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all apologies

3

Last summer, Ginger and I got to go to Dyersville, Iowa and visit the farm where Field of Dreams was filmed. The baseball diamond is still there, between the house and the cornfield. We were two of only a handful of people walking around, so we played catch, me on the pitcher’s mound and she at home plate, for about fifteen magical minutes. We didn’t take pictures of it, we just threw the ball back and forth, laughing and talking and imaging ourselves among the players that found redemption on that field thanks to Ray Kinsella.

As we played, and then as we drove away, I thought about Terrence Mann’s words as he encouraged Ray not to sell the farm and destroy the diamond:

People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

These days, it seems, we are in the process of erasing America in ways that feel unprecedented to me. Actually, erase is not a strong enough word, because replacing words on a blackboard is a reasonably easy proposition. The emotional and spiritual damage of our time feels more like the erasure of American helicopters spewing napalm across the Vietnamese landscape or firebombing Dresden–an erasure that leaves little more than ashes and grief–and we haven’t even begun to talk about the incessant repetition of the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the relentless ranting on social media that is as claustrophobic as it is caustic and cynical.

This week started off well. Monday was my mother-in-law Rachel’s birthday. Monday was also Truck Day, which is the day the trucks leave Fenway Park to haul all the gear the Red Sox will need for Spring Training. Monday was also the day that it became apparent that Mitch McConnell had made sure the Senate would not call witnesses in the impeachment trial and the Republicans would vote in lock step. Tuesday was the State of the Union address, which I intentionally avoided, though I could not avoid the chatter that followed. Wednesday the Senate voted to acquit Trump, which means he will be even more sure he can do anything he wants. As I read the news (I have long since quit watching or listening) and made the mistake of reading a few Facebook threads, I struggled to name my feelings. I was grateful for manuscripts to edit that pulled my focus to better things. But even with them, by late afternoon, my mind was tired, my heart was heavy, and I needed to walk. I met Ginger and we wandered through neighborhoods for about an hour and talked, which has always been a good way to find myself.

I told her I wasn’t depressed. As long as we both have lived with my depression, we know that when it dominates my life, I am incapacitated. I said I felt despondent, even despairing, but not hopeless. I was angry, and I knew if I didn’t figure out where to aim it, it was going come out sideways. I told her I wished I could stand on the Green and scream swear words at the top of my lungs, but I knew that would frighten dogs and children and probably wouldn’t do much for her as the pastor of the Church on the Green; it probably wouldn’t do much for me either. I had considered getting off of Facebook, because what Facebook aims at me is part of the problem, but that would mean losing a lot of important connections. As we walked and talked, I came to some decisions: I would cancel my news subscriptions, delete those apps from my phone, and only go on Facebook to post poetry or blog posts and to check in with specific people.

Rachel had a friend visiting for her birthday, so we all went to dinner and then, when we got home, I built a fire. We were sitting in the living room having a lovely conversation, when I noticed Rachel was scrolling through her phone. (Remember the part where I said things come out sideways?)

“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Then put your phone down and talk to your friend.”

In my mind, I was playing with her. Ginger told me later that it didn’t come across that way. Just typing the first few sentences of our encounter (oh, yes–I didn’t let up; there was more) makes it apparent to me–again–that my tone was less than jovial. Ginger stopped me before I did too much damage and I left the room, not yet understanding what was going on inside myself, but realizing I needed a time out, as it were. I ended up at my computer, writing my post about stepping away from Facebook.

“Tonight,” I wrote, “I feel like something broke inside me.” Then I went to bed.

This morning I had a clearer picture of the damage I had done, first, because Ginger had written a compassionately confrontative text before she went to bed and, second, because my insight had had time to catch up to my emotions. I couldn’t yell on the Green, so I exploded in the living room. Since everyone was still asleep, I wrote texts to Rachel and Ginger to apologize before I left the house for work. As I walked across the Green in the morning mist, I realized what had pushed me over the edge: the other thing that happened Wednesday was the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers.

Mookie Freakin’ Betts. The best player in a Red Sox uniform that I have seen in person. The one I hoped would stay in Boston his whole career and break all the records. The one whose name is on the back of my Red Sox t-shirt. How could baseball remind me of all that once was good and that could be good again if they traded Mookie Betts? I was throwing bean balls at Rachel because the Sox traded Mookie.

The root of the word apology is apologos–story, account. To apologize is to retell the story of the damage we have done and then, perhaps, to rewrite the ending. I wanted to tell a different story about how I express my anger than I took it out on Rachel and her phone.

The word apology is used theologically, in its oldest form, to mean a justification or a defense, which leans into an overarching judicial metaphor for life, which is not a helpful one, for the most part. Justification also means setting things right. When lines on a page are justified, in printer lingo, they are ordered in relation to one another. The prophet Micah said we are called to love justice, do kindness, and walk humbly with God. To apologize, then, is to set myself right with those around me in kindness and humility to keep the story going instead of digging in and going nowhere.

I’m glad I wrote that last sentence down. I’m sure I will need to come back to it.

Mookie is gone. I sincerely wonder if our country will survive the erasure that is currently underway and, I think, far from over. And, when I opened Facebook this morning to post my poem for the day, I was greeted by a hundred comments on my words from last night. I opened my phone to find texts from friends near and far. As I was sitting down with my coffee, I got a call from someone seven states away and twenty years ago who wanted me to know I was not alone. Then I talked with my friend Peter, whom I meet every Thursday for coffee and friendship.

All is not lost. A lot is lost, but not all. I am not alone. And I am called to apologize–which is to say to set myself right with those around me in kindness and humility. For me, that means creating space enough for me to not be so crowded by the cynicism. Room–like a baseball diamond–where a game of catch is a treasure and the point is for everyone to get home.

Peace,
Milton

PS–Since I used the title, I have to let you hear the song: all in all is all we are . . .

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interpretive dance

3

My family moved to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia in 1957.

Back then, that required sailing on a passenger freighter from New York to Beira, Mozambique, which took thirty-two days. I turned one in the course of the journey from Texas to Africa. None of us had much idea of what we were in for.

Though Southern Rhodesia was a British colony, which meant English was declared the national language, my parents wanted to learn isiNdabele, the indigenous language of the area. But navigating English also required new understanding. My father told the story of calling a plumber and asking for help because our commode was stopped up.

The plumber said, “We don’t work on commodes,” and hung up.

He and my father played that scene over two or three times until finally my dad called and said, “Don’t hang up. I know that what is broken in my house is something you work on; I just don’t know what to call it. What do you think a commode is?”

“A bedside table; what do you think it is?”

“it’s the thing in the bathroom that you sit on.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It won’t swallow,” said the Texan.

“I’ll be right there,” the plumber said and he hung up.

After he got everything working, the plumber told my dad that the job was one he normally would have assigned to one of his people, but he had to be able to go home and tell his wife he had seen a commode that wouldn’t swallow.

I thought of that story this morning in church as we sang “Jesus, You Have Come to the Lakeshore,” a hymn originally written in Spanish but translated into English. I am willing to admit my judgmental tone when I say the translator did not have much of sense of poetry in their work. Here is the first stanza and chorus:

You have come down to the lakeshore
Seeking neither the wise nor the wealthy,
But only asking for me to follow.

Sweet Lord, you have looked into my eyes,
Kindly smiling, you’ve called out my name.
On the sand I’ve abandoned my small boat;
Now with you, I will seek other seas.

I half expected the second verse to have something to do with asking which way the library was. I found the Spanish lyric and put it into Google Translate and it didn’t come out too differently:

You have come to the shore,
you have not sought either wise or rich,
you just want me to follow you.

Lord, you’ve looked me in the eye,
smiling you’ve said my name.
In the sand I left my boat,
next to you I will look for another sea.

I didn’t leave church looking to trash the translator of the hymn, but in my afternoon of poetry reading, I went back to a poem by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski that I need to hear this week.

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

I also found the Polish text and I can tell you the translator got to know the words before she sent them off in a new language.

Learning to talk and listen to each other is hard work. My father could have saved himself a couple of hangups (and lost a good story, I suppose) had he been willing to say “toilet” when commode didn’t communicate, and, knowing my dad, saying it wouldn’t “swallow” was playing for full effect. Perhaps the plumber, who came from somewhere in England, could have said that a commode was beside the bed originally because it held the chamber pot that eventually evolved into the toilet when indoor plumbing was invented. It helps to know where our words come from.

The sentiment behind singing hymns from different cultures in our historically white congregation is a good thing, and poetry asks the best of us in any language. Heart and art rhyme in English, but not so much corazón and arte. Our metaphors are only as good as our understanding.

Our friend Jeanette wrote her dissertation on the role of the interpreters in the La Amistad trial. They had to find people, right here in New Haven, who knew English and Spanish and the African languages in order for the trial to be fair. As I write, I realize that Jeanette, who is Puerto Rican and at least bilingual, never calls them translators; they are interpreters. In some of my recent reading, though I can’t find it now, someone said translation is colonization, which is to say once I can say, “This is what you mean” I take over your words. If I interpret, then you still have a voice in the process.

I have no idea if the semantics of all of that holds up, other than it seems that if we are to find “the gentle light that strays and vanishes and returns,” perhaps, we need to be about the task of interpreting instead of translating; asking, “Is this what you mean?” rather than deciding we are close enough for our purposes. And, sometimes, we need our words interpreted back to us so that we can see the impact, intentional or not, of what we thought we said and how it went out into the world.

We sang a bunch of fishing hymns in church because the lectionary passage was from Matthew 18 where Jesus saw Peter and James and John and said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” Whatever they thought he meant, it was enough to make them drop their nets in the middle of a fishing day and go with him.

I am still in need of more interpretation, even as I try to follow, too.

Peace,
Milton

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missed and found

4

A friend gave me a book for Christmas–One Long River of Song by Brian Doyle. Because I received several books for Christmas, I didn’t get to start it until last Sunday morning. As I read the dustcover (you should always read the dustcover), I learned the volume I held was a posthumous collection, put together by a friend, filled with essays that had been favorites from Doyle’s writing, which was prolific, and some more obscure pieces. The friend who collected them also wrote a foreword, saying of Doyle that he “liked short essays and long sentences. Just reading that made me think I would have liked him. Brian Doyle and I, you see, we’re born the same year. He died of cancer in 2017, just shy of his sixtieth birthday. Here is a taste of his banquet of sentences from a piece on humility called “The Final Frontier,” where he calls us to “realize we are all broken and small and brief.”

This is what I know: that the small is huge, that the tiny is vast, that pain is part and parcel of the gift of joy, and that this is love, and then there is everything else. You either walk toward love or away from it with every breath you draw. Humility is the road to love. Humility, maybe, is love. That could be. I wouldn’t know; I’m a muddle and a conundrum shuffling slowly along the road, gaping in wonder, trying to just see and say what is, trying to leave shreds and shards of ego along the road like wisps of litter and chaff.

I think it was after church that I found out that singer-songwriter David Olney had died. I didn’t know him or his music either. The story caught my attention because he died in the middle of a concert. In the middle of a song. He stopped singing, apologized for doing so, and then put his head on his chest and died. He didn’t drop his guitar or fall over; he just died. As I watched the number of people grieve for him online, I spent a good bit of the afternoon listening to his songs, some of which were covered by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Earle, Slaid Cleves, to name a few. His playing and singing reminded me of so many folks I love: Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt. Olney and Townes were friends along the way.

Twice in a weekend I was reminded of people I had missed.

But what I have been feeling is something other than FOMO, as you kids say. I am a person who loves to read and play and sing and listen. What both of these men were doing is right in my wheelhouse. The things that Doyle wrote about, and the way he wrote about them, resonated with the way I hope I’m looking and listening. I found out Olney had a Youtube series called “You Never Know” where he posted a weekly video on songwriting. He had recorded over four hundred episodes. I had not seen any of them until tonight. The last episode was posted yesterday. Olney sang “You Are Here.”

the earth will turn from night to morning
the moon and stars will fade away, fade away
all things must change it will not grieve me
as long as I know you are here, in my heart, you are here

I rode the Metro North train into New York today on my weekly trip to the Church Publishing offices. On the morning ride we all sleep, for the most part. In the afternoon there is a little more energy, but the only ones talking are folks who already knew each other. I took a seat in my usual place–second car from the front, two seater that faces another two seater, which generally means only one other person will sit there. A man got on at the 125th Street stop and put his bag down in one seat and sat in the other. He opened the bag and pulled out a clipboard, a notebook, and a library book that was turned upside down. I was reading Doyle. After a while, I looked up and he was sleeping, but I could see the book in is lap and it was one I had read about, Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark.

I waited for him to wake up, which I thought was nice of me, and then asked how he liked the book. He said it was pretty good and he liked books about the history of things, which then lead to a larger conversation about reading and, ultimately about us. His name is Carl and he works as an elevator repairman in New York, which he has done for thirty years. Talk about job security. For the last eleven years, he has inspected and repaired elevators in public housing. He asked about my job and I told him what I did. Our conversation bounced from elevators to books to us and took us all the way to Bridgeport, which was his stop.

“I ride this train everyday,” he said on his way out, “I’ll look for you next Wednesday.” Underneath his words was the truth that we had both been on that train before and not seen each other.

After he left, I had another twenty minutes to my stop and I thought some more about Brian Doyle and David Olney and what it meant to me that I had missed them. Then I thought about Carl some more and how glad I was we found each other for our ride, even if we don’t find each other again, and I realized what mattered was not so much that I figure out how not to miss people like Brian and David, but to relish that I found them or they found me, whatever the case may be. Both men died before I knew of them, but I am basking in the wake of wonder and witness that they left behind. Because I was willing to look up rather than keep my nose in my book, I saw the semi-colon, which provided the necessary punctuation for Carl and I to share a few sentences.

We ran out of time before I had a chance to show him the semi-colon tattooed on my right forearm, a reminder to me and whoever else needs it that my depression is not the end of the sentence; there is more to the story.

There is no way to see all of the show. I can’t hear all of the songs or read all of the books. I can’t meet everyone or do everything or go everywhere. At the same time, I can miss some of what is right in front of me if I forget to pay attention. I am grateful for friends who send books, for people who grieve out loud, and for elevator men who carry books about semi-colons on their ride home from the ups and downs of their day.

Peace,
Milton

PS–Here is the video from the final episode of “You Never Know,” posted yesterday.

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the art of losing

2

Last Thursday night Ginger and I drove up the Hartford to meet our friend Christy and watch Baylor play UConn in basketball. The Huskies, perhaps the most famous women’s basketball program in the country, had won ninety-eight home games in a row. The Bears broke their streak, and didn’t wait until the final shot to do it. UConn scored less than ten points in the final quarter. With a minute and a half left to go, Baylor was up by twelve and the defeat was obvious. That was also when a large number of the UConn fans stood up, put on their coats, and headed for the exits. I was shocked.

I turned to Ginger and said, “These folks need help learning how to lose.”

Losing often carries a sense of shame. Even though the score indicated that Baylor won the game, the New York Times saw fit to describe it this way; “UConn Loses to Baylor, and Home Winning Streak Ends at 98,” putting the blame on the Huskies, as though it was their fault. When it comes to sports, we are told, over and over, that losing is un-American ; after all, we’re Number One, as we seem to shout every chance we get (which is one of the many problems with sports as life metaphors).

One of my dad’s favorite Peanuts cartoons showed Charlie Brown coming off the pitcher’s mound after a huge loss and asking, “How can we lose when we are so sincere?’

Many years ago, Ginger and I were at a Red Sox game late in the season–before they broke the Curse of the Bambino and win their first World Series in eighth-six years. We knew how to be losers.

If the Sox has won the game, we had a chance to make the playoffs. If we lost, the season would end a few days later. In the top the eighth inning, the wheels came off and, like the UConn fans, some of the fans got up to leave and a woman behind us stood up and began to shout in a thick Boston accent, “You f—in’ fair-weather fans. Where are you going? I love my Boston F—ing Red Sox! It could be worse; we could be the Cleveland F—ing Indians!”

I thought about that woman as I watched the aisles fill up in the arena while the women were still playing, though I didn’t feel compelled to make a similar speech. Besides teaching me that every major league team had the same middle name, she reminded me of how to lose, or perhaps it’s better to say how to stay with those I care about when they are losing.

I just wished the grace for them (and me) to remember that it matters whether or not we stay when those we love are losing.

Losing doesn’t mean we didn’t try hard enough, or that we did something wrong. Or, sometimes, maybe it does. The root of the word means “to divide or cut apart.” That’s what I watched happen at the game. All those united in winning were divided in defeat and took to the exits. How could they remain together if they lost?

That’s what it means to be together. We stay when it hurts, w hen it doesn’t go the way we imagined it would go.

If we head for the exits every time we lose, it won’t be long before we are the only ones left. And I don’t necessarily mean to stay so we can hear the “We’ll get them next time” speech. The sports metaphor falls apart right here. Losing is, for most of us, not the exception. It is not necessarily the last word, but the true hope we find doesn’t show up the next time we win; it comes alive when we stay even when all feels lost. “Lose your life to find it,” Jesus said. I don’t recall any of his words glorifying what it feels like to win, though winning feels good, I’ll admit. But if we believe that we are best defined when we win, we are missing a crucial part of what it means to be human.

“They’ve got a name for the winners in the world,” sang Steely Dan, “but I want a name when I lose.”

Whatever the circumstance, whatever the score, let’s choose to stay to the end. Stay and call each other by name. I know you. I love you. I’m not going anywhere.

Peace,
Milton

8+

anger management

0

I had to learn how to get angry.

My father grew up in a house where the weather of the family was one storm after another. He was determined my brother and I would not grow up in that kind of climate and so he and my mother made a point of not yelling. What he was trying to teach was there was a controlled way to express anger. What I learned was I wasn’t supposed to be angry.

One of the many ways Ginger surprised me when we began dating was with her forthrightness, which included her anger. She was so present with her feelings. She could be angry in the moment without losing her temper and still express her feelings. I had no idea what to do, so she taught me how to get angry. It was hard work. I still would not rank it as my favorite emotion.

Since I read the following sentences from David Whyte (you didn’t think you had heard the last of him, did you?), I have had to go back to them several times. The events of recent days sent me back to them tonight.

Anger is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family, and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly, about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect, and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.

I have to say I had never thought of anger in those terms. Whyte goes on to say that what we name as anger is not what he is talking about.

What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability . . . . What we name as anger is . . . the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being. . . . What we call anger is often simply the unwillingness to live the full measure of our fears or of our not knowing.

The contrast in his definitions of true anger and the bombastic counterfeit that is founded in fear makes me think of Jesus’ admonition to “be angry and sin not.” Whyte echoes what Jesus was saying.

Anger in its pure state is the measure of the way we are implicated in the world and made vulnerable through love in all its specifics: a daughter, a home, a family, an enterprise, a land, or a colleague.

Both challenge me to remember that anger and violence are not necessarily the same thing. One does not have to lead to another. When it does turn to violence–when we lose our temper–it becomes destructive. We allow our fear to lead us to think that we have run out of options. Violence as a response to violence is an act of last resort.

Anger turns to violence and violent speech when the mind refuses to countenance the vulnerability of the body in its love for all these outer things . . . . In [our] helplessness [we] turn [our] violence on the very people who are the outer representation of [our] inner lack of control.

How any of us deal with our inner lack of control is a live question; a week into a year named after perfect vision, we all struggle to see beyond our fears. The violence demanded by Trump is the obvious example: we had to kill Soleimani because he has done bad things to us and was planning to do more. He is screaming at us to let “do unto others before they do unto you” be our rule for living. That is an invitation to self-destruction on lots of levels.

Nathan Robinson wrote an excellent article this week titled “How to Avoid Swallowing War Propaganda.” One of his suggestions was to “imagine how everything would sound if the other side said it.”

If you’re going to understand the world clearly, you have to kill your nationalistic emotions. An excellent way to do this is to try to imagine if all the facts were reversed. If Iraq had invaded the United States, and U.S. militias violently resisted, would it constitute “aggression” for those militias to kill Iraqi soldiers? If Britain funded those U.S. militias, and Iraq killed the head of the British military with a drone strike, would this constitute “stopping a terrorist”? Of course, in that situation, the Iraqi government would certainly spin it that way, because governments call everyone who opposes them terrorists. But rationality requires us not just to examine whether violence has been committed (e.g., whether Suleimani ordered attacks) but what the full historical context of that violence is, and who truly deserves the “terrorist” label.

When the question is posed that way, the justifications offered for Soleimani’s assassination don’t add up. We wouldn’t want someone to do that to us; why do we think our actions are moral? Are we really willing to hazard ourselves to prove we are a superpower? How can we hope for peace if we allow our anger to turn to violence rather than compassion? An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will still leave us blind and toothless.

But Trump and his minions are easy targets.

I am angry about the war-mongering and the greed and the arrogance and the racism that fuels much of our government’s decisions in these days. I am angry that it feels like our country is coming apart at the seams. I want to know how get to an expression of anger that shows how I am “implicated in the world and made vulnerable through love in all its specifics,” and widen those specifics beyond the people that matter most to me.

Tonight, there’s a sixty-three year old Iranian man who is trying to figure out what to do with his anger as he thinks about those he loves. I want to get angry with him, not at him.

Peace,
Milton

3+

the king will see you now

2

The word magos can mean “a magus, sage of the magician religion, magician, astrologer, wise one;” but, probably because it was King James who authorized the version that has most affected our telling of Jesus’ birth, we have come to call them the Three Kings. They make one appearance in Matthew 2, right on the heels of the birth narrative, though it seems reasonable to assume some time had passed. After all, Matthew skipped right over the shepherds.

The way most of us learned the story, the three magi, as we also call them (which just transliterates the word without defining it), followed a star to Bethlehem. But that is not what Matthew tells us. They were following a star, but instead of going straight to find the baby they went first to see the king, following, I suppose, the protocol of diplomacy and privilege. Or perhaps they were just naive. Either way, they were visiting dignitaries following the signs that had told them of a royal birth. Surely the current king would know what was happening and could advise them.

Herod took them in and took them for a ride. “find the child for me–and take good care of him. Then come back and tell me all about it.” The magi left the king and set out for Jesus. Matthew gives us no indication that they saw through Herod’s charade. They found the baby and delivered the gifts and prepared, it seems, to head back to tell the king where they had found the child–until they had a dream that told them to go home by another way.

It makes me wonder if the phrase “head in the stars” is something Mary came up with after the three allegedly wise ones left.

I suppose I am being a bit hard on them. I started to write that it is difficult to not be seduced by power, but I don’t think that is what happened to them. Their mistake was assuming that the one in power was not consumed with staying in power or amassing more of it. Maybe they had no idea who he was or what he was like. If they did have some sort of inkling, maybe they thought he would rise to the occasion. Whatever the reasons, their foray into foreign diplomacy almost cost Jesus, Mary, and Joseph their lives and set a massacre in motion. They brought gold, frankincense, myrrh, and unintended consequences.

My friend Bill Mallonee wrote a song called “The King Will See You Now” that saw the layers to this story before I did. It is part of a thoughtful and powerful record called WONDERLAND (A Christmas Season album). He puts Herod’s thoughts to music:

oh, I’ll offer him my worship
my best wishes and bright hope
never mind the dagger
underneath my cloak

I hear new kings get born every day
so me? I don’t sweat it all that hard
isn’t life just the funniest thing?
with all this changing of the guard?

And then comes the chorus:

and the pattern, it repeats itself
when power is asked to bow
whenever truth gets ushered in
ah, the king will see you now

Since the magi wandered across the desert, many governments have come and gone, but the lust for power and the fear of losing it continues to be the driving force behind most of them, it seems. And ours is no different.

When I heard of the assassination–ordered by President Trump–of Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian government official whom we killed in Iraq, I began trying to draw parallels. From my reading, the best correlation I can make is that he held a position equivalent to our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I tried to imagine how we would react as a nation, and how this particular president would react, if the Chair of the Joint Chiefs was on his way from the airport in, say, Germany or India and was blown up by a drone sent by an adversary because they felt threatened by him.

We would consider it an act of aggression, even evil.

Why, then, do we tolerate such actions from ourselves?

There is no question that Soleimani did terrible things and appears to have had no conscience in doing them. I have heard several defenders of the assassination use that as justification for the murder. If we truly believed that being a person of questionable character meant you should be removed it would be open season in Washington.

Why, then, do we tolerate such logic from our leaders?

they say that patriotism is the last refuge
to which a scoundrel clings
I’ve seen that with my own two eyes
then I saw it in a dream

must be time to guard your turf
must be time to guard your home
whenever the truth shows up drunk with love
and gets too close to the bone

The Magi brought their gifts and then Herod brought down his wrath. We have been told that the ten thousand migrant children who are in prison and separated from their parents are a threat to our freedom and that Soleimani had to die because he was going to do bad things. Every time Trump has a chance he finds another way to shout, “Be afraid! Be afraid!” because fear allows room for the lie that power makes us safe to take hold.

Those with the most power are the ones who are most driven by fear because they know how they got there.

and the pattern, it repeats itself
when power is asked to bow
whenever truth gets ushered in
ah, the king will see you now

We, too, need to find another way home.

Peace,
Milton

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a long december

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I preached this morning at North Haven Congregational Church. Here is what I had to say.

______________________________________

For a number of years now, I have marked the end of the year with a song by Counting Crows that begins

a long december and there’s reason to believe
maybe this year will be better than the last

And almost every year–at least for the last several–it does not seem to be the case. I’m not sure I think 2019 was a better year than 2018. We sing in our carols about Jesus’ birth meeting the hopes and fears of all the years, what does that mean for 2020? What does hope look like in our lives?

Twenty-twenty. It sounds different, doesn’t it. We have to rethink how we write the dates down and adjust to the visible reminder than time is going quickly. Wasn’t the turn of the century just a few years ago? How is it that we are only five years away from this “new” century being a quarter of the way done?

If you think time is moving too quickly, look at the way Matthew tells time in his gospel. His account of Jesus’ birth begins in chapter one, verse eighteen. By the time we get to the verses we read this morning, which begin in chapter two, verse thirteen, the magi have come and gone and Herod is determined to get rid of Jesus. He was so threatened by the thought of who Jesus might become that he sent out a decree for all of the male children under two years old to be killed–what we, in the liturgical tradition, call “The Feast of the Holy Innocents.” The word feast here means a day of commemoration rather than a big meal.

Four days after Jesus birth and we are marking deaths. And death comes to us on both a global scale and on a personal one. Matthew ties the slaughter of children to the deep pain the Hebrew people had known in their past: Rachel weeping unconsolably for her children. What was happening was not new, it was just happening to them.

Professor Esau McCaulley writes that we commemorate the feast because,

This feast suggests that things that God cares about most do not take place in the centers of power. The truly vital events are happening in refugee camps, detention centers, slums and prisons. The Christmas story is set not in a palace surrounded by dignitaries but among the poor and humble whose lives are always subject to forfeit. It’s a reminder that the church is not most truly herself when she courts power. The church finds her voice when she remembers that God “has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble,” as the Gospel of Luke puts it.

But then he makes it personal:

But how can such a bloody and sad tale do anything other than add to our despair? The Christmas story must be told in the context of suffering and death because that’s the only way the story makes any sense. Where else can one speak about Christmas other than in a world in which racism, sexism, classism, materialism and the devaluation of human life are commonplace? People are hurting, and the epicenter of that hurt, according to the Feast of the Holy Innocents, remains the focus of God’s concern.

Journalist Nicholas Kristoff wrote an op/ed this week for the New York Times entitled “This Has Been the Best Year Ever” and had statistics to back it up.

Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.

Perhaps the greatest calamity for anyone is to lose a child. That used to be common: Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood. As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent.

In his column, Kristof was quick to say that statistics are often hard to interpret, nor was he saying that terrible things weren’t happening, but that we needed to see that things were getting better in order to have hope. But is that where hope comes from?

I don’t think so.

I am grateful that things are improving and I think it matters greatly that we work to eradicate poverty and dismantle racism and sexism and homophobia and care for creation in a way that sustains life for us all. But progress isn’t what creates hope. Progress will not make us feel less alone. If our hope depends on things getting better, what happens when they don’t?

When Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he was troubled. The angel appeared to him in a dream and said, first, “Don’t be afraid.” Then the angel said, when the baby is born name him Emmanuel, which means God with us. Nothing the angel said changed any of the circumstances of Mary and Joseph’s lives. None of the difficulties went away. But the fear did because they knew God was with them no matter what the circumstances.

They went to Bethlehem and the baby was born. The shepherds came. Later the magi came and brought gifts, and they also brought Herod’s wrath without realizing what they were doing. So Mary and Joseph and Jesus became refugees in Egypt, fleeing the violence of their home country. All they could do was trust that God was with them, as their ancestors had done when they fled their captivity in Egypt generations before.

Herod died. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus moved back to Nazareth. Jesus grew up and began to preach and teach and heal and then he was arrested and executed by another Herod. But that is not the end of the story. The story of God with us has continued from December to December, from disappointment to disappointment, from triumph to triumph, from birth to birth and death to death, and our hope in all those things is that God is with us and God’s love endures it all, so that we can also.

This story matters because it reveals the difficult truth that life is often filled with unjust rulers and violence and private grief and personal pain and all the rest that leaves us wishing this year will be better than the last.

And this story matters because it tells the truth that God does not deal with us from a distance, but in Jesus has joined God’s own self to our story and is working — even now, even here — to grant us new life that we may not just endure but flourish, experiencing resurrection joy and courage in our daily lives and sharing our hope with others. A hope that comes from knowing God is with us and, therefore, anything can happen.

Happy New Year. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

PS–I couldn’t quote them without including the video.

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a thin place

2

This is a first. I have never made up a cocktail before. It grew out of a conversation with a friend–over the poetry of Padraig O’Tuama, as I remember, and she said to me, “Why don’t you make up a cocktail called ‘A Thin Place’?”

I accepted the challenge.

A thin place is an image that comes from Celtic Christianity and has been described as “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses””those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses,” “the places in the world where the walls are weak,”
and “where we can touch the edge of heaven.”

That’s a lot to ask of a cocktail.

The package store in our town carries an Irish Milk Gin (which means it is made from whey), and that seemed like a good place to start. You could also use your favorite gin. I had the idea for the green tea syrup as a way to lean into more of a zen vibe. Green Chartreuse is a liqueur that I have become familiar with in other drinks and the taste goes well with gin. It also has a light green color. The lime juice helps balance out the flavor.

(Note: If you haven’t made simple syrup before, it is simply mixing equal parts sugar and water and then bringing it to a simmer and letting it cook until the sugar dissolves and the syrup thickens a bit. For the green tea syrup, I used a cup each of water and sugar and added two green tea bags while it was simmering.)

Because her father and I are friends, I got in touch with Shelby Atkinson, who is an amazing bartender in San Diego, to double check my instincts and to get some help with ratios. Here is the final version.

A Thin Place

1.5 oz Irish Milk Gin
.5 oz Green Chartreuse
.5 oz Green Tea Syrup
.5 oz Lime Juice

Put four cubes in the bottom of a cocktail shaker and then add the ingredients. Shake well and pour into a martini glass. As you sip, here is one of O’Tuama’s poems to ponder.

The Pedagogy of Conflict

I
When I was a child,
I learnt to lie.
When I was a child
my parents said that sometimes,
lives are protected
by an undetected
light lie of
deception
When I was a child,
I learnt to lie.
Now, I am more than twenty five
and I’m alive
because I’ve lied
and I am lying still.
Sometimes,
it’s the only way of living.
 
II
When I was a child
I learnt that I could stay alive
by obeying certain
rules:
let your anger cool before you
blossom bruises on your brother’s shoulder;
always show your manners at the table;
always keep the rules and never question;
never mention certain things to certain people;
never doubt the reasons behind
legitimate aggression;
if you compromise or humanise
you must still even out the score;
and never open up the door.
Never open up the door.
Never, never, never open up the blasted door.
When I was a child,
I learnt that I could stay alive
by obeying certain rules.
Never open up the door.
 
III
When I was a child,
I learnt to count to five
one, two, three, four, five.
but these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count
one life
one life
one life
one life
one life
because each time
is the first time
that that life
has been taken.
Legitimate Target
has sixteen letters
and one
long
abominable
space
between
two
dehumanising
words.

Peace,
Milton

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English-Style Scones

2

A friend has been going through some tough times lately. They are from England, so I decided I would make English scones to offer support. English scones are lighter and fluffier than what we get in most American bake shops. They are good with butter and jam or marmalade; they are also good all by themselves.

English-Style Scones

2 cups flour (10 ounces)
1/4 cup sugar
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup milk
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Put first four dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse just enough to mix them well. Cut the butter into pieces and add to the dry mixture. Pulse seven or eight times, until butter is combined with the flour mixture. It will look like coarse sand. You shouldn’t see any chunks of butter. Transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk the milk and egg together. Save about 2 tablespoons for an egg wash and add the rest to the dry mixture. Stir with a spatula until a dough forms. At that point I use my hands to knead and press the dough to pick up all the dry crumbs in the bowl. Dump the dough out on a lightly-floured surface (or put some parchment paper down, if you don’t want to add flour) and knead the dough eight or ten times until it forms a fairly smooth ball. It may feel a little sticky.

Form it into a disc and then roll or pat it out to a one-inch thickness. It will be about eight to ten inches in diameter. Set the disc on a parchment-lined baking sheet (or use a silicon mat, if you have one) and cut the disc into eight equal sections and separate them on the baking sheet so there is about a half inch space between each one. I basically just pull the circle apart a bit.

Brush the egg wash over the top of the scones and sprinkle a little sugar (or cinnamon sugar). Cook for 13-15 minutes, or until they are golden brown on top and bottom. They should rise two to three times their size. Let them sit on the baking sheet for about five minutes and then transfer them to a cooling rack.

These won’t last long.

Peace,
Milton

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advent journal: generous citizens of loss

4

I came home from our first Christmas Eve service struck by an irony that happens every year. We sing “Silent Night” and light candles, as many congregations do on this night, but then, in order to finish the service, we have to blow them out to sing “Joy to the World” and say, “Merry Christmas.”

Tonight the timing was perfect. Just as we blew out our candles, the lights in the sanctuary came up and the organ began the introduction to the hymn. Where one source of light stopped, another appeared. It was a nice moment, Now I just have to stay awake until the late service.

Over the past several months, I have collected phrases that have moved me as I have read them or heard people say them. I think I have a hundred or so–four or five words pulled out of context because they jumped out at me as little flashes of light, if you will–things that give me hope. Reading back over them this afternoon, they jumped out in new ways and connected themselves to one another, on their own or with some of my words, much like the lights of the sanctuary connected to the candles. The words in italics are the borrowed words.

christmas eve

generous citizens of loss
we have come once again to
this glitch in the predictable
when joy can invade
and we are called
to befriend contingency

in this time of increasing
palliatives in the space
between our sufferings we
are the heartbreak church
an arrival of generosity in some
endlessly creative absence

in the garden of our own griefs
a beautiful temporary
a portal into wonder
a never-ending becoming
a weave of meaning
susceptible to healing

I hope the days ahead are filled with wonder and meaning. I hope you have people around you to love and to remind you that you are loved. Thanks for sharing Advent with me.

Peace,
Milton

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