Monday, December 14, 2015

Oh, For Want of a Little Collective Adulthood

I owe the various Presidential candidates an apology.  I have been thinking them nut jobs, Roman candling off one monstrous position after another, becoming increasingly cartoonish in their absurdity.  Listening to their public pronouncements they are by turns “outraged”, “defiant”, “disgusted” in the most outrageous and disgusting, reason-defying displays imaginable in a pall mall race to even more egregious extremes.

But I have been wrong.  The truth is that I have no idea what these candidates stand for.  I only understand what we, their constituents, have come to stand for.  Because we have made -- and are making -- them who they are.  They are simply trying to get elected -- that, as it were, is their only job. Attract votes.  And they no doubt recognized a long time ago what I have only recently grasped:  that anytime and every time they say something outrageous, their poll numbers go up.  We seem to love it!  Why, then, should I be surprised at this Pavlovian reciprocity that spawns ever more outlandish pronouncements?  It’s as cunningly mathematical as it is disturbingly emotional, and the result is a picture of the American people that isn't very pretty.  In fact, it's downright embarrassing.

Leafing back through the pages of our national history, our practices have not always lived up to our high ideals, but that is to be expected when one aspires to nobility.  Indeed, it is inevitable and certainly forgivable. At least we aspired to something higher.  But somehow those high aspirations have degenerated in recent years -- or generations -- into a delusional addiction to the myth of our own superiority and entitlement.  In his current television ads, one of our illustrious candidates fervently asserts, with the clear conscience of a sociopath,  that “I will never apologize for the United States of America.” Presumably because we are incapable of being wrong, the rest of the world be damned.

Actually, that isn't quite true.  We need -- and fully expect -- the rest of the world to supply our needs (cheaply), staff our dirtiest jobs (inexpensively), purchase our products and excess commodities (profitably), defer to our every whim (compliantly), aggrandize us to their own deprivation, be pleased at the privilege of doing so, and otherwise, like a good restaurant waiter, stay quietly and unobtrusively out of the way.  Otherwise, we will crush you like a bug.

Meanwhile, within our sacrosanct borders we are increasingly inured, albeit not quite comfortably, to violence, incarceration, polarization, disparagement, wealth extremes and xenophobia, with the confident self-assurance of religiosity that God, out of some inexplicable favoritism, blesses us.

Perhaps this is what depth psychologist Bill Plotkin is referring to when he describes a “culture dominated by adolescent habits and desires” in which “true adulthood...has become an uncommon achievement.”

It's tempting to say that more than ever before the world needs the church.  But as the country’s leading manufacturer of bigotry, hatred-with-a-patronizing-smile, narcissism and militarized zeal, I’m not sure how much more of today’s church the world can stand.  To be sure, there are quiet and precious exceptions -- congregations who still remember that patriotism and Christianity aren't synonymous, who valiantly and sacrificially exhibit genuine community, who eschew a merely self-congratulatory gospel in preference for one that actually sounds like “good news”.  But they sadly have more pews these days than people to fill them.  Love is simply too out-of-fashion.

Maybe what we pray for, then, is that the church remember who it is and who it is suppose to follow and emulate, and that the rest of us simply grow up.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Cooking Is Part of the Gift

It's hard to know what to do with the received Thanksgiving mythology about pilgrims and natives throwing a big potluck dinner and singing "Kum Ba Yah” -- before returning in subsequent days to their respective strategies for exterminating each other.  World-weary, hardened and more than a bit cynical about such ideals, it's a story harder to swallow than dry turkey.  Such things happen, of course, as when German and British troops set aside their weapons, climbed out of their trenches and exchanged food and carols one Christmas Eve during World War 1; but we are more accustomed to bombings and beheadings than demonstrations of humanity and extensions of grace.

And though the food and survival’s requirement of it was likely at the core of whatever else may have happened on that first Thanksgiving gathering, it has taken a more and more perfunctory part of the celebration ever since.  I don't mean that the feast is irrelevant -- indeed, “Thanksgiving” and “overeating” have become virtually synonymous in our tradition.  No, I mean that the food has become the backdrop for the occasioning of other things -- family gatherings, football, the creation of shopping lists for Black Friday, blockbuster movie releases, dragging up decorations from the basement, and melancholy for “what was but now isn't” or “wished for but hasn't yet happened.”  As for the menu itself, restaurants and grocery store catering kitchens increasingly do the heavy lifting, and guests are greeted by the scent of Lysol, Pledge, and the newest Glade scent instead of roasting turkey, simmering giblets and baking pies. 

Count me among those who considers that a loss.  Yes, I know that the relationships and the conversations matter more than the food, and I recognize that through the years far too few have borne the weight of preparations for far too many -- weary grandmothers and long-suffering housewives and surely a few culinarily adventurous men from time to time. And I know that there are plenty of individuals and couples dining alone who see little point in dirtying every dish and pan in the kitchen for themselves and the insurmountable mountain of leftovers that would surely result.  

But of course these exceptions call attention to the very relational deficits this holiday was set aside to contradict.  We have this tendency to dump on each other, and to neglect each other. The point of the holiday was never about incubating gout, or sleeping off the weight of too many carbs; “excess” was never the point.  Whatever else may have been the centerpiece of that fanciful intersection of “Indians” and pilgrims, I'm guessing the main course was their discernment of the real abundance present in the very little they had -- evidenced by relational risk and generosity and the shared fruit of lessons learned and hard labor invested.  It wasn't merely a table that was set.  It was a table set with food that meant something, set by leathered hands that had sacrificed something real to get it there.

There is an old and well-worn story about an African boy who brought his teacher a beautiful seashell  from a remote bay as a gift.  Recognizing that her student had to have travelled a great distance to find the shell and taken various risks along the way, the teacher exclaimed, “Why, it's gorgeous and wonderful, but you shouldn't have gone all that way to get the gift for me.”

His eyes brightening, the boy answered, "Long walk part of gift.” I would argue about the dishes on a Thanksgiving table.  “The hard work is part of the gift.”

I recently heard a chef describe every act of cooking as an act of faith -- faith that the recipe had been well and accurately written, faith that the raw ingredients are good, and faith that our particular marriage of ingredients and recipe and labor and time will result in something good.  Sharing that act of faith with others in this peculiar vulnerability is, I believe, part of the gift.

And so I am grateful to my mother who labored all those years making Thanksgiving Dinner for a household of males who hadn't yet figured out that we had gifts we could have brought to the table as well, beyond our eager appetites.  I am grateful for the friends who recently joined us around a table with gifts to merge with our own.  And I am grateful for the circle of siblings and spouses and parents and children willingly and lovingly committed that gastronomic act of faith in their kitchens and shared the gifts around a common table.  

It was good -- the food, to be sure, but infinitely more than that.  And I appreciate the effort.

Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Taken by the music and the smiles

I was taken by the smiles.  

We had gathered at the Norfolk Music Center in Norfolk, Connecticut; disparate threads to be woven into a tapestry of celebration by the shared affection for two friends who were exchanging vows and rings.  Having travelled from New York and D.C., California and Oregon, Iowa and Canada and Turkey (just to name the ones I know about), convened by their love in this magnificent setting, we shared meals, cottages, a mansion, and a stage.  All that, plus of course common cause.  

And so we rehearsed -- first for the wedding and then for the celebratory concert that would follow it.  The former was easy compared to the latter, though emotions might have run higher practicing the procession and the vows even if the kiss came effortlessly enough.  For the concert there was the orchestra run through, followed by a second run through with the soloists, and always the sound checks and tweaks and maneuvering of the mics. There were cues and corrections and suggestions and replays.  There was glorious music, and laughter, hard work, and always those smiles... if we were having a ball.  I certainly can't speak for everybody, and it's always dangerously presumptuous to generalize from one's own experience, but I think I'm safe to say it:  we were.  Hard work?  Yes.  Important?  Breathtakingly so.  Exhilarating, inspiring, soaringly beautiful?  Absolutely. Fun?  Faces don't light up that way for any other reason.

But here is the wonder.  The officiant notwithstanding, the people assembled on that stage were stars -- Grammy award winners, YouTube sensations, chart-topping recording artists, leads from Broadway, London, the Met; veterans of Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Presidential Galas, movie soundtracks and more; vocalists, instrumentalists, tap dancers, composers, arrangers and a groom/conductor.  Yet there was a selfless collegiality that transcended the individual star power.  There was playful banter.  Breaks were filled with laughter.  And when the songs were being played, delight was in the faces.  The grins were everywhere as they played.  Soloists took their spotlight moments, and then effortlessly receded into harmony role or backup chorus as another took the lead.  No assemblage of peacocks, this was an artful community manifesting the homily's message that we need each other.  From the tinkling wind chimes to the piercing trumpet, from the lush strings to the haunting flute, the tapping feet to the Hammond B3, from the rhythm of the drums to the intoxicating voices, we need each other.  In this case we could hardly get enough of each other.

And as evidenced Saturday night, when we give the gifts we bring...

...we make music.  Goose-pimpling music.

And I suppose we just can't help it:  we smile.

Especially me.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ride on Buckaroo

I've always been drawn to September.  Whatever the distinctive allures of the summer months, their overriding heat has long since leaned me longingly toward September’s moderating mercury.  Even as an adult, long out of the classroom, the resumption of school bells feels like an inner pitch fork recalibrating life back into tune.  All that, plus two marital births for which I am eternally grateful – my parents', on the 12th, and my own, on the 20th. 

And then, of course, there is my actual birthing – 59 years ago today.  Never mind the more recent negative connotations thrust upon September 11, I prefer not to associate my birthday with terrorism but with the raindrop’s  unspeakable gratitude for the privilege of joining the ocean.  While certain theological perspectives might take a different view, in a purely existential sense it is better to be than not.  So, here I continue to be – a sentient, reasonably intelligent, lovingly related, essentially healthy, purposefully and productively occupied and profoundly happy guy. 

It has been a pivotal decade, these 50’s now entering their final lap.  Raucously begun in a rented hall surrounded by family and friends and the celebratory music we exuberantly made, its midsection was marked by a vocational shift from preaching to farming, accompanied by a functional shift from work for which I had been technically trained and had practiced for decades to work about which I knew absolutely nothing, and the requisite residential shift from a townhouse in the city to 10-acres in the country.  Here, with my ear to the ground to listen for what the soil might teach me, I have toiled along with seeds and weeds, deep breaths and wide curiosities, chicken coops and the still-surprising harvests – cumulatively negating the reality of less money with the experience of greater wealth. 

All that, plus the intuitive sense that, as with our previous endeavors,  we are scratching around out here on something that is important.

Which is to say that I am blessed beyond merit and measure.  I am confessionally confident that I too-seldom inventory and acknowledge the real gifts that are my blessing’s raw materials – nurturing parents, a bolstering brother, a loving and sustaining wife, forgiving and inspiring kids, buoying mentors and colleagues and friends – but I am determined to get better at that.

In the meantime there is good work to do – seeds to sort, tomatoes to pick, compost to turn, chickens to feed and eggs to gather…

…59 years to celebrate and remember…

…and life still yet to live.

Happy birthday, me.  Blow out the candles and then giddy up, buckaroo.  Get back out on the trail.  Time's wasting and there are miles to ride before you sleep.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Dread, A Date, And the Luckiest Guy Alive

I haven't a clue why she agreed to the date.  She was busy with a new and politically unpopular job that would demand all of her considerable skill and winsomeness.  That, and she was weary of "relationships" from which she had only recently disentangled herself.  She was strong, independent, stepping onto the playing field for which she had spent a lifetime preparing.  Her plate was full.

But this friend kept pushing her. 

And this guy kept calling her. 

I wasn't trying to be pushy.  In fact, I had my own practical and emotional resistance -- teenage kids, a consuming job of my own, and relational baggage.  For perhaps the first time in my life I was beginning to live on my own with some sense of peace and stable center of gravity -- becoming a "self" in a way that I hadn't before understood the need for, with much more work to do.

But I, too, had this friend pushing me.  The same mutual friend who worked with her, and that friend's husband who worked with me.  And so I called, if for no other reason than to satisfy the obligation.  But she never answered.  I tried multiple days, at multiple times but without success.  Eventually, I left a timidly flimsy message with a call-back number I had every reason to believe she would never use, and turned my thoughts to other things.

And then the phone rang. 

We had a nice chat.  We made an obligatory date for dinner after mutually and forthrightly -- and quite verbally -- reducing the expectations to zero.  The day eventually arrived and I rang her doorbell -- exactly 19 years ago today.  August 31.  I haven't a single recollection about the food, but it was a good dinner; one that would prove transformative.  I remember calling my brother the next day and confessing with cautious dread , "I've had a better date than I really wanted to be having at this point in my life."

The rest, as often noted, is history.  We now share a doorbell -- and almost 18 years of marriage.  We have matured, moved to one house and now a farm; we have aged a little, and grown.  The best part, of course, is that we have grown together, into each others keeping.  We flesh out mutual values, nurture shared dreams, and supportively encourage respective ones.  We laugh a lot, dab occasional tears, sooth frustrations and sort out challenges as best we can.  We don't always get it right, but determinedly carve out the space to repair what goes wrong.  We talk.  We listen.  We roll up our sleeves and work up a sweat, doing what we can to feed and flex the things that make for life. 

And tonight we will return to that same restaurant as we have through the years, and I will gaze into those same sparkling eyes and feel giddy all over again.  Like I do everyday.  Lovesick, proud and humbled all at the same time.  And it will strike me all over again how grateful I am to those persistent friends for nudging me into becoming the most fortunate guy on the planet. 

Happy First Date Anniversary, Sweetheart.  I have loved these years; love even more the prospect of those to come. 

But before dinner, don't we have some weeding to do in the garden?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Familiar Faces -- Along With A Few We Had To Think About

“Do you remember the time…?” He asked.
“No," I replied, "that doesn’t ring a bell.  But surely you remember,” I continued.

“No,” he said with puzzlement in his voice. “I don’t recall.”

And so it went throughout the weekend, memories broadcast on different frequencies with occasional but blessed intersections, reassembling a composite narrative that depended on our respective scraps. We had gathered in our hometown for our 40th high school reunion – reconvened from all manner of far-flung locales and as near as the other side of town. For some it was a congregation of familiar and routine faces; for others of us it was a test of time and imagination to see who we could recognize. I had prepared – passing the flight time with my senior yearbook in my lap, flipping the pages and studying faces and marveling over the litany of names I had long-since forgotten.

I needn’t have bothered, though the silent reminiscences were warming. We all spent the evenings stealing furtive glances at the name tags emblazoned with our names and 40-years younger faces. We were all in the same boat and half the fun was identification. For some it was no challenge at all – as if time had frozen and they were just stepping out of the gym from the pep rally. Others required more scrutiny and veiled disbelief. Time, we have always known, doesn’t handle us with an equal hand but sometimes the truth of it can be startling; time and, of course, experience. Some of our roads along the miles since moving our tassels have been pot-holed and twisting while others have been scenic and smooth. Griefs have etched more than a few faces. Disappointments and dicier choices had left their marks as well. We asked about parents and children and more than a few grandchildren. We wondered about those who were missing, and grieved those who will never be with us again. We remembered teachers (reconnecting with a couple of treasured ones) and milestones and mischiefs and moments; we traced the lines of social boundaries to which we once adhered, and opted to step over more than a few. We scanned the room for loves lost and won, and we caught up with stories written since.

But mostly we willingly and warmly offered ourselves again into each other’s keeping, giving thanks through the stories and hours and appetizers and blaring songs of the DJ for that magically formative season 40 years ago and more that first introduced us to each other in the hallways and classrooms and extra-curriculars of Cooper High School and forged us into the “Class of ’75”.

In case I didn’t say it often enough, or loud enough for all to hear, it was good to see you. It was, to be more fully transparent, a joy. You folks have been some of the most important people of my life, and I am grateful – for the times back then and the hours this weekend. No telling how smart and good looking and totally recognizable we’ll all be at our 50th.

Stay well.

Keep in touch.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Happy Birthday, Mother

Today is my mother's birthday.  I'm embarrassed to admit that I lose track of the exact number, but it probably won't hurt her feelings for that piece of data to go unmentioned anyway.  Let's just say that she is older than a couple of decades or so...and leave it at that.

Born and reared in New Mexico, she found her way to Texas in pursuit of a Christian Education degree from T.C.U.  It was there that she met a slightly older seminarian whom she married, and with whom she launched into a life together and a companionable ministry of her own.  While he spent time in the pulpit, she spent time in all those classic ways -- in the choir loft, at the organ bench, in the Sunday School classroom and ginning up the Women's Fellowship.

Somehow they found the time to start a family which, as she later acknowledged, she considered to be her primary vocation.  I was her second and final round in the maternity ward, my brother preceding me by a couple of years.  She might have preferred a daughter along the way, but she never intimated that we were anything but the answer to her dreams.  Besides, she had prior experience with boys -- growing up as she did with both an older and a younger brother.  So she was prepared for testosterone, and made the best of  it, although it hasn't hurt our standing that in addition to attentive daughters-in-law and a couple of cherished grandsons, both of us have offered up granddaughters to fill the feminine void.

But as I say, if we two sons hadn't been her first choice no one in the universe could have known it. Never  have there been two more adored boys, from childhood through adulthood.  We could do no wrong, even though we often have.

She was our first piano teacher, sitting us down at the keyboard around the second day after we were discharged from the maternity ward.
Right after we got home from Sunday School.
If we weren't the most attentive students, it should cast no shadow on her teaching.  We simply had other things we thought we needed to be doing.
Nonetheless she was a happy meeting of firmness and indulgence.  She set the kitchen timer on the piano and insisted that we practice until it rang, and pretended not to notice when we advanced the needle on the dial to abbreviate the torture.  Long after she handed us off to more "professional" teachers, she insisted that we practice and play the "serious" music we were assigned, while also promising to buy us any popular sheet music we wanted to learn.

That's been pretty much the story:  tough and tender, inseparably intertwined.  Our strictest overseer; our biggest cheerleader, encouragement, publicist and support -- through heartsong and heartbreak; through aspiration and humiliation; through accolades and disappointments, contentments and unsettlements she has been there to nudge, console, embrace and celebrate.

She might move a little slower these days than in some previous years, but her heart still beats as adoringly and warm, and she has never put down her maternal megaphone.  She is still close by in the bleachers, cheering us all on, enjoying our little victories even more than we do.  How great is that!

So today we'll do a little celebrating on her behalf -- in thanks for her birth, in thanks for those to whom she has given birth, and for all the many and vivid ways she bears witness to the image of God alive and well among us.

Happy Birthday, Mother!