Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Stumbling Upon One of the Lurking Places

A few hours of discretionary time opened up to us after lunch. Some would go to a movie. Some would find conversation partners. Others would claim a nap. This latter held initial appeal since conversations had continued last night into the birthing hours of today. But the glint of sunlight off the pond nearby caught both my attention and my imagination. The quacking chatter of the duck population added sound to sight, and a turtle gliding in the water just at the surface -- barely breaking the plane -- was somehow permissive. "Coast for a moment," it almost seemed to say, "descend into the quieting undulation of the moments and simply be."

Of course I felt obligated to attempt something more. Sitting on the ground beneath a canopying tree and leaning back against its trunk, I set my mind to the consideration of deep thoughts. That, after all, is what one is supposed to do on a retreat with mental and spiritual space in which to ponder. Isn't it -- think deeply and profoundly?

And I determined to do so shortly, after I picked off this ant that crawls just now along my leg; and after I see where this next one is heading, emerging from the hole beside me I probably should have noticed before sitting down in this particular spot.

And now the acrobatics of the ducks are distracting -- playfully, or maybe dutifully, dashing their heads into the water and then showering the droplets with a vigorous shake; a large one beaking a smaller one from behind, as if to say, "get along now." And now another stands on tiptoes at the tip of the small peninsula protruding into one end of the pond, wings held high and spread wide as an exhibitionist in a frozen and presumably drying pose.

And somehow, "deep thoughts" simply won't come. But something perhaps even better. The parting words at morning matins were from Henry David Thoreau: "My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature, to know God's lurking places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, in nature."

God...lurking...in nature...

No grand insights, then; no soaring profundities; but beautiful music, instead -- the oratorios and operas of silent ants, quacking ducks, lapping water, shaken feathers, and the rustle of leaves still clinging to the trees.

It's chilly, and having already rolled down my sleeves, my stillness is growing uncomfortable. Reluctantly, then, I rise to height and make my way back through the monuments in the garden of the Stations of the Cross and slip into the warmth of the indoors; still humming...

...and blessed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Whatever Honks Your Horn

The wedding was over and attention now turned to the reception to be held almost the full diagonal across town from the church. An out of town guest was asking the group nearby if she should follow the directions through town distributed by the wedding party, or follow her sister's advice and take the freeway around. "You'll miss all the lights, and you can drive at freeway speed," her sister had assured her.

"Do you think that's the best way to go?" she asked us "locals."

How to answer? Indeed, the printed route did in fact take you through town; and yes, the freeway would be simple and faster driving. But the town path is direct, while the freeway takes you miles out of the way -- a giant loop to the west and then to the south, only then to wind up back east. The town route does, in fact, wind you through city streets, but also along one of the most scenic views around. Meanwhile, the freeway takes you...well...along the freeway.

"The truth is," we told her, "you are going to get there about the same time either way."

"But my sister said I would get there fastest on the freeway."

Well, maybe. I doubt it, but she could be right. I certainly haven't timed it. Even if it is true, I'm not sure it's compelling motivation. There was, after all, more than an hour between the time of this conversation and the announced time the lids would be lifted off the buffet chafing dishes. Either path would get a person there almost an hour early. Is there a lot of incentive to be the first one to arrive? Is there a prize? True, you could help the caterers finish setting the tables; and you could stand at the door and welcome all the guests arriving at a more leisurely pace; and if that isn't enough, there is that "first in line" chance at those marinated olives. And the confident assurance that you won't miss a single song on the wedding soundtrack. Reason, enough, I suppose to put the pedal to the metal.

I frankly don't know which route the guest finally took. She was already there when we arrived, but then we not only took the slow, tedious, stop-lighted but scenic route through town, we stopped off at home on the way to relax and feed the dog. Speed, we determined, was not our priority. Admittedly, we missed a few songs, but there were still plenty of olives.

Whatever honks your horn.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Economy Rebounding -- or Boomeranging?

The economy is almost certainly on the mend. I'll admit that I am conspicuously short on credentials to render such a judgment. Math has never been my thing, and I have always been better at spending money than assessing its relative value. I have no show on CNBC and so far no one has called to get my take on things, but I am sure that things have turned a corner. My assessment is certainly not scientific; it draws on no detailed assessment of market rates or statistics; I have undertaken no independent surveys, and owning no stock that I am aware of I have not been tracking incremental fluctuations of my net worth. My conclusion is drawn from a single economic indicator: the newspaper.

For the first time in months, I could pick up my paper off the front porch this morning without the aid of a spatula. Today's edition actually had enough pages in it for the rolled mass to actually be 3-dimensional. The plastic sleeve had taken on almost sausage-like tautness. The real evidence, however, was the reason behind all that newsprint: ads. Pages and pages of them. Double page ones, full page ones, half page ones and zillions of smaller ones. Car dealers, plant nurseries, grocery stores and merchants; cell phone carriers, furniture stores, eyeglass outlets and department stores. Ads all over the place.

I detected little or no change in the volume of editorial content around all those ads, but then the owners of the paper have long-since laid off all the reporters, and there is only so much you can skim off the AP Wire and the other syndicators. Who knows, if this keeps up they might even split the Metro "section" and the Business "section" back into two actual sections. Maybe they will even rehire the editorial cartoonist. And what about the Saturday Faith and Values section? OK, now I've drifted into fantasy.

Nonetheless, I am happy to see the improvement -- that people must be feeling less of a pinch, that businesses must be experiencing some discretionary profits, that the newspaper must be generating greater revenues -- and to take heart from all that it portends: having perused all these new and expanded advertisements for the wide and myriad inventories of essential trinkets and baubles, readers will rush out to those businesses and offer up more cash, and once more spend more than they have, and charge more, and...

...wait. Isn't this the way all the problems got started in the first place?

Oh well, the boom was fun for the few minutes it lasted.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Just When a Snack Was Within My Reach

I don't get it. Chalk it up to one of God's perverse little whimsies. For reasons no longer remembered after all this time, and certainly no longer rational, we scheduled wellness exams for 2:30 this afternoon. I'm sure the logic had to do with something silly -- like work schedules -- but the result of it all was that we had to fast virtually the entire day. Nothing after 6:30 a.m. No coffee, no lunch, no soft drink. Nothing except the always-filling, always-satisfying "sky juice". Water. Great. All morning long I'm watching the clock, waiting for the hour. All morning long all I can think about is how hungry I am; and did I mention how nice a cup of coffee would taste?

Finally, the hour arrived. A couple of forms. A finger prick. A height measurement. A weight measurement. A waist measurement. A few calculations. Some numbers spit out of a machine. An "interpretive consultation" to learn what it all means. For the most part, painless enough. The numbers were all good -- LDL, HDL, Tryglycerides, Glucose -- save one: the infamous "Body Mass Index", my score on which landed me squarely in the "Obese" category. There was, of course, room for still greater offense. Just 9 short numbers away and I could have qualified for the "Severely Obese" classification. I suppose I should take some comfort in the fact that I am only 1.5 away from being merely "Overweight." Yeah, well, I'll get right to work on that.

In the meantime, I'm free! I'm finished! I can eat! Only, this is the part I don't get: all of a sudden I'm not hungry. I stopped by Costco to pick up more batteries for the church and just for the heck of it walk around. As usual there are all kinds of samples being offered -- salmon here, tacos there, eggplant lasagna on one aisle, chips and salsa on the next; and chocolate chip cookies -- but, for what might be the first time in my life, none of it looked good and lugged my batteries on by and toward the registers up front. I thought about going back to the wellness clinic to get my blood checked again -- maybe my temperature taken -- to see if somehow, suddenly, I had fallen ill.

On the other hand, it could have had something to do with that Body Mass Index score.

More likely, it is simply the inversion of the age-old ache to have something we can't have -- to want what we can't get: once I could have it, the ache was gone. It was all about the prohibition, not about the hunger.

That said, the eventual prospect of supper doesn't sound that bad.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Optimism for the Big Strange Family

So, I subscribed today to a magazine new to me. It's not like a need one more thing to read in my life, but the subtitle -- and the recommendation of a friend -- hooked me: Ode magazine -- for Intelligent Optimists. That has a nice ring to it. Though I like to think of myself as reasonably intelligent, I have drifted dangerously close, of late, to pessimism. I could use the corrective. After all, it's September and the days are cooling and the leaves are coloring -- those alone are cause for optimism. Besides, my day is typically the only thing that gets bitten when I growl.

Appropriate reinforcement, then, that my new grocery bag arrived today in the mail today from Brian Andreas, the quirky folk artist in northeastern Iowa. Depicting a handful of very colorful, very odd looking "people," the caption reads, "I don't think of it as working for world peace, she said. I think of it as just trying to get along in a really big strange family."

Now that is intelligent optimism in the daily grind of reconciliation. I can't wait for the magazine to get here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Springsteen and the School of Liturgics

I have a vague memory of Pete Duffy, across the hall in the college fraternity house, cranking up his stereo for Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, but I found the music a little too...hmmm, how shall I say this...."urban edgy" for my taste. Other than that limited early impression -- and perhaps because of it -- I can't say that Springsteen was much on my radar. Until much later. Random songs made it into my awareness. I came to more readily recognize his music -- and like it, perhaps because I, myself, was becoming a little edgier and a lot more urban.

And then a little over 3 years ago Springsteen got infatuated with the music of Pete Seeger, and not only recorded an album of it but, in place of the better-known E-Street Band, toured the country with a rather raucus folk band performing it. The concert we got to attend during that tour was one of the most exhilarating of my fairly lengthy concert experience. Fun, lively, participatory and, well, raucus, the evening became the inspiration for my 50th birthday celebration: a jam session with all kinds of instruments, playing all kinds of fun songs -- many we had heard Springsteen sing that night.

The years since have seen the release of a few subsequent albums, which were suddenly very much on my radar. I had become a fan -- long after the vast majority of others. So, when tickets went on sale for his Des Moines show, I logged onto the ticket site and snagged my pair. And last night was the night. Wow! Eleven performers, including The Boss. Rock and Roll with the whole E-Street Band. And each of the eleven was on his or her best game, for the almost 3-hour non-stop concert. Suffice it to say that, with a half-hour of encores stretching out the evening, the audience was wildly invested. There can't be any harder working musicians.

But as exciting as it was, I felt strangely alien. I knew neither the lyrics, nor the apparent standardized hand and arm gestures. I didn't know that we were supposed to bring poster boards with song ideas to "stump the band." I didn't know the back stories, the traditions, the inside jokes; the past estrangements and reconciliations among the band. I was, I suppose, vaguely aware that drummer Max Weinberg had become the leader of Conan O'brien's Tonight Show, and so I felt quite honored that he was actually able to play our concert; his TV gig has required him to miss several concerts. But the rest of the thrills and dramas and stories and "traditions" unfolded around me in a way that, alright I'll admit it, made me feel a little jealous -- and out of it. I didn't know the rubric. Everyone but me, it seemed, knew what to do. And when. On which song. On what beat. I can understand how the two guys behind us could have it down. From South Carolina, they are simply following the tour from city to city. Bleacher groupies, as it were. But everyone else? How do they know these things?

Waking up this morning after far too little sleep and a ringing still my ears, the experience got me thinking about how worship services must feel to the casual -- or even interested -- visitor who wanders in. I think about all the standing and the sitting and the repeated prayers and the page numbers and the communion trays that make their way along the pews. And how "out of it" they, too, are likely to feel. Granted, admission is free -- decidedly unlike the Springsteen concert -- but awkwardness is awkwardness, and no one wants to feel alien very long. It's one thing to say hello at the door, but after last night I resolve to start paying more attention to the subtler forms of inclusion. After all, we may want to take this show on the road. And sell tickets. Or not.

Nonetheless, leave it to The Boss to teach me a few things about church.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Waiting for the word

The hospital waiting room is its usual conglomeration of patient impatience. Ipod buds in ears, but not really heard. Perfunctory attention to the mindless television morning show. Laptops voraciously seeking the wireless connection so that someone can stare blankly at the screen. Lively chit chat thinly veneering nervous apprehension. Newspaper pages turned but with primary attention given to nurses weaving in with reports; pages that will eventually need to be turned again. Or not. Everybody is engaged in some distraction, but no one is finally distracted.

I have often thought it easier to be the patient than the loved one standing by - waiting, praying, listening, worrying, and watching loved ones in pain. Here the red numerals on the wall clock clicks over at glacial speed. Here the coffee is free, but drinking it is more something to do than taste or enjoy.Now they have pagers that flash or quack or vibrate or do all three to signal the end of the wait. Like at a restaurant, as though there is something delectably delicious just beyond the flashing buzz. But clutched here all around the room, these merely signal the beginning of waiting of a different sort. Waiting for waking. Waiting for healing. Or worse.

Perhaps the distractions here are less to help pass the crawling time, and more to avoid the agony that is the helplessness in this room, on this useless side of those all-important swinging doors.

So here we all sit. Waiting, most of us. Praying, some of us. All of us, whatever else we may be busying ourselves with, watching the swinging of those doors; anxious for them to swing in our direction.

And finally exhaling when they do.

"It will be an hour or so before you can see your mother," the nurse reports to the kids with whom I am waiting, "but the surgery is over and went fine."


Now, where is that newspaper I read two or three times awhile ago?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Let's Bring Heaven Down Here

We had borrowed as a theme some words from a song by the jazz duo Tuck and Patti: "I don't want to wait for the angels; let's bring heaven down here." That was our plan in getting married -- to "bring heaven down here," but we knew we needed help. Given the fact that we were combining two adult households, and that therefore we neither needed nor could find room for any material gifts, we asked instead for "prayers, wisdom, advice or blessings" on how to have a happy marriage. Many complied -- in pithy sayings; in extended treatises; in songs composed and stories told and dialogues recounted. Wisdom, prayers, and blessings. We bundled all those responses into a notebook that each successive year we have pulled off the shelf and reread.

Looking back over the collection this evening on our 12th anniversary I was struck by how often the subjects of patience and communication came up -- these, plus time; communication no doubt because we can't read each other's mind, and if we are going to live with each other we had better be on the same page. Patience because...well, let's face it, anybody can be hard to live with; because all of us aren't holy with one another or lovely at the same speed. And time, because our allocations of it seem always and perversely to favor everything except our marriage. Communication, then, and time, and patience. Patience, in and of itself, a willful and determine devotion of time, as if to say, "there is nothing more important in my life than waiting for you to catch up."

It reminds me of some words by that great theologian Bruce Springsteen:
We said we'd walk together,
Baby come what may,
Then come the twilight,
Should we lose our way,
But if as we're walking',
A hand should slip free,
Well, I'll wait for you,
And if I fall behind wait for me.
Patience and communication. Talking -- always talking, because we need to understand each other -- and waiting for each other to catch up. Because we don't ever seem to live and move and love and learn at the same pace.

I have come to believe that heaven is a good bit like that: to listen and to be heard; and hearing, to understand. And when we are slow -- when a hand slips free; when we are obtuse and distracted and selfish and lost -- to not be left behind. To have someone waiting and watching for us to crest the far hill and draw near.

At least it sounds like heaven to me -- and for the past 12 years, experienced it to be.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

For the 12th Time: Yes, I do

No, it isn't exactly the date -- that arrives tomorrow -- but it is more experientially "the day." Twelve years ago, on the 3rd Saturday in September, at 10:45 in the morning, in the shadow of an evergreen tree in the garden of friends, in the company of family and friends, accompanied by flute and harp, Lori and I stood in front of my Dad who led us through the exchange of breathtaking promises, prayers, and blessings, and pronounced us husband and wife. Then, he finally invited us to kiss.

Twelve years ago...standing shoulder to shoulder...receiving the blessing that was coming our way. As we were eventually able to do in that service, we have enjoyed our time face to face; but thinking back over the past 12 years, it is the time spent shoulder to shoulder -- facing forward together, receiving all the wonder and mystery and beauty and possibility and challenge and fireworks coming our way -- that stands out the most. There is something powerfully wonderful about the company of a partner. To face it all, receive it all, together.

We have moved across town together; trained and adjusted to a dog together; made music together and paid bills together; we have traveled across the country and around the globe together; we have gone to school together and made parenting decisions together; we have taught classes together and crafted sentences together; we have dreamed together and cried together and been afraid together and cooked together; we have solved problems together and overcome obstacles together; we have passed through dark valleys together, and together welcomed the sun. We have made plans together -- and together found ways to change more than a few of them. We have chased after waterfalls together, tromped through snow together, caught falling colored leaves together, made pasta together, hiked mountain paths together, ridden bicycles together, tasted fresh syrup together, picked tomatoes together, and shared picnics together. Side by side...shoulder to shoulder...receiving the world together.

And now 12 years later, on this 3rd Saturday in September, still looking forward, it is a delight to look back for a moment as well; and sweeping the vision of my soul across both yesterday and tomorrow, for the 12th time, to answer "Yes! I do!" Happy Anniversary, Lori Jo. Indeed, I do.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On Living One's Own Obituary

You can imagine my surprise. Well, I think anyone would be.

I couple of months ago Christopher was telling me about "Google Alerts" -- a feature of the ubiquitous search engine enterprise that allows users to track internet activity related to a subject of choice. Every day, Google does a sweep of the internet on your designated search term and sends you an email with links to all (if any) of the hits. Curious about a particular new cell phone supposedly in development, I set up a Google Alert for it. And, in a flash of narcissism -- or paranoia -- I set up another with my name. Hey, even Jesus wanted to know what people were saying about him.

Well, the sad truth is that people are saying very little. In the weeks since setting up the Alert, I might have had three -- maybe four -- hits on my name. And they have all been scintillating: the posted City Council Meeting agenda indicating that I would be offering the opening prayer; our church's newsletter proudly featuring my column. That sort of thing. Yawn. In other words, nothing. Zilch.

Until today, when the Google Alert passed along the link to one internet hit:
Sep 15, 2009 ... Online obituary for Timothy Diebel. Read Timothy Diebel's life story, offer tributes/condolences, send flowers or create a Timothy Diebel ...

As I say, you can imagine my surprise. I felt for my pulse. I looked in the mirror. I wondered if someone knew something I didn't. Then, I returned to the email and clicked on the link. My relief was palpable: although indeed 53 years of age, this Timothy Diebel didn't look a thing like me. He did, however, live not too far away -- in St. Paul, Minnesota. Feeling only a bit voyeuristic, I read through several of the online condolences submitted by friends -- including one by his ex-wife, if I was reading correctly between the lines. Now that is a sobering thought to consider. (Note to self: specify in pre-arrangements that online condolences are not to be solicited). All indications suggest that he seems to have been a nice guy, although his actual obituary was breathtakingly short -- only marginally longer than the hyphen between two dates. Besides, what else are people going to write?

Sufficiently satisfied that I was, indeed, still alive, I began to reflect on the prospect -- suspending for a moment the eeriness of considering one's own funeral. The concept isn't unprecedented. I, myself, once officiated at the funeral of a person who was still alive and in attendance. The details are unimportant; suffice it to say that the quite-elderly woman was, by all medical intelligence, near death; family members had already made plans to convene for the anticipated farewell; and when, to the surprise of all, the patient suddenly improved and was summarily discharged from the hospital, the family decided to go ahead with the plans. Odd, I suppose, but certainly expedient. And she could be there to hear what people said about her -- even if she was hardly in a position to burnish her legacy if the reports turned out to be negative.

I, however, am still virile enough to effect some positive augmentation of my legacy. Stewardship of time comes to mind. Relationships, and, of course, noble contribution. Just to begin the list.

Reading the obituary again and exhaling with the relief that it isn't mine, I thought for a moment of how easy it is to take life for granted, and also one's own gifts to be shared in the course of it.

The day is still young. If it is going to be anything more than the hyphen between my own two dates, I had better get busy living it in a fruitful way. It would be nice if my survivors have something positive -- maybe even interesting -- to write about.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

She sang it in the morning, in the evening, all over this land

I no longer recall what the first song might have been that I learned to play on the guitar -- it could have been 500 Miles, or Wayfarin' Stranger or Leaving on a Jet Plane, or Puff the Magic Dragon. If I had a Hammer would have come along soon after, and Blowin' in the Wind. This was back in the early '70's -- at least -- and folk music still had a following. At church camp in the summers it seemed like guitars were everywhere. Afternoon free times found small groups of them clustered in shady corners all around the property, playing and singing and sharing songs. Evening vespers singing was led by a veritable orchestra of guitars lined up in front of the group. And Peter, Paul and Mary were at the top of the list of musicians who provided the repertoire. It was exciting, several years later, to attend a wonderful concert by Peter Yarrow at the Abilene Civic Center during which he had the entire audience not only singing along, but singing several different parts. I felt like I was in the presence of something close to musical royalty.

I suppose I rather lost track of the trio after that -- their music replaced in my head by The Eagles, Jackson Browne, America, ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, and other edgier fare. Years past, rock bands have come and gone, musical tastes have evolved; meanwhile Peter, Paul and Mary have continued to plug along. A decade or so ago I got to meet Peter Yarrow who was presenting at an educational conference in town. He had created a youth curriculum based on their song, Don't Laugh at Me. I had already fallen in love with the song, and was excited to learn more about the curriculum. Later we corresponded, and tried to work out a way for him to perform at our church. His work and the unique ministry of this congregation seemed perfectly suited. It didn't ever work out, but I did get to go back stage, into the "Green Room" after a concert that the three of them did in Des Moines a few years ago. It was exhilarating. It sort of felt like coming full circle.
So it was with a particular sadness that I read this morning of Mary Travers' death at 72 from leukemia. Having battled segregation with Martin Luther King, jr, and protested against the injustice and the violence of war -- battles in which she helped make significant progress -- she has finally lost this much more personal battle with disease. And I feel like I have lost a part of myself.

Others will have their own rubric for what constitutes a "good life," but I would assess one spent making both music and a difference to be "good" indeed.

She, of course, was not the first of this artist/activist species, and I trust she will not be the last. Music and social consciousness seem to regularly join hands and partner. By her example, that partnership has occasionally found expression even in me.

Who knows who the next musical activist icon might be whose song and conscience are perhaps even now stirring. Someone, though, will step up to the microphone -- probably with a guitar; certainly with a passion; and, with any luck, an attentive audience who learns to sing along. It could be, I suppose, almost anyone. The answer, of course, is blowin' in the wind.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Light -- or get used to the dark

I'm thinking that I had better get busy with the trees. The need is still a couple of months off, but the temperature is already changing. Last year I waited too long -- well past the mild autumn opportunities -- until the snow was already thick on the lawn and no one, least of all myself, was interested in stringing Christmas lights tediously through the branches.

My plan, just to back up a season, had been to leave the lights in the trees the year before. "What could happen?" I wondered. So, early in December I smuggly and expectantly stretched an extension cord and and attached the plug dangling from the lower branches, stood back and watched nothing happen. Closer inspection revealed that about half of the bulbs had been shattered by miscellaneous winds and whipping branches throughout the course of 2008. So much for my labor saving ingenuity. By then, it was too late to comfortably disentangle the mangled remnants, purchase new strings, and begin the tedium all over again. We made due with lights inside the house.

But funny thing: the months after Christmas engaged no subsequent initiative, so that today -- almost two years since they last produced any light -- those same mangled strings of once-upon-a-time festivity still circle the trees, utterly dead, and not worth repairing. Now is the time, while the temperatures are conducive, to strip the branches and discard the strings and start all over again. Now is the time to be fumbling around among the needles and preparing for the holidays to come. Sort of like the Christmas version of Aesop's fable of the grasshopper, who frittered away the warm months, and the ant who diligently stored up food in preparation for winter, I need to anticipate the chancing of the seasons and get my work done. As the ant put it, "to work today is to eat tomorrow." Or at least to enjoy the lights.

Now, before it's too late and while the days are inviting, is the time to pull my ladder out to the yard and do what needs to be done. But right now I am drunk on the illusion that Christmas is far, far away. There is plenty of time. I'll get around to it. No need to hurry. There are other things I'd rather do.

Which means there are things I will eventually need to do --

-- like getting used to the dark.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is There Nothing Else to Talk About?

I don't care. It's just that simple. I do not care. At all. Not even an infinitesimal little bit. And I am sick of the bloating diet of both the salacious and inane details of the Gosselin's sad life as they publicly lick their self-inflicted wounds. "He said," "she said." He "feels..." while she "will never..."

And now -- I hope you are sitting down -- we learn that Kate has changed her hair style. This is big news. Fire up the presses. Heat up the internet. The world will want to know this critical piece of life-changing information. Move over health care debate. Step aside economic spasms and war in Afghanistan. Never mind the ongoing challenges in Iraq -- or immigration reform, for that matter, or the looming environmental peril. We've got something really important we need to talk about: Kate's new hair style. It must be important, we learned about it on The View.

I suppose it goes without saying that I don't "get" the fascination with this story -- not just the hair; the whole fatuous and voyeuristic saga of their televised life and love and now their junior high-ish split.

I can't help but suspect that this kind of cultural preoccupation is precisely what turns brains into cottage cheese and shrivels our collective soul into a raisin too hard and dry to even taste. Which is to say, I suppose, that my beef is not really with the Gosselins. God bless them in the challenging life they undoubtedly have ahead of them. I wouldn't wish anybody misery. No, my complaint is with the rest of us for watching it, salivating over every morsel, and for buying the magazines.

There is still time, however. We can save ourselves, I truly believe it. We might not be able to break the habit "cold turkey," but step by step, one day at a time, we can turn this thing around. It can start in small ways -- like simply sitting quietly looking out the window for a few moments, or walking outside among some trees (real growing things). Or like reading a novel. My sister-in-law, for the past couple of years, has been working her way through every one of the Pulitzer Prize winning novels. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Or, how about this: for 15 minutes each day we could holster our Blackberries, minimize our computer screens, turn off the TV, take the iPod buds out of our ears and have a conversation. With an actual person. I know, this will likely take some effort. After all, we hardly know any real people anymore -- only television personalities and Facebook "friends" with whom we exchange our every irrelevant detail. But the surprising truth is that they are all around us -- actual flesh and blood. Inhaling and exhaling. Smiling and frowning. Blinking, eating, carrying a water bottle around just like us. Some of them might even live with us in the same house. It will feel awkward at first -- actually talking, listening, having a real conversation. Sooner or later, if we keep at it, we may even start to care about them.

I know. It's a stretch. But we can try it. And if all else fails, as an ice breaker maybe you could just talk casually about each others hair. And wonder if it has changed.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Placed into the Keeping of Each Other

The story came to mind in the latter stages of sermon preparation. It wasn't either one of the biblical passages that had given rise to the sermon, but all of a sudden it seemed more germaine. The specimen on the homiletical dissection table this week was the practice of "welcome" -- what the biblical writers more commonly referred to as "hospitality" -- and the passages we had read aloud encouraged it because of the rather pragmatic possibility that we could be "entertaining angels unaware" (Hebrews 13:2). Such a motivation sounds fine on the surface, but uncomfortably self-serving the longer you sit with it. It reminds me of the now rather embarrassing memory of showering all kind of pastoral attention on the elderly widow in a previous pastorate whose contribution represented something over 10% of the church's annual budget. I suppose it was "pastoral care," but it was self-serving at its core.

The truth is, whatever the long-term and hypothetical prospects might be, hospitality can quite often be expensive in any of a number of ways. Often times it is delightful, but quite often it is inconvenient, disruptive, and depleting. Those liabilities notwithstanding, it is, according to scripture, the right thing to do.

That's when the widow of Zarephath came to mind. Struggling through a drought centuries before the time of Jesus, she and her son were on their last bit of flour and last drop of oil. It was, as far as they could see, to be their last meal. There were exactly zero prospects for more. Then the prophet Elijah, a guy from almost a hundred miles away, drops in and invites himself to supper.

The tension in the story is dramatic, but familiar: the tug-of-war between the "ought to" and the "want to;" between the relational and the comfortable. The widow chooses the former and the threesome sat down to dinner. And it all worked out happily because, as a "reward" for her hospitality to God's servant her pantry was never exhausted until the famine ended. Which makes it a dangerous story, as well. How many television preachers have used this story to cajole offerings out of those who can least afford it?

I'm guessing that Elijah's promise of plenty played little role in the widow's decision. There were, after all, no guarantees. I'm guessing that she simply chose to do the right thing by way of another human being despite the likely consequences, convinced that an extra day of life lived parsimoniously was not all that much worth living.

We are put here, after all, into each others keeping. Wrangle, then, if we must about border fences and illegal alien benefits and deportations; but meanwhile, the widow is mixing up her last bit of flour and her last drop of oil and with actions, moreso than words, speaking...


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunset Beneath and Between the Bridges

The John Anderson White is a recently refurbished sternwheeler riverboat that leisurely cruises the downtown portion of the Des Moines river. The "refurbishing" hadn't been required because of age or neglect but because close to a decade ago some vandal cut it loose one night and it crashed on a bridge down river. Then a local restaurateur with, it might have seemed, more imagination and money than sense, bought the crippled hulk and went to work. Slowly, as it turned out.

Earlier in the summer we learned that the sternwheeler was back on its feet -- so to speak. While chartered dinner cruises were a bit out of our reach, my ears pricked up when an email announced sunset cruises for we unwashed multitudes. It sounded like an opportunity.

The evening arrived and, without really knowing what to expect, we stepped aboard along with the other six passengers (it can carry up to 75). The ad had promised appetizers and music, and sure enough, a table was invitingly spread and both a guitar and banjo leaned promisingly in one corner. After a few perfunctory announcements and instructions, the paddle began to turn and we were underway.

The river, that time of the evening, was still and, for the most part, quiet. Along the way, the Captain noted points of interest; the musician -- who doubled as a deck hand -- strummed and sang. A white pelican floated leisurely at a safe distance from our path, and the sun gently settled behind the trees. The river, almost hypnotic, slid glass-like beneath us. As the Captain had previously announced, the 2nd street bridge -- too low for us to sail under -- marked the end of our forward progress and the John Anderson White gently turned itself around and began its journey home. A scant hour after we had shoved off, we were nudging our way back against the dock and stepping back onto solid ground, nourished as much by the orange sky and the placid river as by the pizza.

I could go again.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Value of Every Last Crumb

The singing has faded, the phone calls have stopped; the dishes are washed and the leftovers put away; the cards have been lovingly read and appreciatively displayed. New this year were the Facebook greetings from people I haven't seen in years, and others who probably don't me well enough to care. All in all, it was a wonderfully indulgent day. But now the birthday is past; it is the ordinary day after with more routine necessities of its own.

That's fine because, special days notwithstanding, I like my "life as usual." Certainly among the world's fortunate, with better health than I deserve, I am privileged to engage in meaningful work, delight in an affectionate family, nest in a comfortable home, and enjoy innumerable opportunities to indulge my curiosity and creativity.

Whatever else they may afford, perhaps birthdays are precious because they don't simply make you feel special, but remind you that you are -- a favor you get to return every time you get to celebrate someone else's. It is a day, certainly, to mark your aging, but in the process to comprehend again, as the old quip puts it, that getting older is better than the alternative.

Which, in other words, is simply to be reminded that life -- your own, along with all those who surround you -- is important...



...and, as with last night's cheesecake, worth forking up every last crumb.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sleeping through the conversation of the gods

Arriving at the farm one afternoon midsummer I asked L.T. what constitutes "ripe." Is it a philosophical question, I wondered, or a horticultural one? I understood that a plant's ripeness is not defined by my appetite -- that just because I am hungry for that pepper doesn't make it ripe -- but suddenly I realized I had no better criteria by which to assess it. In one sense, the question was prompted by the jalapenos dangling beneath the leaves on our back deck that I was hesitant to pick, but looking around us, just then, at the rows and rows of various vegetables L.T. and his family were growing, my interest was also more general. "What is ripe," I asked him, "and how do you know when something is?"

He offered initially a technical answer -- regarding the maturity of the seeds inside the fruit and their readiness to reproduce -- but he knew neither of us would be satisfied leaving it at that. Besides, he laughingly acknowledged, you can't very well assess the seeds without picking and eviscerating the fruit. And so this wise physician-turned-farmer from Guyana pointed at a bank of plants and urged a more intuitive observation. Notice, he invited me, how the branches and leaves veil the growing fruit. The plant, he suggested, is trying to hide the fruit -- because it is not ready. But when its readiness arrives -- when the fruit, whose purpose it is to reproduce, is ready to fulfill its destiny -- then the plant will take itself out of the way, essentially advertising the fruit. "It is, after all, in the plant's interest for you to notice the ripened and ready fruit and pick it, and so the plant puts it on full display." I, of course, and the birds and the squirrels and the deer and anything else that may consume the fruit and distribute the seeds to continue the natural cycle. In essence, when the fruit is ready the plant will tell you. You simply have to pay attention.

I've thought of that wisdom countless times since that plantside catechism; how it reminded me of scripture's differentiation in the Greek between "Chronos" -- clock and calendar time -- and "Kairos" -- the right time or God's time, and how you count the former and discern the latter. In the former you simply look at your watch and check off the minutes, while in the latter you have to patiently and expectantly pay attention. And I have thought about how difficult is this latter skill in a culture like ours where certitude has grown morbidly obese and curiosity has withered to wraith-like proportions. As long as we bluster and stomp around with the heaviness of what we know we will never manage the subtler sagacity of perceiving what might be.

And wouldn't that be a loss? In one of his Letters to a Spiritual Seeker written in 1850, Henry David Thoreau confessed, "I am not afraid that I shall exaggerate the value and significance of life, but that I shall not be up to the occasion which it is. I shall be sorry to remember that I was there, but noticed nothing remarkable, ---not so much as a prince in disguise; lived in the golden age a hired man; visited Olympus even, but fell asleep after dinner, and did not hear the conversation of the gods. I lived in Judea eighteen hundred years ago, but I never knew that there was such a one as Christ among my contemporaries."

It wouldn't be a bad way, then, of spending my birthday today: waking up, listening with curiosity, and watching to see what's getting ripe.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Tim and Julia and a few recipes for life

Caught up in the summer re-fascination with Julia Child via the movie Julie and Julia, I ordered two sets of DVD's containing collections of Child's old PBS television show, The French Chef. First airing during a period of my childhood when I was more interested in Batman than boeuf bourguignon, I have only a vague recollection of her show. I'm sure I must have happened upon the broadcast from time to time -- after all, there were only four networks on the air at that time -- but I am sure I never landed there. Cooking might have been something necessary to do, but who would want to learn about it, especially from an odd-sounding woman on TV?

Now, learning about food and its manifold preparations is most of what I love and want to do. It fascinates me as a delightful field of inquiry equally deep and wide that no one will ever completely explore. It is part science, many parts art. It lends itself to following the directions, and equally well to experimentation. It is universal, but simultaneously cultural and finally intimately personal. There is room for triumph in a way that can be communally enjoyed, and soft-landing failures that might leave the diners hungry but not injured.

And so Julia has been fun to rediscover. Last month I consumed her memoir, My Life in France; this month we are devouring her TV shows. And she is a delight. If I couldn't fathom it at the time, it's easy now to understand her enduring popularity. She is at once expert and klutzy. At the same time that she is perfectly at home in front of the stove, she is awkwardly childlike in front of the camera. And she makes mistakes. In her "potato show" she was cooking a large potato pancake that was ready to flip over; she began to talk about the action of doing so. Lifting the skillet, she gave it a quick and dipping jerk. About half of the potato mixture wound up back in the pan with the rest scattered in globs around the stove top. "Well," she matter-of-factly observed, "I made a mess out of that. But no problem. You can just put all this back in the pan." And then she reflected, "it takes practice -- and the courage of your convictions."

We are only beginning our journeys with The French Chef, having learned so far about stewing beef, roasting a chicken, making French Onion Soup, using potatoes, and both cooking and eating lobsters (most people need help with both, she kindly observed). Some of it has looked easy. Some of it has looked impossible. Most of it has looked delicious. All of it has made us wish we could spend endless hours with her in the kitchen -- learning about food and its preparation, to be sure, but also a few things about life.

Who, after all, couldn't use a reminder to be willing to make mistakes, to act with the courage of one's convictions, to be at home with both one's giftedness and one's awkwardness, all with an enlarging spirit of curiosity? That's all pretty powerful, even in black and white.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Savoring the Uniqueness of the Day

Savor the day. There won't be another one like it for...well, a long time -- a hundred or a thousand years, depending on how you count it. 09/09/09. Last year the Chinese took advantage of the opportunity to celebrate their lucky number 8 by kicking off the Olympic games at 8 pm on 08/08/08. Numerologists lean toward the number 9, the climactic number of the single digits, associating it with forgiveness, compassion and success on the positive side and arrogance and self-righteousness on the negative. Interesting; and when the alarm went off this morning I thought it was merely signaling the launch of another day.

And it portends to be another busy one -- a funeral to both prepare and officiate; meetings at the beginning and the end, with a couple of others in between. Somewhere in the seams between them a sermon garden had better get some water; hopefully a meal or two to consume, as well.

But then yesterday comes to mind -- sitting with the family whose mother will be buried today, listening to their stories and their memories and their affections; checking in on a widower, only days into his grief, busying himself with thank-you notes; a lunch and conversation with a couple of church leaders giving attention to our common service; a couple of hospital visits, plus a visit to a retirement center to wish a fresh 101-year-old a happy birthday; stopping by my polling place to add my vote; a trip to the farm to pick up this week's vegetables, followed by the chopping and sizzling of a handful of the pickings for dinner. It didn't have a memorable date to set it apart, but yesterday was a precious day of its own with hours meaningfully spent and lives fruitfully intersected.

I wonder when we -- I -- got away from the sense that everyday is unique; that apart from particular designations like "Mother's Day" or birthdays or Valentines Day or Independence Day or days marked by numerical oddities like 09/09/09, days were merely...days? Day after day. Constellations of hours circumscribed by darkness. I wonder when they became routine? Perhaps lulled by their apparent abundance we cease to notice them -- as invisible as individual grains of sand on the beach, or individual blades of grass in the lawn. The reality, of course, is that their abundance is unpredictable -- more gift than guarantee.

Which is to remind myself here at the beginning of this new one that for reasons far more significant than its numerical novelty, this day, like every other one, is a day to be savored. There won't be another one like it for...ever.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Sublimity of Lostness and Receiving

We were lost. Mid-afternoon on Labor Day Lori wished for the company of water. So we loaded into the car toward where memory knew we could find it. Maffit Reservoir was built on a tributary of the Raccoon River several decades west of town, and years ago we used to enjoy picnics there. A part of the water works system of Des Moines, it is a scenic lake that prohibits boats; hence peaceful in both sight and sound. We hadn't been back to Maffit at least since we moved across town six years ago, and in the intervening years new roads and redesigned interchanges had changed the lay of the land.

We knew the general vicinity, but as we approached the roads we vaguely remembered we discovered they were no longer there. We tracked, then backtracked, and time and again got sidetracked on countless country roads -- few of them paved. We drove through rolling hills and landscapes of corn fields, past farmsteads with sturdy, canopied trees under which families were enjoying the afternoon. We used our intuition; we tried to navigate by the trees. But finally we admitted that we couldn't find it. More to the point, we finally admitted that we were lost.

And then a funny thing happened: it dawned on us almost simultaneously that we didn't care. The drive had been and continued to be beautiful. We were enjoying the outing even if our original goal eluded us. So we drove and drunk in the countryside, turning onto this dirt road and then turning off onto that one. Utterly lost while utterly content, we noticed old houses, we noticed ancient trees, we noticed farm ponds and laughed at how unexpectedly our "water longing" was being satisfied; we noticed each other. Gently nudged along by the car's compass, we headed northwest, in the general vicinity of town; not really caring, but neither really knowing how many miles south and west we had drifted.

And then another funny thing happened: up ahead the dirt road approached a stop sign at a T-intersection. We would have to make a decision. Right seemed likely to take us generally in the direction of home, but then we noticed the name of the road transecting our path: Maffit Lake Rd. Turning left, we burst out laughing as a few miles later we turned into the familiar entry and welcomed the watery panorama opening up before us.

In our lostness was our finding. In our letting go did we gain the capacity to receive.

Funny how that happens.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Finding the Way Back to Center

In his 1937 play, Our Town, Thornton Wilder employs the endearing device of a Stage Manager who has full awareness of his audience and routinely breaks the imaginary 4th wall common in theater by directly addressing them. In that fashion I will adopt, for a moment, the Stage Manager's approach and speak directly to you, my patient and forgiving readers (trusting that it's not too presumptuous to speak of you in the plural).

This summer, in a writing workshop, folk singer Carrie Newcomer observed that "ninety percent of writing is showing up..." I haven't been showing up. I could say that I've been busy, but while true, it's nothing new. Busyness has become, I suppose, a way of life and has been for quite some time. Busyness has been less a factor than distraction -- distraction at every level of my being. Whatever effect such a centrifugal state has on my external comings and goings, as a spiritual flaw it is withering. Prayers do not rise from a soul not paying attention; neither thoughtful reflection nor words on a page or a blog. And lately I have lost my center, growing too distracted to pay attention.

But if it's true, as the title of Newcomer's workshop suggests, that writing is a spiritual discipline, perhaps I have unnecessarily taken sides in a "chicken and egg" debate. It could be, after all, that writing is less the fruit of a centered soul than the pathway leading to it, and not writing has contributed to the distraction.

Perhaps. It will be worthwhile to test the hypothesis. After all, as Lori likes to remind me of what I romantically told her on our first date, "I love words."

In the meantime I apologize to you who have been left too long with nothing but the image of tomato bottom rot to consider. I'll try to come up with something more attractive.