can you keep it all afloat. -Audre Lorde
For a number of years, it was common for me to have forty or more people to Thanksgiving dinner. I cooked and refused help in the food preparation, except for desserts. I’ve always thought of baking as a science. And I like to cook artistically. A little of this and a little of that keep things stimulating for the cook and those who will consume the food. I loved the look on the face of my Yankee friends when they dug into the turkey stuffing and they crunched on pine nuts and twirled mozzarella on their tongue as it dripped from the fork. Exasperation and exaltation all in the same dish!
I loved preparing for all those people and I thought about each of them as I sketched out the menu. Jonathan never knew a Thanksgiving without creamed onions - the boring plain white sauce with the taste and texture of wallpaper paste. When he tasted mine with mustard and tarragon at first he was confused. It was not what he expected. But then he started laughing as he kept shoveling those baby piquant onions into his mouth. “Who knew creamed onions could be exotic?” he asked. Mind you he was in his mid-eighties and still thought his wife to be “dolled up” when she put on a subtle pink shade of lipstick.
I thought deeply of and prayed for Kathy as I prepared dinner. She still grieved the death of her son, Andrew, the 27-year-young chef, so found out from another son of hers about Andrew’s signature yams with a touch of spicy chili pepper and freshly squeezed orange juice. None of the marshmallow sweet stuff! After tasting them, Kathy got up from the table and kissed me. She thanked me for inviting Andrew to table. I cried with her … and am now as I remember.
As much as I loved preparing food for all those people, I also disliked it for a number of reasons. Namely, my memories always got in my way. I remembered working for restaurant owners who refused to close on Thanksgiving and still felt the resentment for their greed. I remembered closing the restaurant I managed to the public and opening it to the homeless and being perturbed when one of the homeless families came to the restaurant in a new Lincoln Continental. I also didn’t like the fuss that a few of my friends who helped in the dining room made over the table settings and serving dishes. With forty people crammed around two tables, matching silverware should have been the last thing upon which the guests focused.
I have to admit that, for me, the best part of feeding forty people for Thanksgiving was the preparation: the sounds of the knives on the cutting board chopping away; the sizzle of the duck fat as it was rendering in the skillet; the buzzing of the Cuisinart as it processed chickpeas and garlic; the aroma of the apples; the beauty of the squash flesh; and the tingle in my eyes from the shallots’ mincing. Rightly or wrongly, the sensations I experienced in the preparations did more for my soul than seeing the guests’ delight as they consumed the food - probably as much as the conversations as we washed dishes and reflected on the day.
In seminary, Bob Pazmiño told us the first day of An Introduction to Christian Educationclass that the love was in the preparation - love of God, love of God’s people, love of the work and love of the end product.
I love people so much that I really don’t care much about stuff or place or tradition where Thanksgiving dinner is being served. I don’t even care what’s on the menu. Let’s go vegetarian and forget the turkey! But as a cook, I love every step that comes before the guests’ arrival - even more than I love feeding them. What a contradiction!
Gregor, AbbyDog and I are going to cottage in the woods of Maine for Thanksgiving this week by ourselves. Gregor and I are both worn out and need quiet time. We need to refuel our lagging introvert personas and reconnect with each other. I need to hear the still small voice of God that is most pronounced in silence. We plan to go for a hike on Thanksgiving morning and nap all afternoon. We’ll cook a simple supper on the grill at night and sit by the fire.
That’s odd. As I write about our plans, I already miss all the people. I won’t miss all the fuss. It really shouldn’t matter. I have so much for which I am thankful, so very much. I am grateful, beyond words for my ministries. I am grateful for my family - my biological family who I miss being with every holiday and my family of choice. More than anything, I am grateful to God who seems far more mysterious than ever, yet as intimate as my breath.
“Love is the only emotion that enhances our intelligence.”
When you think about it, it’s almost impossible to perfect the teachings of Jesus in practice.
Most of us assent to His message, at least in principle,
But it’s so hard to follow day in and day out –
With having to haul around crosses and all.
Forgive … who?
Bless … when?
Love … them?
Humble … myself?
We can at least try hard – really hard.
Those exercises not only make us better people.
We look better.
The past is death’s, the future is thine own.
Take it while it is still yours, and fix your mind,
not on what you may have done long ago to hurt,
but on what you can now do to help.
~ Percy Shelley ~
“How does one deal with that sort of battering to the soul?” That’s the question I ask when I see this man – drudging off to work each morning, walking like a 90 year old with a dowager’s hump, or shuffling his feet just to keep up with his daughter, who is always on the run. She never knew her mother and too seldom sees the joy of her father that a little girl should see.
It took me months to introduce myself to this sullen man. I’m exposed to plenty of heartache in my vocation. I didn’t want to seek out more. But when I moved into the building full-time, I couldn’t deny the fact that he’s my neighbor. Through the grapevine, I knew that his wife died just after childbirth. For the last year, without knowing his story, you could see that the man’s world was in ruins. He was disheveled. He mostly looked stunned. Never smiling except at his little girl. His dogs would wrap him and his daughter’s stroller up in their leashes. He remained unaware until he tripped, or until the wheels of the stroller stopped their forward motion and his.
In the common area, I learned his name: Bill. And his daughter: Amanda. And his deceased wife: Christina. And more of their story, at least the part he could share with a stranger-turned-neighbor / fellow-dog walker.
I don’t ask many questions of people like this. Mostly I listen. But I did ask Bill how it is to be in this state; how he does it; how he goes on; how he can raise a daughter, work full time, keep up with two dogs, and maintain sanity.
“What is sanity?” he asks with those tired, distant eyes. “I don’t know how I do it,” he says. “I just do it. I live for today. Sometimes I realize half way to work that I have the wrong shoe on the wrong foot. I shrug and change them and I keep moving. I have to. I can’t look back. I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want to have regrets for marrying Christina or having Amanda. They’re the best things that ever happened to me. I still have memories of my wife to cherish. I still get to cuddle with my daughter and we make each other smile and laugh and sometimes cry. I want more from life, and know it will come. I am getting by. I got through yesterday and today is almost gone. Amanda and I have enough for now.”
Bill lives for today and does what he has to do, and more. Especially for Amanda. He takes her to the gym. I get to roll the big exercise balls around the floor with her. We both follow Bill’s rule: no kicking inside! She giggles and explores. She has a full life for a toddler. She has Dad and a community, the world to explore. She has now.
Bill and Amanda remind me to stay present. To stop looking back. To walk in faith.
Look at what you have today. Now. Don’t freak out about tomorrow. God will give you what you need. Don’t forget what’s right in front of you. Now. Put one foot in front of the other. Live for today. Take it one day at a time.
Bill and Amanda remind me to live for now because today will be gone soon enough. And we don’t really know what comes next.
Thanks be to God.
We ought to see more photos like this in the news. They are out there.
An Afghan nomad kisses his young daughter while watching his herd in Marjah, Helmand province, on October 20, 2012
AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus
Afghans love their children just like Americans do!
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once it a while
you could miss it.” Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
I had to pause this morning as I realized how much I already miss summer. I paused because today was the first day in four months that I didn’t have locally grown tomatoes to complement my breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Sure, I can go shopping for local apples or pears, but they don’t taste perky, like summer. And I miss baseball – the extended summer pause.
Thank you, God for baseball and those bearded fellows who wouldn’t stop till they got back on top.
I had to pause last night because I have this sense of grief about the time change. I resent waking up in the dark and coming home every day in the dark. I have to pause because I need to be intentional in getting outside to fight the winter doldrums, even though my mind says it’s safer inside where it’s warm. I know that if I don’t get out, I’ll get the blues. So, I walk, hike, and run when I can to stay buoyed by the reminder that the spirit is embodied in this vessel of clay.
Thank you, God, for this fragile vessel.
I had to pause last week to get well. Illness does not wait until one is ready for it. I had to pause this week to grieve – again … still – for the saints I miss so much. I have to pause more often to be in God’s light, which I need to be reminded is different than sunlight. When the grass withers, when the leaves fall, when everything outside seems drab and dead, it takes more effort to see the blessings, at least for me. But they are there: in luminous fungi, in the faint salted smell of the wind, in the wicked bite of the cold, in the crisp northern air and even the shroud of these dark nights.
Thank you, God that life is ever-changing and that we have to work to make it work.
I have to pause this time of year because if I don’t notice where I am going, what I am doing, and Who is with me, I may think that it’s all a drag or that this life is all my doing. But it’s not mine. It’s the One who is Most Present, especially in The Pause.
Thank you, God, for the Pause.
"But to obtain these gifts, you need more than faith; you must also work hard to be good, and even that is not enough. For then you must learn to know God better and discover what God wants you to do." - 2 Peter 1:5
Yesterday I preached on Jesus’ parable in Luke’s gospel where the Pharisee and tax collector went to pray in the temple. One gave thanks that he was not a sinner … like other people he knew. The other asked for God’s mercy knowing that he had committed many sins, hurt others and probably felt less than connected to God for his errant ways.
Prior to my prayer and preparation for that sermon, I was tempted to use this column to rail against a man who zoomed past me on the interstate last week. I have had time to process the situation and my thinking seems to be shifting.
I was driving in Boston, going southbound on Interstate 93. It was 8:30 on Sunday morning and I was on my way to church to lead worship, teach confirmation class and connect with the congregation after a joyous wedding celebration from the previous day. Maybe I was full of myself, feeling all high-and-mighty, and self-righteous. I probably was. Nonetheless I was stunned by a late model Cadillac zooming past me going at least 95 miles per hour. The driver was an older white man. He had a cigar in his mouth. And his car bumper sported a sticker that read “Choose Life.”
Now, I am reluctant to even speak of this man … at least until the memory of the praying / judging / self-righteous / pompous Pharisee from Luke 18:9-14 is a bit more distant and seems less like me. But I have to tell you that the first thing I thought was, “You’re a smoker, recklessly driving a gas-guzzling tank at 95 miles per hour and you are touting a faith that says, ‘Choose life.’ Does that only mean that we should hate abortion and those who practice it? Or does it mean that we should work to hold sacred all of human life, health, and welfare? Are you holding life sacred now?”
I smoked for 30 years and know that smoking will kill you and may sicken those around you if they inhale your smoke. Maybe this guy doesn’t know that. I drove a Cadillac for a few years in addition to a few other big cars and trucks. I know that the ozone of our precious planet is breaking down and causing climate change. Most of the scientific community believes this is caused primarily from the industrialized world’s excessive consumption of fossil fuels. Maybe this guy didn’t know that US citizens burn more gas than any other nation in the world … by a long shot … and that his Cadillac has a terrible mile-per-gallon fuel consumption ratio.
Maybe, too, I don’t know what he knows. He may have been driving a car that was converted to run on spent vegetable oil. He may have been an OB / GYN who performed abortions and is now repentant because he feels he caused harm to others. He may have been a professional sports car driver and going 95 MPH is slow considering his skills and dexterity.
Maybe what he was doing on the highway is none of my business – even though he passed within 2 feet of my car. Who am I to judge? The main thing this incident got me thinking about is the need to have a faith that I can practice or at least a faith to which I aspire. I rarely speak about abortion because I am against abortion, but for a woman’s right to choose and for there to be legal, sanitary medical facilities for such procedures.
As for the less than charitable things I thought about that man, I ask God’s forgiveness. As for my own self-righteousness, I ask God’s forgiveness. As for the consistent practice of my own faith, I am dubious. I know there are holes. I am an American. I consume more resources than people in every other country on the planet. I am responsible, or at least partly responsible, for killing off endangered species and even endangering the welfare of future generations of human beings – even as I drive an “economical” Prius … which still spews many pounds of CO2 each year into the atmosphere and even though I now only live in a one room apartment. The standard should be zero emissions for cars and homes, not what the government deems “acceptable.” “Thou shall not kill” is not on a sliding scale of human acceptability.
So, after thinking about this man who speeded past me on I-93 last Sunday in the Cadillac that had a “Choose Life” bumper sticker, I believe he may have been an angel sent by God to help me think more deeply about my prodigal nature, lifestyle, and the choices I make.
This life of faith would be so much easier if we didn’t have to think … or pray … or repent … or see ourselves for who we really are. And it would be easier if we could just get to the point where we are “green,” using renewable energy resources, not having to drive so much, and have learned adequately how to live within our energy means. Until then, we will have to work hard and we will have to experience some discomfort as we adjust our lifestyles. I’m praying for more role models to help show me the way … and for a few more angels while I wait for the role models.
[Jesus] told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32
I was recently introduced to a body-modification artist. No, not a plastic surgeon but a piercing and tattooing specialist. His name is William and he was a friend of a friend. After spending an evening with him, I am now proud to call him my friend.
It’s funny. When I first met William, he didn’t accept my hand, which I extended for him to shake. Rather, he embraced me in a delicious hug and said, “You’re a friend of Joe’s. That’s enough to warrant a hug. But I’ve heard about you and did some research about your life. I am so glad to finally get to meet you in person.” After the initial shock and, um fear, of being in the presence of such a large, inked and hole-y / pierced man, I began to relax.
I heard William describing all the same aspirations I hear from others in our community of faith. I heard him talk about meditating each day. I heard him talk about sending healing energy to his patrons, friends, and family. I heard his delight as he talked about the privilege of hearing so many peoples’ stories and the longing of their hearts. I heard him talk about the honor of being able to translate their story into body art, which for him and most of his clients a visible sign of their spirit. I heard him talk about his quest for enlightenment and connection with the Energy of the universe. I hear him talk about his family as the apple of his eye.
I left him that evening wondering if the church has become so determined to maintain the image of respectability that we have forsaken people like William. I left praying for a revival in the church – a revival that attracts the likes of William and his friends. There may be a few of them in our churches, but mostly they have found their own way to God. Mostly, I discovered, they have pursued salvation in community, but outside the ideals that have scared off so many – even from within our own ranks of the church. I left William that evening thinking that the church needs to be engaging people who are further out from the fray than we are comfortable.
While I believe we should continue to evangelize in our own neighborhood, I think we should be more engaged with people who intentionally pursue alternative lifestyles. We should promote church events at tattoo parlors and share the Good News at piercing studios when we are welcomed. And if we are not welcomed, we should look in the mirror with suspicion. If that sounds strange to you, you haven’t been afforded the blessing of getting to know people like William, learning from their less-orthodox ideas and how much we church folks have in common with them – at least those who are passionate about following the way of Jesus of Nazareth, the radical rabbi, prophet and healer.
Granted, those who appear to shop at Macy’s and L.L. Bean may look a little less threatening to John and Suzy Q. Public than an inked and pierced ragamuffin, but generally the opposite is true. How many people with dreadlocks have been responsible for bankrupting pension funds through financial malfeasance? How many people with pierced eyebrows were holding the federal government hostage throughout the last few weeks? How many tattoos did you count on the “evangelists” who carrying a sign that read, “God Hates Fags” when they picketed military funerals?
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Jesus taught us that the kingdom of God would be found in the most unlikely places and unlikely people. Maybe we need to look beyond what we consider “respectable.” Maybe we need to revisit the scriptures to see ourselves exposed in small and large ways – as both faithful lovers and those who have yet to “get it.”
Oh, and whether or not you like hip hop, check out this video which compresses the gospel story into a 4 minute rap. It may change your mind about presenting the gospel to people with dread locks, tattoos and piercings … or who we think is suitable to present it to us.
I have witnessed more and more people ranting about their lack of privacy nowadays. We are told that the government can monitor our phone calls, internet traffic, personal expenditures, and other comings and goings. Quite frankly, I don’t care that the government has access to any of my personal information like this. Sure, it’s none of their business, but I don’t care what they know about my life.
What I do care about, though, is the information that is made available to corporations and other organizations that are mining information about me from the internet. In the last general election, I did a lot of homework. A couple of months before the election, I went to Republicans’ and Democrats’ web sites to look at platform statements, financial disclosures, and more. I wanted to be as informed as possible before I voted. Well, within a few days I was deluged with ads from more politicians than I even cared to know about – people running for offices outside of my home district. And their emails saturated my inbox – from candidates I had previously supported to those I thought were extremists who should never have run for office.
This happens with commercial enterprise, too. I did some online shopping recently for a sport coat. Now, every time I go onto Facebook or check one of my online email accounts, I see ads for sport coats. Maybe the marketing folks think I have an endless budget for sport coats because they are often imbedded in web pages such as NECN.com or The Boston Globe.com. They have almost enticed me to click on the ads to see if I could have gotten a better deal, but I know if I do, it will mean more ads.
I’m reminded of a recent taxi ride when I told the driver that I would like to pay with my debit card. In his otherworld accent, he replied, “Do what the TV tells you to do.” I’ve thought on that a lot since I heard him say it and it seems to get to the heart of where our country has evolved; from independent-minded, community-bound people who care for each other to consumers that are poked and prodded to make decisions by subliminal and overt media messages.
Last week when I was at a sandwich shop, there was a television blaring while I was ordering. A commentator on a news station was virtually screaming about whose fault the government shut down was. Three of the five men sitting at the lunch counter started swearing at the political party the person reading the news / “talking head” was blaming. I was offended by the words that they used, but more surprised at how efficient news media have become in fanning the flames of dissention and political posturing. Those three men were literally doing what the TV told them to do: get upset, take it out on your “opponents,” but don’t think for yourselves.
It seems to me that, the more we are pummeled by the media, the more we need the church. The church keeps us grounded in eternal questions and in time-tested sources - namely the Bible. The church keeps us grounded in community. Spewing vitriol in church is bound to offend others, sometimes even those who may share the same positions. The church also calls us to higher ground – to see the ridiculous nature of the media compared to the profound needs of the world, particularly those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”
While I don’t want to go back to the day when social status was dependent upon religious observance and conformity, I have this prayer / dream about getting ready to exit a taxi cab and having the driver tell me, “Do what Jesus tells you to do.” My prayer also is that one of these days the pendulum swings back a bit to the other side, when we can have public discussions that end with common ground, when commercial interests have less influence on public behavior, and people take more responsibility for their own actions rather than blaming the other side.
[Jesus] cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’
The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth,
and his face wrapped in a cloth.
Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
October 11 is National Coming Out Day. Since the 1980’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women and men have been encouraged to take a leap of faith to “come out” to family, friends, co-workers, pastors, counselors, and other allies. The idea behind such a day is to claim liberation from living life in the closet, to stop hiding behind secrets, and to end lying about oneself to feel safe. The coming out process takes courage and love – love for others and love for self.
The reality is that life in the closet is not safe. Closeted people have higher incidences of suicide, risky sexual behaviors, substance abuse and other struggles with mental health than those who live “out.” The only people who benefit from staying in the closet are those who seek to oppress the feelings and expressions of liberation. When a person comes out, she comes out not just to others, but to herself. Self-esteem is likely to increase. There is even the possibility for self-actualization. The process is like coming back from death, shedding the grave clothes and receiving a chance to live with resurrection freedom.
Now, I know plenty of people who have come out and not all of them are queer. (As a gay man, I use this term to identify all people who would rather not be identified as “straight” or “normal.”) When I served a congregation that was going through the Open and Affirming discernment process, or ONA as we call it in the United Church of Christ, I told them that they, mostly straight people, were as queer as any gay people who would dare to cross the threshold of the church. And I still believe that. Most devout Christians who truly seek to follow the way of Jesus are queer in the traditional sense of the word. Jesus-loving Christians are peculiar and often anti-establishment. And I would posit that the ones who deny their off-beat Christian lifestyle are oppressed just the same as closeted gay people. They need to come out.
People who live life in the closet, whether a fearful transgender man or a woman who is covering up her husband’s abuse of her children are bound by some distorted image they have of what is true and right and life-giving. So are all those who have desires to live more openly than they presently do – whether it’s related to sexuality or not. Our deepest desires need healthy outlets and expression so that we can live true to ourselves and true to the God who made each of us as individual works of art.
Jesus told us, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). I don’t think Jesus wants us living in a world filled with lies and distortion. I know I don’t want to live in a world where my freedom is restricted. Do you? If not, then please help encourage closeted people to come out. And if you’re closeted, please come out. It’s safer than you think. You likely have a community of faith to support you nearby (http://www.ucc.org/find/). Your truth may set us all free!