presence of God, the wonder of God, the Word of God, passing right over our heads – or through one ear and out the other. I’m hearing this as I whisk my way up Fleur Drive, past the mists rising from Grey’s Lake on my right and the fluttering leaves in Water Works Arboretum on my left; past the once colorful planter medians in-between now decimated by the floods and uprooted; past the Des Moines River and its swiftly moving current and the root-torn trees horizontal along its banks; through the light controlled intersections and the morning commuters squeezing through as yellow shifts to red.

I’m imagining all these things, of course, because I wasn’t really paying attention. I was “seeing” but I wasn’t “perceiving.” All of those views have been true on previous days – the mists, the rustles, the colors, the cars – but this day preoccupations claimed my perceptions --

Mentally arranging the pieces of the day at hand.

I drove on auto-pilot, stopping when forced to, turning when called for. It’s a route I’ve driven thousands of time. The truth is I think it was raining, but I wasn’t really paying attention.

Parking at the church and making my way inside, I heard the thick, lush sounds of the organ. Deanna was at the console, practicing for Sunday. The sanctuary’s darkness broken only by the organ’s music light, I slipped quietly, anonymously inside.

And stopped.
And listened.
And paid attention.

For the first time today I began to imagine what else could be in front of me this day to see – and perceive – and hear – and understand.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wisdom at the Bottom of the Bag

I recall reading, a few years ago, the comments of a graduate school professor about a particular student he had been supervising. "Doesn't integrate well," wrote the professor. He was talking, of course, about the student's limited ability to bring the insights and learnings from his or her various courses into conversation with one another. Each course of study, in the student's mind, remained compartmentalized, isolated from each of the others, resulting in a mish mash of often conflicting thoughts and convictions.

I've thought about that description often since first hearing it, and how it indicts so much of our culture these days. Failure to integrate. Putting forward conflicting convictions without even noticing the intellectual or moral collision. What we claim as values and assert as priorities often bear no resemblance to the actions we choose. It could, I suppose, be simple hypocrisy -- that we talk a better game than we actually play -- but I think it is more disturbing than that. I see little evidence that we even recognize the disconnection.

This weekend several men from our congregation participated in a denominational gathering of men. Checking in, we were each given a "goody bag" of stuff -- the usual pencils and pens and pins and emery boards, luggage tags, key rings and brochures conventioneers have come to expect. There was even a hat; some were lucky enough to get a T-shirt left over from some community event last year. All that, and, of course, a program booklet.

After the evening session, back at the dorm where we were staying, we emptied the bag for a closer inspection. The pens all seemed to be in working order -- and I'm always running out of or losing pens; the pencil and nail file could come in handy. I wasn't sure why we men were receiving brochures detailing the need for, and the steps involved in, breast self-examinations, but the city map could come in handy. I didn't really know what to make of the plastic heart-shaped thingy with the retractable cord, but it had a belt clip so I'm sure it's cool.

And then two last things fell out. A sticker and pin.
"Use Less Stuff" they said. There, at the bottom of all this stuff was the counsel to "Use Less Stuff." All I could think about was that professor's critique: "Doesn't integrate well."

Back home now, I've put a couple of the pens in my desk drawer, assigned the emery board a place in the bin next to the clippers, put the sticker on the refrigerator and the pin on my dresser to serve as a reminder, and the rest I'm throwing away -- trying my best to integrate what I've learned... use less stuff.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Where Now to Store the Memories

There were boxes. Wall to wall and floor to ceiling in the single-car garage. After arriving at my parents' new home we relaxed for a few minutes, letting the drone of the highway fade away, and then went to work. "Where would you like this?" "Should this go in the Salvation Army pile?" "How would you like these arranged?" "I think we will need to build some shelves." Boxes opened. Boxes emptied. Boxes flattened and taken outside. And slowly, like the tide receding to reveal a beach, a garage began to emerge.

Periodically a box would surface that would only be pushed aside -- one, and then another, and another; ones that bore my name. These we worked around.

Through the weekend we worked, and then beyond; calling it a day, only to find second winds that drew us back to the garage for more cardboard spelunking. By Wednesday only two towers remained: one for the Salvation Army, and one for me. Stuff from my old room. Stuff from my old story. Stuff from my old dresser and bulletin board and closet and desk. Remnants. Tracks of my life. Memories. Some of it, Mother had guessed, was disposable but she hadn't wanted to presume. There was a poster board ping pong tournament bracket from some church camp past that demonstrated my championship run. There were theater posters from the plays I had been in -- along with the scripts to support them -- going back to The King and I in 5th grade. There was boyhood jewelry and scrapbooks and high school annuals. There were my little boy cowboy boots probably 45 years old, and my first snare drum, and the ukulele on which I had entertained thousands with my own rendition of Tiptoe Through the Tulips. Well, dozens anyway. There was my 7th grade Texas History spiral notebook from Mrs. Burleson's class in which I had dutifully recorded that the textbook, among other pieces of vital information, had been published by Steck-Warren. There were my various high school awards, some college Dean's List certificates, and my acceptance letter to seminary. And there was one box filled almost entirely of shoeboxes.

Shoeboxes. Intrigued, I gingerly withdrew one and removed the top. Inside, and likewise inside the several others, were letters. Letters and cards. Several were from people now lost to my memory. Camp friends, I discovered, who wrote to keep in touch. Camp counselors, a few of them, writing to appreciate our small group time together. There were even a few from teachers who had become special to me along the way, who wrote to me in college, whose thoughtful notes made me fall in love with them all over again.

And others. Shoeboxes of others. From Kristi Kesey, my kindergarten girlfriend who faithfully kept in touch even into college; from Belinda and Mary and a handful of others. For reasons I no longer remember, I had saved them -- carefully, envelope and all -- perhaps anticipating that from time to time I might need some affirmation. Love letters, for lack of a better description. Neither scented nor grandiose, they were simply the loopy handwriting of innocent affection. Randomly rereading them I noted how mundane is the vocabulary of love -- glimpses of the weather, tidbits of family vacations, activities of the day -- narrated threads with which was woven the fabric of affection. How else does one communicate another's significance, after all, than by including that other squarely in the midst of one's own ordinariness?

I read -- tenderly, appreciatively, fondly, melancholically -- and ultimately moved on. There were bigger boxes remaining, and limited trunk space for the journey home.

And finally the job was essentially done. The trash had been collected, the truck had picked up the donations, pictures were on the wall, shelves had been added, flowers were in the planters, and order had been created. Out of the raw materials of a handful of rooms and a hundred or so boxes a home had been created. Eleven days after driving into the driveway, Daddy raised the door on a now-empty garage and proudly moved the car inside. It was, he observed, a happy punctuation point to the experience. Our own car precariously loaded, we exchanged goodbye embraces, swallowed hard, squeezed ourselves into the reserved spaces, and found our way back to the highway.

One chapter ended, another begun, and a lifetime retraced in between. Now all I have to do is find a new place to store all the memories.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

To Independence -- and Happy Mutual Dependence

Today we hit the road. We appear to be bucking the trend. According to AAA, this will be the least traveled 4th of July weekend in a decade. Not that the roads will be empty. Expectations are that over 40 million will venture 50 miles or more from home, 85% of whom, fully 34.2 million, by car. That's a 1.3% drop, to be sure, but it hardly represents paralysis. We will have plenty of company in the "out and about" between here and there. Along the way we will stop for the night, before arriving in the Fatherland on the 4th.

There is nostalgia in the weekend, as well as work. The work part will occupy the entirety of the week ahead, helping my parents unpack and settle in their new environment. The nostalgic part will burst like a bottle rocket in the night sky tomorrow night. It was during the fireworks display in West Des Moines (July of 1997 to be exact; I've learned to remember such things) that our personal histories took a turn. With colored explosions bursting overhead, I proposed -- at least I would have had she let me finish. Mid-stream in this carefully crafted, romantically poetic speech, surrounded by 50,000 or so of our closest friends scattered on blankets and perched in lawn chairs, I was cut short by an eager "Yes! Yes! I will! I do." Never has an interruption been more welcome or happily accomodated. Less than three months later we were married. It still feels like fireworks to me.

Ever since we have indulged in this annual delusion that all across the country people pause, banks close, and mail goes undelivered, all in honor of our engagement. The best part is that no matter where we go these fourths of July, when the sun goes down the sky lights up -- bursting reds and whites and sparkles and blues. And we light up as well...with memories, gratitude, contentment and eager dreams.

It's ironic that this holiday set aside, more accurately, to celebrate our independence is, for the two of us, the celebration of our recognized mutual dependence. Funny how that happens.

To all who are traveling, be safe. And happy anniversary, all Americans...
...and we two in particular.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Living in Me, Even if I no Longer Live in It...

It is the places that come most sentimentally to mind. Even though it was my third return address, it has nonetheless been "where I'm from." And the landmarks through the years are what surface in my memory. There is the corner display window at the old Thornton's Department Store at 4th and Oak that was a mandatory field trip every Christmas season to see the fabulous holiday display. There is likewise Minter's Department Store downtown with its pneumatic tubes whooshing cash from sales far away somewhere into the recesses of the building and whooshing receipts back to the clerk and the customer. There is "Hombre", the first hair salon I frequented after "graduating" from the common barber shops. There is "Bud's Duds"that carried the cool clothes when I was a young teen, and later "Jeffrey's Village Peddler" that specialized in more sophisticated, gentleman's clothes I loved when I and my tastes matured. It always impressed me that the sales staff remembered my named and my size whenever I returned home throughout college -- until my size kept changing.

I picture the streets and neighborhoods through which I drove the ice cream cart, bell clanging and kids chasing and me grinning with the sales. I think of Old Abilene Town, the recreated historical village on the outskirts of town, and the artificial beach and "ocean" someone created out by the zoo.

I can still feel the rush of jumping off the high diving board at the Abilene Swim Club, and if I listen carefully I can hear the sounds of David and me singing and playing guitars at La Hacienda, the Mexican restaurant owned by the father of a friend where we worked on Friday and Saturday nights for $10 apiece, dinner, and tips (of which there were rarely any).

I remember the drive-in movie theatre on the north side of town where the bell choir friends would go for entertainment in the summer, and Rose Park Tennis Center where I lived most summer afternoons. "Saddle and Sirloin" was the place for a late night burger, and the thought of "Tony's Pizza Cave" still makes me smile.

I picture the walk to Austin Elementary School, and the halls of Madison Junior High, and the choir and drama and speech rooms at Cooper High School, and the auditorium there where the plays were performed and the talent shows were held, and where, in the lobby, my picture now hangs in the "Hall of Fame" for reasons I still don't understand.

There aren't enough words to capture the memories of the church -- the classrooms, the fellowship hall, the choir room, and the silencing, grounding awe I felt slipping into the back row of the empty sanctuary at night with the communion table glowing the only light.

And the house. Of course the house -- the garage where countless pool and ping pong games were played; the big back yard where football games competed with fruit trees; the living room anchored by the piano, and the den that was the intersection of life; my room that always felt like sanctuary, and Craig's room where the various teenaged rock bands always rehearsed.

There are people, of course -- directories full of them; teachers, mentors, neighbors, friends -- but now that my parents are moving from the house and the city that for better than 40 years has been home, it is the places that come to mind. The people, themselves, like me have changed and even moved, and there is a fluidity to relationships I take in stride. But this is the phone number, the address and zip code that for the better part of my life has been "home." These are the fence posts to which my kite string has been tied.

I am happy that my parents are moving -- it is simpler, wiser, more practically sound. I support it -- indeed encouraged it -- and I am proud of them for making the move. It isn't easy to uproot after so many years in the same ground, but they are doing it; and with a lot of hard physical and emotional work, the day is almost at hand. I'm happy for them, and proud of them.

But it's hard to cut the string that connects all of us to home. Not sad so much as sentimental. The city limits of Abilene, Texas have been the crucible of our lives, our memories. How many meals have we eaten there? How many nights' sleep? How many tears have been shed there, and how many lessons learned? How many stories have been lived there -- how many chapters written?

Countless. It has been a good place to call home, and though our visits there will be far more unpredictable now, "home" I'm guessing it will continue to be.

Thank you, Abilene, for grounding me, raising me, sheltering us all, and embracing us; thank you for encouraging us, shaping us, forgiving us, and befriending us. And thank you for coming with me... my soul.