Tuesday, December 25, 2012

"Silent Night," Candlelight...and Egg Rolls

I no longer recall how it became "what we do on Christmas Eve" but perhaps that's the way it is with traditions.  The actions take on a life and significance all their own quite beyond their genesis long-since forgotten.  In our case perhaps its roots are sunk deep into a darker time in our family life, now years ago, when the kids and I were thrashing around for some act -- some practice, some thread -- that would signify our “us-ness”; that would somehow enact the conviction that, despite everything that had happened, there was some kind of wholeness to our holiday gatherings rather than merely the fragments of something now broken.

Perhaps.  I frankly don’t recall.  It could have simply been someone’s way of avoiding another turkey dinner.  All I can say with reliable conviction is that somewhere along the way we started making egg rolls. Christopher, Merryl and me.  Homemade ones.  On Christmas Eve.  Before or between the church services, chopping, stir-frying, spooning and enveloping, and ultimately frying. 

It is, I’ll grant you, a rather odd tradition -- labor-intensive, smelly, often smokey should the oil get too hot or the rolls be neglected too long in the fryer due to familial distraction.  Always with beef, variously augmented with shrimp or, more often, chicken.  When Lori joined our little culinary merriment, fried rice joined in as a welcomed accompaniment -- why hadn't we thought of that before? -- along with better sauces and condiments, plus an extra pair of capable hands.  In the ensuing years we have become quite the efficient assembly line.  

And did I mention that they are good?  Sitting down to enjoy the fruits of our labor even trumps gathering around the tree for the great unwrapping as first priority.  

And so it was that last night the oil was once again heated, the wrappers were once again filled through the ministrations of multiple hands, rolled, sealed and submerged in a frenzy of bubbles.  And eventually a grateful, hungry family sat down to enjoy them.  It is, I suppose, one part project, one part taste, and one part appetite that makes it all worthwhile.

But it’s the anticipation born from years of repetition, the laughter over messes made, the practiced procedures, the hours shared and the stories exchanged on this precious night that make it magic.  

And, of course, the fact that it is us -- this hybridized Diebel family -- all these years later, doing it all.  

It’s hard to imagine a more blessed way to spend Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Candle Burning; A Song Still Singing

Amazing, the resilience of the human heart -- how hopeful and trusting is the human spirit.  Perhaps, on second thought, it is not so much the "human heart/spirit" but rather that persistent glimpse of the Divine Image indelibly stamped upon us, animated by the holiest of breaths, that imbues us with the capacity to look beyond the brokenness of the darkened moment to a brighter light just over the horizon.  However common and expected that spiritual ruggedness might be in theologians, it is the more viscerally approachable,  consistently steady effluence of poets and musicians.  

Throughout the national grief of recent days, these are a few of the songs that have been humming through my soul:

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
Martin Luther -- "A Mighty Fortress is Our God"

This is my Father's world.

O let me ne'er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
Maltbie D. Babcock -- "This is My Father's World"

  It was as if an earthquake rent 

    The hearth-stones of a continent,
        And made forlorn
        The households born
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
    And in despair I bowed my head;
    "There is no peace on earth," I said;
        "For hate is strong,
        And mocks the song
    Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
    Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
    "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
        The Wrong shall fail,
        The Right prevail,
    With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -- "The Christmas Bells"

Death may raise its voice today 
O but life will have its say 
Speaking in lovers and in children 
In poets pens and philosopher’s visions 
Life is a planet’s daring dream 
Earth’s devotion, spoken in green 
Peter Mayer -- "Green"


You say you see no hope, 
you say you see no reason
We should dream that the world would ever change
You're saying love is foolish to believe
'Cause there'll always be some crazy with an Army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream, put the fear back in your life
Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What's stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late, he's almost in defeat
It's looking like the Evil side will win, so on the 
Edge Of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins
It is....
Love that mixed the mortar
And it's love who stacked these stones
And it's love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we're alone
In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it's love that wrote this play...
For in this darkness love can show the way
David Wilcox -- "Show the Way"  

And then this, from the testament of the season, spoken, almost as a spiritual requirement, with a flickering candle in our hands:
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:5
Indeed.
This is, after all, Advent, the season in which our very job description as children of God's imagination is to stand somehow in the breach between the way the world is and the way God intends it to be and both name the difference, and stir up momentum for a mass exodus from the former as pilgrims toward the latter.
Having found that music nourishes the journey, here's my advice:  keep singing as you light the way.

Monday, December 17, 2012

When It's Not As Simple as it Seems

Years ago -- 30 or more -- I heard a preacher name the disease afflicting our culture, "the Simples."  Our routine practice, he observed, is to adopt simplistic solutions to complex problems -- which, if anything, only makes them worse by deluding us into thinking them solved.  Indeed, if we have been so infected it is clear that no vaccine has been found.

I've been thinking about that disease ever since the school shooting tragedy in Connecticut last Friday, and the presumed steps necessary to prevent such anguish in the future; thinking about this public moment in the light of countless other ones in recent decades toward which simplistic solutions have been thrown.  Unwanted pregnancies since the sixties; escalating crime; illegal immigration; terrorist attacks since 9/11; school security since Columbine.  "If only we did XXXXX (fill in the blank), our troubles would be over."  One simple solution that would cover all our worries -- at least our worries about that particular problem.

Juxtapose this new outbreak of "the Simples" against the recent interview I heard with the Chairman of Nordstrom's Department Stores about the challenges of running his retail business.  When asked to describe his store's return policy he smiled and responded, "Well, we don't have one.  I concluded that we were never going to come up with one single policy that could apply to every situation, so we decided that our policy would be to tell our employees to use their best judgment."

Which, if I hear him correctly, is to suggest that it is NOT simple.  To be sure, his "policy" is in many ways harder; messier; fraught with potential problems -- but it is more honest.   Exceptions become the norm.  The truth is that there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution.

And no amount of condoms given away is going to solve the unwanted pregnancy problem; no wall of any height across the U.S. border is going to solve our immigration problems; no number of bigger prisons incarcerating those given mandatory sentences is going to solve our crime problem; no number of locks on school doors is going to safely secure our children; and no number of X-Ray machines and cavity searches at airport entrances is going to prevent terrorist attacks.

And as supportive as I am of prudent gun control measures -- crow-barring ourselves incrementally away from this idolatrous altar of weaponry before which we seem determined to bow -- no amount of gun laws will ultimately prevent these tragedies.

These are the superficial, band-aid delusions coughed up by a people infected by "the Simples" who pat themselves on the back for their dexterous dispatching of the problem, only to be shocked and confused by its still more virulent outbreak as soon as they turn around.  The problems are more complicated than that.  These are not hardware problems; neither are they "legal" problems or "systems" problems that can be solved with a tweak or a twist.  They are social problems -- wrought by our fecklessness at understanding one another, and our impatience with learning better ways. We would rather create policies, pass laws, and build stronger locks than doing the hard work of paying attention, seeking to understand and patiently, diligently creating a genuine community.

In the case of the Newtown tragedy we can demonize the shooter, but that only serves to distance ourselves from any collective responsibility.  If "he" is the whole of the problem, I am free simply to grieve, and then go on with my life.  I don't have to change.  We don't have to change.

But, of course, we do have to change.  Or nothing will change.

Several years ago Lori and I were trained to teach Couple Communication classes developed to strengthen and improve marriages.  We have been struck by how resistant people are to taking them -- by how few couples want to lean into the dynamics and practices of their relationship to see if there is room for improvement.  That kind of work, after all, is hard and vulnerable and suggests the hint of the possibility that "we" aren't perfect as we are.

That, in a microcosm, is our tragically flawed, terminally simplistic culture.  Except for a few crazies running around that we'll find some better mousetrap to contain, we are perfect.

In the words of the great theologian Dr. Phil, "how's that working for you?"

Go on, then, pass some gun laws.  Pass out some more condoms, build your border wall if you have to and, of course, a few more prisons; bolt on a few more locks; requisition more square-footage at the airport to house the vast collection of fingernail clippers and 4-oz containers of shampoo confiscated by TSA screenings.

And then, for God's sake -- and our own -- let's do something meaningful and real to engage the problems that confront us.

And, at least for a time, interrupt the epidemic spread of "the Simples."


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Anticipating Our Own Little Sympathetic Sizzle

In the interest of full disclosure, I've never attended.  Almost certainly that explains my disbelief.  Surely if I had ever been to "Baconfest" I would completely understand the appeal of this annual event that just broke its own record time for selling out.  As it stands, I'm totally in the dark.

This four-year-old, curiously-themed celebration of all things "baconic", which started with a few hundred people in a couple of downtown bars, has now grown to the point that organizers have doubled last year's capacity to 8000 tickets for the February 2013 event that will fill two buildings at the State Fair grounds.  Given the fact that those 8000 tickets, which went on sale yesterday -- 12/12/12 at, of course, 12:12 p.m. -- sold out in exactly four minutes, organizers are already brainstorming ways to accommodate the fattening interest.

Let me just repeat here the basics:  this is a festival about bacon.

Bacon.

All things bacon.

Bacon on a stick.  Bacon in a cupcake.  Bacon on a cracker.  Bacon in a brownie.  You name it, you can probably get it from one or another of the booths filling the space selling samples of the fruits of their culinary porcine imaginations.

Bacon.

8000 tickets sold in 4 minutes.  At $35 a pop -- which gets you a T-shirt, a beer Koozie, a few samples, and the opportunity to buy more from the restaurants who have set up booths there with bacon-inspired delectables.  Oh, and don't let me forget the "Bacon Educational Lectures" that will be offered.  You'll want to get in line for those early because I'm sure those are a real draw -- kind of like how the "serious" articles are the real reason people buy Playboy Magazine.

Like I said, I don't get it.  The area has plenty of entertainment options -- concerts, Broadway plays, local theatre, the full range of athletic contests at the high school, college and professional levels, parks to walk in, lakes to boat in, organized farm visits that afford the opportunity to "shake the hand of the farmer who feeds you", multiform houses of worship, charity walks, challenging runs...  There isn't a shortage of things to do.  But my guess is that except for an occasional Taylor Swift or Bruce Springsteen concert, none of those events are selling out their capacities in 4 minutes.

So what's the sense to make of it?  The economy is supposedly struggling.  Money is allegedly tight.  You know, hard times all over.  Add to that the renewed emphasis on healthy eating.  The Governor has even "weighed in", so to speak, with a highly touted "Healthy Iowa Initiative", and I'm guessing that bacon doesn't play much of a role in those plans.  Exercise, vegetables, portion control, fewer sugary drinks.  Maybe bacon appears somewhere in the fine print, but I doubt it.

Now don't get me wrong.  I'm a big fan of bacon.  All the fat notwithstanding, I could eat my weight in it (but just for the record, in case my Doctor is reading, I don't...ever...eat my weight in it.  Quite.)  But as much of an appetite as I can work up for the tasty little strips, I'm not cuing up my browser to score one of those limited tickets.

Maybe it's for the "charity work" supported by the event (though I'm betting not 3 people in the room that day could tell you what that is).  Maybe it is just for the totally absurd fun of it all in the midst of what routinely is a dismal time of year.  Maybe it is a covert strategy to boost the oft-maligned Iowa pork industry.  Maybe it is somehow, abstractly, tied to the same subterranean affections that rose up in such loud and epic lament for the demise of Hostess Twinkies and Ho-Ho's.

Who knows?  And, frankly, who cares?  Ticket holders will no doubt have a festive time, and I'm sure there will be plenty of napkins on hand to wipe the grease off their fingers and chins.  As for me, I'll just curl up with the dog and a good book, and enjoy the winter day.

After our own humble breakfast of bacon and eggs.

Monday, December 10, 2012

"With the Angels Let Us Sing...Alleluia..."

They were simply songs, simply sung in the barn.  Christmas songs, of course, and that specificity matters.  I'm not sure that strumming through "Melancholy Baby" or "Stairway to Heaven" would have had the same effect, but even "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" strikes a chord when there is a chill in the air and it has been snowing outside.  "Let All Mortal Flesh" and "Silent Night" had us in the palm of their hand.  It occurs to me that Christmas songs may best be sung in a barn -- dripped hydraulic fluid, diesel fumes, coiled hoses, chain saws and all.  Isn't that, after all, close to how it all got started -- in a barn?  There were no apparent angels in our midst -- though a more exacting definition of the word would surely argue the point -- but wise people bearing gifts certainly crowded the space.  We had no hay, and though Tir made a promenading appearance at the outset, no other animals were present.  Nevertheless, it felt like a holy night -- one that was exactly right; exactly like...well, like Christmas.

A guitar string broke along the way, but it didn't matter.  We had frenzied tambourines, finger cymbals and the exuberant smiles of kids.  We had friends -- lifelong ones and others only minutes old.  And we had the moments, warmed and exchanged.  Besides, it wasn't about virtuosity.  It wasn't about the strums or any dexterous fingerwork on frets and keyboards and horns, though there were plenty of those.  It was about something far less obvious, infinitely more intangible, but ineffably important.  It was about common songs, unfussed, offered up simply and honestly to the inky winter night outside and anything Divine that might be listening, as if something about the humble act among strangers and friends mattered.

Which, of course, it does.

There is work to be done today, cleaning up.  Travelers -- from as near as next door and as far as states away -- have walked or driven home.  The detritus of paper cups, wadded napkins and smeared plastic plates testifies to an evening well-spent.  Conviviality mingled with -- or better, nourished by -- music collectively made.  The tables will need to be wiped down before collapsing the legs, and I'll give some thought to where we might store the new folding chairs, out of the way.  The floor could probably stand a broom, if not also a mop, and there is garbage to haul to the dumpster.  But I think I'll plug in the tree, and the stars and nativity once more to light the way for the tractor and the truck moved back into place.

And smile in gratitude and retrospection.

And hum.  "...all is calm.  All is bright."

Thursday, November 29, 2012

I Would Kiss You But I Can't Stand The Smell

Several years ago, a country song by Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill wryly mused that, "it's hard to kiss the lips at night that chewed your ass out all day long."  Crude, but colorfully accurate.

In the weeks since the election, as anxiety rises about the "fiscal cliff" our cultural road is approaching that twanging chorus has been playing through my head.  What is needed in these difficult, perhaps even ominous days is diplomacy -- the capacity to look around one's own Congressional caucus and across the aisle and recognize a trustworthy and equally sincere colleague operating with the best interests of the nation at heart.  What's needed, if you will pardon the questionable metaphor, is a little political romance.  But in the months leading up to the General Election, many things were said.  Harsh words were spoken.  Character was impugned, motives questioned, intelligence castigated, and morality, with dark insinuation, tainted.  And that was all on TV.  When I visited several candidate websites the pus was even more rancid.  Knuckles -- and teeth -- were bared in the ugliest tones imaginable.

And now, with the election behind us, these good folk are supposed to sit around a campfire, roast marshmallows and congenially conduct the business of effective government.  Right.  "It's hard to kiss the lips at night..."

This year more women than ever were elected to Congress.  The Senate will seat at least 20 women, while the ranks of women in the House of Representatives will swell at least to 77, besting the old benchmark of 73.  I note, however, that there is as yet no updated, gender-inclusive word to replace the old "statesman" -- as in "one who practices the art of statesmanship."  There is, of course, "statecraft" which refers to the work itself, but so far no fresh word for those noble souls who rise above partisan gaming and actually practice it.  The linguistic omission is telling; signaling, perhaps, an archaism more quaint than practicable; a species too extinct to resurrect.

I hope not.  Our common life is too precious, the work to be done in the public square too important for the collective good to allow the prevailing "Big Time Wrestling" mentality to endure.  There is some serious kissing that needs to be done as the evening of this year approaches.  But if anyone is ever going to have the fortitude to pucker up, the daytime chewing is going to have to change.

Just a thought.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Grateful for the Food, But Especially For The Hands That Prepared It

It had happened before -- a few years ago; a generosity evoked by a conversation earlier in that week.  So last evening, when instead of taking our order the server told us that -- if it would be alright -- the chef would like to cook for us, we humbly, happily, eagerly agreed.  Yes, it would definitely be alright!

This time we understood the invitation.  While in a sense the chef had been cooking for us all week, it had largely been through surrogates and within the confines of the menu.  This culinary excursion, inspired by the afternoon's co-mingling of the chef's hopes for an upcoming trip to Italy and the recollection of our own Italian experiences, would be an unscripted generosity from the chef's own hand.  It is, I have to believe, a diner's ultimate honor.

And so we sat back and waited...and gratefully received --
...from an Amuse-Bouche of seasonal ratatouille...
...an appetizer trio of chorizo slices, tapenade, and sautéed almonds...
...through the layering courses of lime-marinated swordfish over sorrel garnished with celeriac slaw...
...slices of beef tenderloin with hen-of-the-woods mushroom, potatoes-2-ways and ricotta...
...roasted pheasant, with root vegetables, kale and a homey sauce...
...a cheese plate with local cheese, roasted grapes and shredded greens...
...and a dessert plate of chocolate soufflé, house-made fruit sorbet, chocolate, fresh cream, and a scattering of almonds to remind us where we had begun.

All prepared as an evocation of Italian memories for us, and anticipation for him.  As he presented each course and explained the preparation, he looked at us with a winsome blend of pride and humble hopefulness -- pride at sharing his own creativity, hedged by the risk that always accompanies vulnerability.  He needn't have worried.  We would willingly entrust our gastronomic selves to his culinary ministrations any day, any time.

He has become, after all, an inspiration,
a teacher,
a chef who has more than earned our trust,
but most of all -- best of all -- he has, over the course of countless courses, treasured conversations, exchanged values, visions and passionate aspirations,
become our friend.

However glorious was the dinner -- and it was glorious; however grateful for and humbled beyond expression we are for the generosity and care of the gift -- and we are grateful, and humbled -- it is this latter for which we are grateful most of all.

The friendship.  The kinship in a journey, though separated by miles, appreciatively and wondrously shared.

Mmmmmm.  Thanks Jason.  More than you can imagine.  Have a wonderful trip.  Ours already has been.

Back to the First Place


Who told these people they could change?  It's so selfish -- as if this world were all about them.  Don't they understand that they were put on this earth to steward our nostalgia?

OK, so I'm kidding.  But it has been disconcerting.  We arrive in Vermont each year with memories swelling and touchstones to revisit, favorite sights to see and meals to eat -- a kind of scenic/psychic womb where warm and inner rhythms are reborn.  All this time I thought it was simply the place -- "Vermont", as though Vermont was merely a locale.  And indeed, it is largely intact; the mountains and lanes and leaves and woods.  All that drew us here in the first place still surrounds us -- the color, the vistas, the crisp air and the cozy embrace of the stone fences snaking their way through the countryside.  But we arrived this year to be greeted by unfamiliar faces -- the Inn had been sold; the cheese maker in the village nearby had moved to a larger town down the road; a familiar shop had closed, the owners having retired and moved away; even the ice cream shop across the river had relocated a half-mile away.  We began to check our map to confirm that we had come to the right place.

What I had not credited was "the second place."  If Vermont drew us here in the first place, it turns out to have been the people and their particular pursuits that textured and animated our returns.  It wasn't merely the Inn, for example, but the Inn as it was conceived by the Innkeepers whose guiding values and vision shaped its special personality.  Seduced by the illusion of permanence, we forgot that they, too, were alive and growing and perhaps growing beyond the Inn.  With only the slightest flint of melancholy we bless them in their new endeavors -- along with the retired shopkeepers and reinvigorated cheese makers and all the other living, growing and changing locals who have added so much blessing to our lives.

So we have been trying new things, just to get back into practice -- new trails to hike, waterfalls we hadn't before hunted down, villages in which we'd never parked and walked around.  The kind of stuff we did in the first place.  The kind of delights that led to the enjoyments of the second place.

And no doubt will again.  It will be different, but that's OK, too.  We will continue to treasure the memories -- and be nourished by them -- but it is healthy to be nudged beyond the "aw's" at what we are missing and into the "ah's" at what we are discovering.

Friday, October 12, 2012

It's Never As Simple as All That

I shouldn't have been surprised.  After all, it is a well proclaimed phenomenon.  Perhaps I simply hadn't before seen it for myself.  Perhaps it still "feels"in my soul like the end of summer rather than the salad days of autumn and beyond.  Regardless of the explanation, it still stopped me when, turning the aisle in Target yesterday I was faced with the juxtaposition:  Halloween costumes on the right, lighted Christmas lawn ornaments straight ahead.    Goblins, spiders and spooks in bloody oranges and black, carousing retail with snowmen and Santa Clauses in all their twinkling glory.

I know, of course, that seasons aren't pure.  For a couple of weeks now we have alternated between killing frosts and sweat-filled afternoons.  Sunburn and frostbite side-by-side.  And the pattern will no doubt continue on into November.  Indian Summers that lull us into complacency, like last winter's early spring that seduced trees into premature budding, only to nip it all with a late freeze.  And in humans those epochal stages of maturation -- "childhood", "adolescence" and "adulthood" -- aren't closed and commenced with a calendar.  They gray from one to next -- dabblingly testing forward motions, then slipping backwards like the undulations of the sea.  Indeed, what adult has completely given up childhood, and what child doesn't every now and then flash a proleptic adulthood?  In my mind I am only recently out of high school, despite the evidence of my 56 years.  Internally I am still a youth, despite the external evidence of thickening waist and silvering hair.

Seasons don't change like the turning of a page.  Perhaps, then, Halloween and Christmas aren't really that far apart after all, but merely the contrasting expressions of fearfulness and grace.  Angels and ghosts, jack-o-lanterns and snowmen, scarecrows and wise men, a tombstone and a manger.  In fact, perhaps my earlier startlement, wheeling my cart around the aisle, is a good thing to experience -- a reorienting reminder that clarities are usually trumped by ambiguities.

I wonder if Target could be persuaded to leave some of both decorations up year-around?  As a reminder that life is more complicated than we might like to think.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

To See A Blessing in the Falling

With more than a stiff breeze blowing it's no surprise there are leaves surfacing the pond and the grassy shores surrounding.  It is the heart of autumn -- the season I recently saw a sign describing as "the year's last and loveliest smile" -- and the temperatures are dropping as the colors are warming.  The geese paddling the waters sweep the foliage shoreward with the rippling assistance of the fountain spray out near the center, but their's is increasingly a full time job as more and more leaves surrender their hold on all they have known to keep them steady and aloft.

One of the voices in a conversation this morning accounted for the resistance to certain changes and new directions in being and doing within the faith community as the form that active lament takes when, little by little, people experience the loss of one after another anchoring principle or understanding.  He wondered aloud if the resistance had less to do with the issue or direction itself than with the cumulative weight of loss that leaves one feeling tottering or naked.  I think he is on to something.  Our elastic capacities vary, I suppose, but most of us eventually find ourselves taut and endangered at the extent to which we are called upon to stretch, fearing that if we allow our hold to snap altogether all that is real will be lost.

I don't for a minute begin to understand what this means, but I wonder if the leaves might hold out to us a larger, alternative vision.  It is their role, after all, to serve the tree for a season, not for an eternity.  They absorb all they are able, converting and sharing what they can, while they can, then cede the future to subsequent generations.  And in their very falling -- whether on water or the ground beneath the boughs -- occasions the giving of a still deeper gift in the decaying transformation into the very soil itself.  New nourishment; new foundation.

On the one hand it isn't very pleasant to include myself conceptually in the composting circle of life.

But on the other hand, the notion of it is intensely satisfying.

To offer what I can for as long as I can, not begrudging what I can't, or what follows behind me.  And when it's time, to entrust what remains to the breadth of all there is.  And -- colorfully I can only hope -- rest, with the leaves, in peace.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Straight-Jackets Will Not Be A Problem

I recently heard an Ohio coal worker voice his community's fearful apprehension about the future of their jobs and the upcoming election.  They, he declared, will vote for whichever candidate has a "better" stance on coal -- meaning the candidate who will help support the coal mining/burning industry.

I completely understand the emotional resistance.  Environmental health -- specifically climate change -- is neither a sexy nor a happy subject; it sounds mystifyingly abstract and woefully distant and hypothetical.  The present is always more compelling -- and motivating -- than the future.  When viewed through a personalized lens, the choice between having a job (especially one at which I am already proficient and experienced) and not having one (or having to retrain for a new one in which I will have to start again at the bottom and work my way up) is a no-brainer.  Climate change is "out there." Today I have to feed my family.  That, and the broader nationalist concern over energy independence reinforces that coal miner's protectiveness.  The excitable polyvalence of the issues unfortunately intersect at the point of abdication (at best) and strident opposition (at worst).  Unfortunately it is a fool's crusade.  And a suicidal one.

It turns out that the atmosphere has a slow fuse.  There is a 30-year gap between human behaviors and environmental consequences -- sort of an invitation to procrastination.  As one scientist I heard over the weekend put it, what we are experiencing today -- drought, intense heat, catastrophic weather events -- are not the result of what we are doing right now.  They are the result of what we did 30 years ago.

30 years ago when the CO2 levels in the atmosphere were 340 parts per million -- 10 ppm below the 350 ppm scientists believe to be the maximum safe level.  Today's climatological issues represent the result of an average temperature rise of approximately 1.5-degrees.  Now 30 years after those 340 ppm "good old days", our current CO2 ppm is 392, and scientists are anticipating that those kinds of levels (that are rising unabated) will nudge the mercury upwards 4-6 degrees.  Given what we are seeing with a 1.5-degree rise, doesn't 4-6 sound fun?

So when will get around to talking about this in any meaningful way?  Why is this -- to the extent that it is a public issue at all -- somehow a partisan political issue and not a globally impassioned human issue?  Last night was the first Presidential debate.  Subject didn't come up.  Seldom does in churches, either, let alone households.  This isn't a crisis that we are goingnto avert with reusable grocery bags, as symbolically important as they may be.  When will we have the courage to look those honestly hard working coal miners in the eye, the same way we did to all those tobacco farmers several years ago, and frankly say, "Your job is obsolete.  The earth simply can't afford it any more"?

We  can no longer be so economically, politically short-sighted as to think that "any job will do," any more than we can intelligently kill ourselves in the name of security.

Didn't someone once define insanity as doing the same thing while expecting different results?

If that's the case, we're going to need a bigger asylum.  Hopefully it will be air-conditioned.  Solar powered.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

To My Whirling Bride and All Her Blessed Interruptions

It was chilly that morning morning, too, fifteen years ago today -- so much so that reassurance of Lori's grandmother was necessary in subsequent days who was sure that Lori's sleeveless wedding dress had invited a cold.  No such concerns distracted us, however, as the morning matured in that backyard garden.  "Brisk" we might have thought it, but glorious all the same.

The appointed hour was 10:45 a.m. -- the 1-year anniversary of our second date which had been a Saturday morning brunch at my apartment.  That earlier occasion had been a memorable, even pivotal morning meal; breaking the ice for a relationship in which neither of us had been interested, though nudged by mutual friends.  Now twelve months later, that earlier reticence superseded by a deepening devotion, family and a few friends were gathering with us in front of an evergreen tree for the exchange of cementing vows.

Why the initial hesitation?  For Lori there were multiple reasons, chief among them a new job with all the incumbent responsibilities and a towering learning curve.  For Tim it had been the emotional residue of a failed previous marriage and the shared parenting of two active teenagers.  Neither the bride nor the groom had been eager for added complications...or risks.  Better to simply focus in and tend to the business at hand.  In agreeing to my first invitation to dinner Lori had kindly but firmly set the tone that was signal relief to me:  "I am happy to go out for dinner, but I just want you to know that I am not interested in a relationship."

How, then, had it come to be that a scant 12 months later we were gathering family, fitting rings and exchanging vows?  The honest answer is that I don't know.  David Wilcox has a song recommending the wisdom of "starting with the ending," and with that out of the way two people can go forward on more honest terms.  Perhaps that is part of it -- ending it before it began, we opened the door for authentic threads to interweave without expectation or foreshadowing.  All I know is that months past and before I knew it I could not comprehend nor abide the prospect of life apart from this one who had become for me the very incarnation of happiness and promise, kindness and grace, height and depth and shivering joy.

"I do," we each said in turn on that sun-drenched September 20th, 1997 at 10:45 a.m., and her whirling in her playful dress only emulated what was happening in my head.  Moments later, in a foretaste of all that I have come to experience and love about her exuberant appetite for life, my new bride interrupted the officiant who happened to be my Dad, whispering, "Isn't it time for the kiss?"

Fifteen years later, looking forward as well as back, I can say with confidence that I don't suppose I will ever tire of that kind of interruption.

Happy Anniversary my beloved!


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Most Expensive and Perplexing Breakfast

"And how's that 'Arab Spring' working out for you?" she asked.  Of course I wasn't quite sure how to answer.  It hadn't occurred to me that the "Arab Spring" was suppose to "work out" for me one way or another -- it being, after all, an "Arab" spring.  Moreover, she seemed to be suggesting that we would all be better off if we could just turn back the calendar and go back to the way it was -- you know, with tyranny, despotism, and heavy-handed political abuse.  The "good old days" I suppose she meant.  Presumably the recent killing of the American Ambassador and staff in Libya were fresh on her mind and she was framing a response in the only way she knew how, but I found it an inscrutable perspective.

We had found ourselves eating breakfast with this hostess of declarative, if conflicting, political views, and the eggs were growing increasingly tasteless.  On the one hand she condemned "CEO's" as the most abusive, cash-sucking blight on the economic system, while on the other hand is, of course, voting for Mitt Romney whose own campaign sells him as the "uber-CEO."  She speaks in ominous tones about the evils looming in "ObamaCare", while simultaneously decrying her family's inability to find affordable health insurance.  Lamenting how bad the economy is in one breath, she gloats in another about how good her business has been this year.  She skewers the city officials in her community for tearing down dilapidated houses in a flood plain adjacent to her property and denigrates "those kind of people" who will likely move in through redevelopment efforts, while castigating the "gays" who will someday have to answer to God for their conduct. Trying my best to process her rapid-fire shotgun blasting prejudiced condemnations I began to hunch that there will be lots of "answering" to go around.

It was the goofiest half-hour of whiplashing contradictions I have been forced to sit through in a long, long time.  Our own contradiction -- for which we will have to answer in our own way -- is that we were paying for the privilege.

As we paid our bill and made our hurried exit, I said without thinking -- as a kind of automatic nicety -- that we would see her again.  But the truth of it is we won't.  The breakfast carried too high a price.

Monday, July 16, 2012

On Reinventing Reward

After spending a few hours watching her tend the small herd of jersey cows, walking along as she lead them from the pasture, one by one into the milking room, and finally into the "treat" room, we listened as she talked about her work, her lifestyle, her simple pleasures and deep laments, and finally her passionately voiced political points of view on the subject.  "We incentivize the wrong thing," she asserted.  "All our problems [we were talking primarily about health and obesity rates] would be solved if we shifted the governmental incentives from corn to grass."

I think she is guilty of hyperbole -- over-speaking to make her point -- although deep down I suspect she has genuinely been convinced by the argument.  Frankly, I don't believe in "silver bullets."  I have no confidence that "all our problems" -- whether they be church problems, economic problems, agricultural or socio-political -- would be solved by doing any ONE thing.  That said, her larger point is well-taken:  just as what we measure matters, what we reward makes a difference.

I recalled her observation recently while reading about permaculture -- that emerging set of strategies for creating a self-sustaining world.  Reflecting on the health care system of Britain, the author, Graham Bell, notes that, "Britain has a very special approach to health, with its public access to a free National Health Service.  It has often been suggested that the NHS is succeeding because of the increased case load which it has carried over the years.  This is debatable -- a successful 'health' service would treat fewer people as the population got healthier.  The NHS is a major asset to Britain, but not by making us healthier as a nation, rather as a necessary tool for people divorced from a wholesome way of life" (The Permaculture Way, p. 38)

All the recent attention to "wellness" strategies and issues notwithstanding, how much of our own culture's view on "health care" is geared toward illness mitigation rather than the prospering of healthy living?  And isn't the former but a more systemic example of the kind of enabling more particularly condemned in other behavioral venues?  Who knows how extensive the cultural benefit might be if we retooled and re-aimed our incentives  away from the invention and production of better crutches to help us limp along with and prop up our myriad bad habits, toward the habitualizing of behavioral tools for building that "wholesome way of life" of which the author spoke?

I understand the difficulty.  The former -- treating sickness -- merely takes the ingestion of a pill.  The latter -- incentivizing wholeness -- requires real change.  The cynic in me supposes that "change" will lose every time.  The dreamer in me wonders aloud, "well, who knows?  Maybe it's not too late." 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

May It Hopefully Accomplish the Good That Was Intended

So let the posturing begin.  This morning the United States Supreme Court announced their ruling that allows most provisions of the healthcare reform act (I'll not dignify with use the pejorative term more commonly applied to it) to stand.  Already, conservatives are declaring that the sky is certain to fall -- that life as we know it (or at least health care as we know it) is coming to an end and "ain't it awful."  Liberals, meanwhile, certain that the Promised Land must be near, agree:  health care as we know it is, indeed, coming to an end, and "ain't it wonderful."  Something better, they trust, can now take its place.  My guess is that neither has it quite right.

I'll stipulate that there are many details of the law that I have not taken the time to dissect and understand.  There may well be onerous elements in it that will need some second thought.  If Congress' track record on major policy initiatives on virtually any topic is any predictor, this one almost surely is not a perfect bill.  That said, I lament that access to health care for all people finds itself such a controversial topic, and am mystified how it has come to be parsed as a liberal/conservative debate. 

The Supreme Court ruling now in hand, perhaps conservatives might learn something from their liberal counterparts -- as distasteful as that may be.  A little over 10 years ago, liberals were equally sure that the sky was falling when the draconian provisions of the "Patriot Act" were passed into law.  How, they asked, did curtailed freedoms and government-intervention-on-steroids constitute "patriotism?"   Liberals spit, blustered, fumed and decried this terrible inversion of everything American stands for, and predicted the worst.  And in my humble opinion, there are indeed onerous -- even egregious -- dimensions to the law that have, in honoring them, made us slightly less "American."  But has the sky fallen?  No.  And liberals have had to live with the muffled thud that took the place of the cacophonous explosion they expected. Conservatives, now the ones predicting certain calamity, will almost surely experience the same kind of disappointing disaster.  Just it won't be as good as the liberals insist, neither will it be as bad as conservatives forewarn. 

Meanwhile liberals might want to temper their champagne cork-popping celebrations.  The ruling gives them a victory -- although only in the political alternative universe of parallel reality where anything that isn't an outright defeat is chalked up as a victory.  The Supreme Court decision is, to say the least, a backhanded validation.

I am reminded of the decision, several years ago now, that allowed nativity scenes to remain in public spaces.  Certain Christians rejoiced at the seeming victory.  A more careful reading of the decision, however, revealed that the justices' rationale rested on the interpretation that nativity scenes had become a secular symbol in our culture rather than a religious one.  That didn't seem to me like a decision I wanted to celebrate -- for all kinds of reasons.  Today's decision on health care reverberates through me in a similar way.  The Supreme Court said "yes," but for reasons that liberals will quite likely find repugnant.  Instead of truly celebrating, they might find themselves merely holding their nose and moving forward.

For opposite reasons, conservatives might do well to do the same.

In the meantime, the law was passed in the first place as an effort to do something helpful and good.  I know this is naive, but maybe we can now simply get together and hope that it actually does.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Too Busy Being Grateful to Disapprove

I will admit to being something of a purist when it comes to religious and civic celebrations, preferring to keep them disentangled and at some remove.  Mother's Day and Father's Day, for example -- important observances for greeting card companies, florists and families, to be sure, but not so much the liturgy of the church.  Yes, I am aware of the mandate to "honor your father and your mother," but Moses was speaking of a lifestyle disposition not an annual recognition.  July 4th, to cite what is often a more controversial example, is, in the same way, an important anniversary for a citizenry to observe, but I haven't yet discerned its relevance to the church.  And while in my personal life I swing open the Christmas music vault on the day after Thanksgiving, at church I held to Advent hymns during that four-week period (much to the disapproving whines of our members) and reserved the Christmas carols for the Christmas Eve service and subsequent Sundays. 

For similar reasons I have tenaciously reserved remembrance of the beloved dead for All Saints Day -- November 1 -- that ancient designation in the liturgical calendar for precisely such attention, never mind that the rest of American culture is doing so Memorial Day weekend.  Memorial Day, again, is a significantly important discipline for a citizenry, created as it was to honor those relatives and neighbors and total strangers who gave their lives in service to their country.  As I have heard their sacrifice described, they are those who left the comfort of their home to serve their country and never returned.  All Saints Day represents the church's discipline of remembering its dead, and the place of those deceased in the larger gospel story.  Memorial Day is the country's day to honor its dead and to remember their sacrifice in the nation's larger story.  It isn't that those stories are necessarily in conflict with one another; it is simply to sustain the clarification that they are, after all, separate stories.

That said, it was somehow comforting that this particular Memorial Day inserted itself into our family's grieving a scant week after the death of Lori's father precipitated it.  We couldn't help but remember -- to "memorialize".  It was still more touching that the congregation with which we have been worshiping, opting for this day rather than November's, included Jim's name in their recitation of names to be remembered, solemnized in the blossom of a rose that, retrieved for home, now graces our mantel as a petaled personification of the beauty, elegance, and fragrant bloom we have lost.

To my liturgically fundamentalist way of ordering time, they did it wrong, but it's hard to be judgmental when you are too busy being grateful.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Bittersweet Cocktail of Gratitude and Grief

It is, of course, a privilege to be welcomed into a family voluntarily.  It happens all the time, I know, but its commonality does not diminish the wonder of it.  While the lottery of genetics and birth is the first means of family expansion -- creating a non-discretionary bond of blood and obligation for which I am equally grateful -- there is something incredibly generous about this secondary benefit of marriage.  And I was blessed to be such a beneficiary.  In exchanging vows, it turns out that I not only married a wife, but in humbling ways, her family as well.  So it has been that for almost 15 years I have had the privilege of eating Thanksgiving turkeys, tearing off Christmas wrappings, singing "Happy Birthday" and sharing ordinary life with Lori's siblings and their parents.  They share, I have learned over the years, much in common with my family of origin -- albeit in larger numbers.  Married 62 years, the Alexanders not only raised 5 children of their own, they have willingly opened their arms to 4 spouses, 10 grandkids and 1 great-grandchild.  It hasn't been often that we have all been together, which is probably good.  The conversational animation of the assembled multitude routinely threatens the noise ordinance, and there are rarely openings into which to wedge a word of your own, but the parents love the chaos.

It was, however, quieter this weekend.  Grief had gathered us this time rather than celebration.  On Thursday evening, sitting in his Lazy Boy recliner, watching the Minnesota Twins beat the Detroit Lions, holding his beloved partner's hand, Lori's Dad passed away.  Our bodies, of course, aren't engineered to last forever, and he had had some health issues in recent years that reminded us all that life is fragile and precious.  But that said, this particular moment was a surprise.  The children by birth arrived first; the rest of us trailing to tend to our own details.  Eventually in each others' keeping we told stories, shared memories, made plans and, each in his or her own way, grieved. 

And gave thanks for more blessings derived from Jim than we could count, augmented in the ensuing days by neighbors, former colleagues, friends of long-standing and random community members who passed through our fellowship with their own stories of blessing.  He was, as was affirmed in the funeral, "an encourager...a mentor...a devoted and attentive friend, son and brother; a person of elegance, integrity, trustworthiness, professional excellence, and a great sense of humor."  Not a bad list.

Even though it didn't start out to be a celebrational gathering, in the end I suppose that's the way it turned out:  a celebration of a life well lived; a stone of grace tossed into a pool of relationships with ripples we are all still feeling and appreciating.

And now limping along, we get about the work of recalibrating our orbits in the absence of one of our orienting planets -- new work for most of us, and as always commenced under duress.  The celebration, however, mingles with the grief and the resulting emotional cocktail is, if not sweet, at least nourishing.  To have been known -- loved, embraced, and affirmed -- is a precious gift, indeed.  And simultaneous with our ache is our grateful,
...silent...
...awe.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Looking Back, and of course, Forward

It has been a year -- a good and tearful, exciting and anxious year.  Last year, the week after Easter, I announced my plans to leave my pastoral position at the end of August.  The small group conversations and congregational letter set in motion a series of shifts and turns and momentous new experiences that have brought us to this vantage point for looking back. 

How has it been?  Blessed.
Has it been hard?  Of course.
Do I miss anything?  Lots.
Do I regret my decision?  Not for a second.

I had an important advantage:  I wasn't merely moving away from something; I was simultaneously moving toward something different.  Like Job, I had helpful and expert friends who were sure they understood.  "You are simply burned out.  Step aside, relax, and then move to another church."  Rest and relocation, they counseled with certitude, would fix me up in no time.

The only problem was I didn't feel broken.  Tired?  Guilty.  Burned out?  Well, I don't think so but I'm not the expert.  All I know is that all I found myself thinking about in my free time was this new direction -- and my "free time" was starting to encroach on the rest of my time.  I was eager to pursue this new passion.

Do I miss anything?  Yes, the relationships both professional and social.  I haven't moved that far away, but it's different -- as it should be.  We talk occasionally, various ones from the church; we have socialized a bit.  But those I used to see multiple times in a week I now connect with once every couple of months.  That is a hole that hasn't been filled.  For 19 years these people were my life.  I miss them.

I didn't miss undertaking a stewardship campaign, or nominating officers and ministry chairs; I didn't miss budget negotiations or the annual plea for help "undecorating" the sanctuary after Christmas.  But I was surprised at how much I missed planning an observance of advent in December, and much easier Christmas Eve was than I had expected.  I missed planning special lenten services, and Holy Week services were especially poignant in a way that Easter surprisingly was not.  Part of that might be that for 30 years I struggled -- largely unsuccessfully -- to persuade congregants to enter into the fullness of the Passion story instead of simply skipping from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection.  Easter, on the other hand, always struck me as too much pressure to generate too many fireworks for too many people for whom the breathtaking Good News of the Resurrection ought to have been splendor enough. 

And I don't miss the anticipation of the post-Easter and summer slumps.  My anticipation now is getting asparagus crowns planted and the garden tilled and divining how to get the rain water from the barrels conveniently to the furrows.  Those challenges seem, frankly, infinitely more fun.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Everywhere, Everywhere Pillars of Salt

Salt, I suppose I'll have to admit, is a little bit in my blood.  But that is to get ahead of myself. 

The Bible seems diabolically confused about this whole notion of memory.  On the one hand, much is made of the importance of not forgetting.  A whole liturgy, for example, is prescribed in the Exodus preparations to insure that subsequent generations remember not only what their ancestors had been through, but what the God of their ancestors had accomplished in setting them free from slavery.  Whole mantras are composed through which legacy is sustained -- "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor..."  One of the most heart-rending Psalms ultimately takes the shape of a paean to memory -- "How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!  Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you... (137). The Lord's Supper -- the Eucharist -- the Great Thanksgiving -- is, at its very core, observed in obedience to Jesus' instruction that we remember.  "When you do this, remember..."

Remember, remember, remember. 

But then just as often there is this opposing voice.  "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old" instructs the prophet Isaiah (43:18).  And the Apostle Paul -- "...this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal..." (Philippians 3:13).  Even Jesus -- "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62).  That last one perhaps reminiscent of what might just be the most damning image of them all -- the tragic example of Lot's wife who, departing with her family for a future of unknown shape and character, looked over her shoulder to catch one last glimpse of the past and was, for her nostalgia, summarily turned into a pillar of salt.

As I hinted at the outset of this reflection, I have more than a little sympathy of Lot's wife; prone as I am, every now and then, to moisten with a little sentimental nostalgia of my own.  Hence the suspicion of salt content in my blood.

There are, after all, important things back there in the past -- precious things; instructive things.  Why all this insistence on the future?  And what ever happened to that old "those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it" piece of cautionary wisdom?

I don't finally know.  What I do know, however -- despite my tenderness toward its favorite parts -- is that "back to..." efforts inevitably create more problems than they intend to solve. Teaching church history classes the past several months, I have stumbled over too many stump speeches by one Emperor, Pope, King, reforming crusader, or another bent on re-burnishing and recreating the glories of the past, whose ultimate legacy was persecution, repression, war-mongering and small-mindedness.  Efforts to bring the past forward have always served only to set the present -- and certainly the future -- back.  Even a proud progeny, like myself, of a denominational tradition established by founders who wanted to "restore New Testament Christianity" has to admit that the admirability of their efforts was ultimately impossible to achieve. 

So when I hear preachers or politicians announce their intent to "restore America" or "bring this church back into its glory" or any other phrasing of such over-the-shoulder preoccupation/pandering, I get nervous.  Our future is not back there, no matter how good those old days were; and I don't care what any "majority" might think, there were plenty of "minorities" who didn't experience them to be all that great in the first place. 

It has often been said that the measure of a person -- or a country or an institution -- can be taken by whether it is viewed that his/her/its/their best days are behind or ahead.  People of faith might chew on that a bit.  It has always struck me as odd that we have always busied ourselves trying to replicate what God has already done instead of seeking to partner with what God is still in the process of doing.  Ultimately, though it certainly urges us to learn all we can from all that has gone before about patterns and consequences and the "mighty acts of God," biblical faith ultimately drives us forward -- to those "best days" that are still ahead; toward which God is even now "creating all things new." 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Helmeted Brave New World

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:20-23)

I have lately been reading stories about parents, concerned about possible head traumas in their toddler children, buying these cutesy little protective foam helmets.  The kids apparently wear them most of the time -- around the house where a rabid coffee table might spring out of hiding, out for walks in the yard where a mole hole could hungrily and craterously open to engulf the unsuspecting sprout; in the grocery store cart where God only knows when a box or a can could plummet dangerously from a shelf.  They even come decorated with colors and little animal ears; all, I assume, in a subliminal effort to obscure how ridiculous they really do look. 

"Yes," such a parent might chastise me, "but the world is dangerous..."
"True," I would respond.
"...and the child is precious."
"True again."
"We simply can't take any risks."
Well, that might be further than I can go.

It's natural, I know, for parents to be concerned for their kids.  I have kids of my own.  We want them safe; we want them to be successful.  We want the best for them of whatever life might have in store.  The only problem is that we don't know what that is. 

There is mounting evidence that our almost neurotic war against germs -- witness the ubiquitous dispensers of antiseptic gel -- is preventing our bodies from developing their own (superior) defenses, leaving us more vulnerable than before.  Our herculean efforts to intercept every struggle, every insult, every challenge in the name of care and self-esteem are rendering us flaccid and incapable of standing against even the gentlest breeze; unable or at least afraid to feel what is real.  Perhaps Aldous Huxley’s hero John the Savage was on to something when he recoiled from society's efforts to encapsulate everything within a cheery, protective bubble in Brave New World: “I don’t want comfort. I want God. I want poetry. I want real danger. I want freedom. I want goodness.”

 "You don't know what you asking," Jesus told the mother and her sons in the passage .  Given the ever-reliable law of unintended consequences from which we are not likely to escape, I suspect we rarely do. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hope, From the God of Second Chances

 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.(Jonah 3)

In the story of Jonah it is usually the whale who gets all the attention -- the "whale" or whatever aquatic varietal it was that gave the prophet respite from his travails; the text is altogether disinterested in precision.  Indeed, the story seems imminently more fascinated with the Ninevites' change of heart and Jonah's reluctance to invite it.  Nineveh, after all, was an evil place -- "wicked" to quote God's own assessment.  At an earlier point in my life, I colored in that rather ambiguous description in much the same way I imagined the prodigal son's "dissolute living."  Drunken orgies, sex, drugs and rock and roll; a kind of New Orleans Mardi Gras experience 24/7.  A Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Whitney Houston and Charlie Sheen sort of paradise. 

Older now, and having read beyond the anti-lusting, non-fornicational passages of scripture, I have discovered that what God seems to really find offensive -- evil and wicked, in point of fact -- has less to with personal indulgence and more to do with communal disinterest and disregard.  Despite tradition's rather salacious suppositions as to the nature of their "wickedness," the prophet Ezekiel clarified the particularities of Sodom and Gomorrah's offense: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy" (16:49). 

The prophet Isaiah described true moral piety as letting the oppressed go free, breaking every yoke, sharing one's bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our own house, clothing the naked and making ourselves present to our own kin (Isaiah 58:5-7).  Jesus said much of the same.  Despite our cultural fixation on what goes on in our bedrooms, Jesus identified disregard for the homeless, the hungry, the lonely, the thirsty, the naked and the imprisoned as the sure and certain pathway to Hell.  

The most likely diagnosis, then, of the sins of Nineveh is that the people there didn't care about each other.  Violence, in fact, is the only villainy named -- the ultimate act of putting one's needs ahead of a neighbor.  To borrow Isaiah's words, they didn't recognize their kinship.  Interesting, then, that community was the instrument of their repentance.  When they comprehended their iniquity, the King called his people together and organized a collective act.  It was to be a circle of remorse in which everyone -- native, livestock and immigrant -- would be treated as one.  Sack cloth, ashes, fasting from food and drink.  And witnessing their transformation -- from an "I" to a collectively responsible "we" -- God, too, repented. 

It made Jonah mad, of course.  Despite the fact that we depend upon second chances for ourselves, we routinely begrudge their extension to others.  "They" never seem to deserve them.  But given the level of partisan polarization so epidemic in our culture; given the moral, physical, international and economic violence we perpetrate against each other, the Ninevites' capacity to work together sounds almost Herculean. And if they can do it, maybe there is even hope for us.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Just When We Were Feeling Famished

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10)

Snow last Friday and rain today.  More of the latter is predicted tomorrow -- all of which is purposeful, if the prophet is to be trusted.  God sends the nourishment, he asserts, to accomplish rejuvenating and sustaining work, and will not be deterred until its done; though some tardiness seems to be at play.  I haven't heard an update in recent weeks but I surmise we are still well below our customary and seasonal watering.  Heavenly moisture is behind schedule.  The snowy-ice pack that in other years threatens Easter Sunday's crowded parking lots is this year a timid and blotchy veneer cowering in the shade.  There has been an eery and odd sort of mildness to the winter this year -- not altogether unappreciated in this more commonly frigid zone, but disconcerting nonetheless.  Is it a mere anomaly -- a gift of sorts as a respite between severities -- or an augur of new normals to come?  The answer is debated.

The prophet, however, is less interested in climate change than glimpses of the sure and greening work of God that reaches out and touches not simply earth and seed, but similarly the sower and the soul aching, in their own way, for signs of life.  Bread for the table, but the spirit no less. 

There is, I think, a kind of genius to the placement of lent each year in the waning weeks of winter -- days customarily gray and uninspired in which the ripenings of summer and the colors of autumn are all but ground out of memory by the grittiness of winter and the sheer exhaustion of getting by.  We are weary in these days, and wanting; anxious for blossoms, but schooled by frostbitten buds in years past not to get our hopes too high.  Late winter breeds a kind of numbness laced with low expectations that can even gray one's prayers. 

And then lent arrives to remind us that, whether or not we can discern it, the rain and the snow is accomplishing something vital...

...as is the Word of the Lord that is similarly soaking in, breaking open, and reliably -- assuredly -- giving rise to the very Bread of Life within and among us.

Just in the nick of time.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Conservative Confusion of LIberals -- or Vice Versa

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:5-7)
I confess that I no longer understand the words.  "Liberal."  "Conservative."  They don't seem to mean much anymore.  The stuff that Isaiah is talking about, for example, sounds these days like the "liberal" agenda.  But as old as they are, as deeply embedded as they are in Judeo-Christian traditon -- making them, as it were, "traditional" -- why wouldn't they be considered "conservative"?

I understand that "fiscal conservatives" lean toward the tighter fist school when it comes to uses of money -- especially public tax money.  Having just spent time yesterday with our tax preparer I am certainly sympathetic just now to the idea of lower taxes.  That said, I am rather fond of public schools, police departments, fire departments, road crews and the like, in addition to all those "regulators" so disparaged these days.  I certainly believe we should expect the best of one another, but everyone benefits from the attention of multiple eyes helping us stay tuned to what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature."  Left to our own devices, any of -- all of us -- can be tempted.  The recent/current financial challenges of the nation and world weren't brought about because of too much regulation and supervision, but arguably too little.  And darn those mean and pesky inspectors who found deadly bacteria on all those millions of eggs a couple of years ago, making life miserable for those nice chicken farmers who were just trying to eke out a profit by cutting a few hygienic corners.  The fact is, we need accountabilities, and those who hold us to them.  Even football games have referees who occasionally throw a flag.  We may not always like their calls, but I haven't met many fans who seriously advocate their absence.

But I wander far beyond my expertise.  I am the first to admit that there is much I don't even pretend to understand about public policy.  Surely there is a balance between "liberty" and "supervision," and if there are those hyper-suspicious souls who nudge us toward the latter, I suppose we should be grateful for those more "conservative" types who speak up for the former. 

But more and more often these days the word "conservative" refers to advocates of certain moral biases, which I think is admirable.  I am a fan of moral grounding and morally guided trajectories of social interaction.  So I don't really mind the way that each of the candidates currently vying for the chance to unseat the sitting President is turning cartwheels trying to convince the voting public that he is the "true conservative." What surprises and confuses me, however, is that instead of sounding like Isaiah -- or Jesus, for that matter -- advocating vigorously on behalf of the "least of those" among us, and programs that feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and clothe the naked, and bearing persistent witness to the holy imperative to remember our intrinsic connection to one another; instead of focusing the question on how "I" might best embody and further such concerns as an expression of my calling -- priorities which I would have thought would be the true conservatism -- they sound surprisingly "liberal," flagrantly casting aside these ancient and traditional concerns in favor of trying to tell others what they can and can't do, who they can and can't love, and how they ought to take care of themselves.

I find it all more than a little confusing.  I used to be pretty good with words, but I seem to be losing my grip.  Words like these -- liberal, conservative -- just don't seem to make any sense anymore.  It's enough to make a guy surrender his sesquipedalian credentials and do something radical -- or old fashioned, depending on your bias -- like volunteering at the food pantry.  Or growing something they can give away.

Perhaps this is part of my Lenten discipline:  remembering, and getting it straight.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Breaking a Spiritual Sweat


Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.  (Joel 2:12-13)

The heart is usually the safest organ in the body politic.  We protect it as though it were the Holy Grail.  Ask me to change my clothes, rearrange the furniture or paint the walls, but please don't ask me to change me.  It has become a kind of truism that when a church recognizes the need to change it opts to revise the By-laws.  My guess is that the tendency isn't confined to churches.  "All of our problems could be solved," we convince ourselves, "if we could just hit upon the right marketing plan."   Or sign out front.  Or organizational structure.  Or fresh programmatic initiative.  This is the cosmetic surgery approach to transformation -- institutional Botox -- that views our only ills as superficial. 

I shouldn't travel too far down this cynical or condemnatory path without acknowledging that externals do have significance.  What we do matters.  But as Quaker writer and thinker emphasizes, the "outside" of us needs to be a accurate reflection of the "inside" of us, reflecting a wholeness that isn't intrinsically divorced.  It isn't enough to simply tighten up the wrinkles; we won't finally nip and tuck our way into spiritual order.  Better polling data and slicker brochures won't finally suffice.  Painting the nursery, for example, isn't nearly as important as more genuinely loving the kids who are brought there.  Posting "all are welcome" on the parking lot sign won't really matter if we don't, in fact, welcome all who come -- and "all" can turn into a rather colorful lot. 

That's why Jesus relentlessly called attention to the inside as well as the outside of human faithfulness -- how we pray in the closet, not just on the street corner; what goes on in our hearts as well as our hands; what we think as well as what we say.  Or as my favorite singer/songwriter David Wilcox once derided the misguidance of his parents, "you taught us well not to kick under the table; kick under your breath instead."  That wouldn't have flown at Jesus' table. 

And that's why the prophet Joel implored the people who were trying to get on God's good side not to tear their clothing as a sign of their repentance. It was their heart that needing tailoring, not their wardrobe.

But that, alas, is hard; and usually painful.  Couldn't we just sing cheerier songs or add some octane to the ceremonial flame and fizz? 

Not really.  Hearts, not garments; the very veins of my soul, not just my social veneer.  That, I think, is the message of which the season of Lent  -- and the ashes of this Wednesday that inaugurates it -- try to remind me; and why I begin it by taking such a deep breath.  As the garden is teaching me, growing anything I might be excited to eat requires care not just of the plant but of the typically less-than-perfect soil in which it is sown, and that usually requires breaking a sweat.