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we have enough

1

I know I haven’t been here in a while. I’ll explain that another time. For now, I am preaching today at United Churches in Durham, Connecticut and I thought I might as well post my sermon since I have it written as a way to be back in touch. The passage is John 6:1-14: John’s version of Jesus feeding the multitude.

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One of the maxims in life that I think holds true is that our answers are often only as good as our questions. The best example I can give you comes from the old Pink Panther movie where Inspector Clousseau is checking into a hotel and sees a small dog sitting next to the desk.

“Does your dog bite?” he asks.
“No,” says the clerk. So, Clousseau reaches down to pet the dog who growls and bites him.
“I thought you said your dog did not bite,” Clousseau exclaims.
The clerk drolly replies, “It’s not my dog.”

Our answers are only as good as our questions.

Our story from John’s gospel swings on two pretty good questions.

In John’s version of what we have come to call the Feeding of the Five Thousand, an astoundingly large mass of folks has followed Jesus, hoping to hear him speak and see him heal people. They had not gathered for some planned event. As best we can tell, as we fill in the blanks with our sacred imagination, they had not come expecting to be fed. They wanted to hear Jesus. But as he looked out on the crowd it sparked a question that he aimed at Phillip.

“Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?”

Another minister I know made an interesting observation that has stuck with me. She pointed out that Jesus was rarely the host when it came to hospitality. He hosted the meal on the night before his death and he cooked breakfast for Peter and the others the morning after his Resurrection. Other than that, his idea of hospitality was to go to others, to let them welcome him into their world. It is a powerful observation about how real inclusion involves figuring out how to meet the other person on their terms, not ours. And, after reading this story again this week, I think she missed one of the meals that Jesus hosted: the one right here. He wasn’t cooking, but the whole scene unfolds because Jesus asks where they can buy bread to feed everyone. The crowd had followed him quite a distance, but they had no expectation of being fed. They weren’t calling out for food. They wanted to hear him speak. They had heard about the healing he had done of both body and spirit. But Jesus knew a hungry crowd when he saw one, and so he asked Philip a question.

“Where can we buy some bread for these people to eat?”

John is quick to point out, as he retells the story decades later, that Jesus “knew what he was going to do” but asked to see how Phillip would respond. We have been conditioned to think that means that Jesus already knew he was going to do a miracle, which is one way to understand it, but what if Jesus’ question was more about trying to get them beyond the logistics of crowd control; what he was going to do next was teach them more about who he was.

Phillip answered quite concretely, “We don’t have enough money to give everyone a cracker, much less a meal.” He had no imagination beyond the futility of how much it would cost.

Even though Jesus was talking the Phillip, the conversation was in earshot of the other disciples. Andrew, who it seems had paid more attention to who was in the crowd, mentioned that he had seen a small boy with a lunch of five barley loaves and two fish, but then he added, “But what good is that for so many people?”

Our answers are only as good as our questions. Andrew asked a good question, though he had no idea what was coming next.

His question gave Jesus an opportunity to move beyond Phillip’s declaration of scarcity. What good is a little boy’s lunch in the middle of a hungry crowd? Jesus’ answer, by his actions, was that it was enough. Jesus knew they didn’t have money to buy bread for everyone, but the little boy who was willing to share what he had opened the door for a miracle.

The whole thing swung on the kid. John doesn’t describe the interaction with the boy, or tell us if he was with his family, or even how he and Andrew came to know each other. We can assume that Andrew didn’t just take the kid’s lunch like a playground bully. The boy must have offered it. He was willing to believe his little lunch could feed more than just himself.

Jesus took the lunch and blessed it, handed it to the disciples who began to distribute it, and everyone ate, and they ended up with leftovers, all because of the faith of a little child who trusted that there would be enough.

As one who used to work as a chef, I have to smile at how John makes the meal sound so easily done: they took the little lunch, passed it out to more than five thousand people, and everyone was happy. I worked for years as a professional chef and one of my jobs was running a wedding hall that held three hundred people. It took an incredible amount of planning and coordination to get dinner on the table. I don’t even know how to begin to think about over five thousand.

When any of the gospel writers often talk about “the crowd,” they do so as though it was some kind of cohesive unit, but let’s think about that for a minute. Over five thousand people had gathered on the hillside to listen to Jesus. As one who has a hearing disability, one of the first things I question is how the folks in the back even heard what he said without any amplification. If you think about when you have been in a large crowd, you know it does not move as a unit. Things start in one place and ripple out, like the wave in a packed stadium. When Jesus said, “Make the people sit down,” I picture the ones in front responding to the disciples’ request and the instructions rippling back until everyone was seated. If the disciples were the only ones serving the meal, it would have taken hours to distribute the food; the passage actually says that Jesus was the one who fed everybody and the disciples just collected the leftovers—which makes me think, perhaps, a big part of the miracle was in the way “the crowd” began to see one another as people: they had to share and cooperate so everyone could eat.

Remember Jesus’ question: Where can we buy bread for these people to eat?

Remember also that John said Jesus knew what he was going to do when he asked the question. Maybe so. Jesus knew he was going to feed everyone with what he had, and when Andrew pointed out the little boy with the loaves and fish, Jesus had all he needed: one person—one child–who was willing to share what they had.

Let me give you a personal example of why that matters.

I am going to have to have knee replacement surgery in the fall. I had my right knee done a little over two years ago; this is the second step on my way to becoming the Bionic Man. This week, I had conversations with two different people that centered around my surgery. Both were sympathetic. Both offered to help, but in different ways. One said, “After your surgery, if you need me to go to the grocery store or to pick food up for you somewhere, I would be happy to do it.” The other said, “Let me know how I can help.”

Both meant well, but it was the first one who made the difference for me because they were specific. They had taken time to think about me, about my surgery, about what they could offer and then they said, “Here’s what I have.” They knew I am the cook at home. They knew I am the one who does the shopping. They offered specifically to do what I will not be able to do, without making me come up with what I needed from them.

Trying to think of how we can save the world is a lot like Philip asking how they could afford to feed the crowd: it’s overwhelming and incapacitating. We can’t meet the needs of the world. But if we think about how we can share what we have with specific people, if we tune our hearts to see the needs in front of our faces, then we can make a difference in their lives and ours. We can all be fed, both literally and figuratively, because we have enough. We just have to be willing to share with one another. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

supermarket finds

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supermarket finds

it’s the periodic experience
of lostness in the supermarket
when I turn down the baking aisle
to find it is filled with crackers
my points of reference have been
relegated to the rubbish heap
if I want to find food I will have
to learn a list of new addresses

they do it on purpose, you know
because they know convenience
breeds complacency, familiarity
if it’s easy to find what I want
how will I ever imagine new needs
or what I might do with gochujang

I only have to make two turns to
get from my house to the store
the landmarks are not as easy
to move as the pasta and pet food
but I turn right instead of left
and then down a side street
without a street sign just to see
what has been there all along

one yard is decadent with daffodils
two houses host for sale signs
someone is changing aisles
I make a couple of turns and
come out in an unexpected place
surprised to find a new way home

Peace,
Milton

sparkly pastor bars

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Ginger begins her sabbatical this week. She asked me to bake cookies for her staff meeting on Tuesday as a little going away present. This recipe had crossed my field of vision over the past couple of weeks, so her request gave me a chance to play with it a bit. Ginger loves a soft cookie, buttery icing, and pretty much anything lemon. When we lived in Durham, our friend Laura dubbed Ginger as “Sparkles,” which led to Ginger’s Instagram name, @sparklypastor, even though she is not on the app very much. A little blue food coloring to make a turquoise cookie (her signature color), some silver sparkles and I give you . . .

sparkly pastor bars

For the dough:
1 cup butter (2 sticks) at room temperature; plus 2 tablespoons for greasing the pan
2 3/4 cups (350 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 large egg
1 tablespoon lemon extract

For the frosting:
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) at room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon milk or heavy cream
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
a drop or two of gel food coloring (optional)
sprinkles (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°.

Lightly butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. (Mine is Pyrex; you may also use a metal one. Line the dish with parchment paper so that it is taller than the short sides by about two inches. This will let you pull the bars out when they cool.

Whisk flour and salt together in a medium bowl; set aside. Beat butter and cream cheese in a stand mixer on medium speed with the paddle attachment until well blended–about one minute. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula and add the sugar; beat the mixture until smooth–another minute or so. Add the egg and lemon extract and beat on low speed until well combined–that’s right: about one minute. Scrape down the sides again. Gradually add the flour mixture, mixing on low speed just until blended–wait for it: about one minute.

Use the spatula to scrape the dough into the prepared baking dish and spread it into an even layer. I put a little butter or Pam on my hands and spread the dough out. Bake for 20-25 minutes, just until the edges are starting to turn light golden brown, and a toothpick inserted in the middle has moist crumbs. Let the toothpick be your guide more than the browned edges. This cookie should be soft and seem a little underbaked in the middle.

Take the dish out of the oven and set it on a wire rack. Let cool completely–probably an hour or so. When it is fully cooled, remove the bars from the pan using the overhanging parchment paper.

For the frosting, beat the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed (using the paddle) until creamy–dare I say it: about one minute. Add one cup of the confectioners’ sugar, and beat on low speed until fully combined; add the second cup and repeat . Add the tablespoon of milk or heavy cream, the teaspoon of lemon juice, the lemon extract, salt, and food coloring and beat on medium speed until the frosting is light and fluffy, scraping down the sides halfway through–about four minutes. Add a little more milk or cream if you need to thin out the mixture.

Spread the frosting on top with a spatula (I use an offset) and decorate with sprinkles. Cut into bars and serve. (I cut six by four.)

My Sparkly Pastor said these are the best cookies I ever made.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: jesus and baseball

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If I had the chance to go back and rewrite Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal, I would do a better job of explaining why a chapter on baseball belongs in the book. For tonight–Maundy Thursday and Opening Day (even though it got rained out)–I pulled some of what I wrote in the chapter as food for the journey.

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I love sports as a fan, not an athlete, and I am a particular fan. I love baseball most of all because it is the sport most full of stories, the sport where the fans matter most, the sport that is about making errors and coming home. In a piece James Carroll wrote in the Boston Globe called “Baseball Communion,” he said:

The game means nothing, but while it’s on, the game means everything. The game belongs to the players on the field, but their performance is insignificant unless beheld. Thus watching becomes, intermittently, the most intense of human acts. Famously a mere pastime, what lifts baseball out of the realm of triviality is the meaning the fans attribute to it. A ballpark’s grandstands, therefore, matter as much as the lined field. The broadcast, too, becomes absolute, as entire populations pull up chairs.

I read his words and I think of the great cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 12:1. Baseball is a great metaphor for how God would organize the world because failure is essential to both.

I can better explain my attachment to failure, perhaps, by saying I am a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox. I was born in Texas, grew up in Africa, and have always pulled for the Sox, even when all I knew of them were the games we could get late at night on Armed Forces Radio. The Red Sox are my team. In 1967, I was in sixth grade and living in America for only the third year of my entire life. My parents were on leave from the mission field and we lived in Fort Worth where I walked each day to Hubbard Heights Elementary School, which was my first experience beyond kindergarten in an American school. Both my brother and I marveled at the kids in our class who had lived in the same house their entire lives. We were outsiders. As I tried to find my way into American life that fall, the Red Sox made an amazing late season run and won the pennant on the last day of the season. In those days when television didn’t control the sports schedule and there were afternoon games, even in the World Series. As I prepared to leave for school one morning, my dad said, “Would you like for me to write a note so you can come home and watch the Sox play this afternoon?” That moment defined my father in my mind. In later years, when I felt alienated from my family, his question reminded me I could not write him off. I don’t remember what I said other than yes. I do remember walking home right after lunch and sitting on the couch with him as the Sox came back from being down to force a seventh game and raise our hopes they would win their first championship in fifty years, only to lose the game, break my heart, and made me a fan forever.

Jesus spent a good deal of time talking about losing our lives, our pride, our place in line. He did little to climb the ladder to any sort of social or economic standing, choosing instead to surround himself with those who were accustomed with not being Number One. We share the Communion meal following his command to remember his death, which Frederick Buechner described as the “magnificent defeat,” or, in parlance of my high school students, “epic fail.” We come to the table to remember the failure, both his and ours, and to forgive and feed one another. This is how God organizes the world.

For ten of the years we were in New England, we lived in an 1850 row house in the downtown neighborhood of Charlestown. Both the house and the neighborhood had survived a myriad of changes, but since the house was built two things had remained the same: it was always located on a dead end, one way street and it faced a park, which was deeded as a “mother’s rest.” The house had neither a front yard nor air conditioning, which meant sitting at the open kitchen window was basically sitting on the sidewalk. One summer morning, I was sitting there drinking my coffee with my friend Billy when a boy about seven or eight entered the park carrying a baseball bat. He had the whole place to himself. After wandering around a bit, he did what countless other boys had done. He picked up the bat, stepped up to an imaginary plate in a crowded imaginary ball park (Fenway, I assumed), and prepared to face whomever was pitching that particular afternoon. I looked up from my place in the stands in time to hear him swing and say, “Strike one.” He stepped back, dusted off his tennis shoes, and stepped back into the batter’s box. Another swing. “Strike two.” This time we put down our coffee cups and became part of the scene, imagining it was the bottom of the ninth and everything was riding on the next pitch. We knew the script. He was going to hit it out of the park. We prepared to celebrate, even though he didn’t know we were watching. He leaned in and slowly tilted the end of the bat back and forth above his head. Then the pitch. “Strike three,” he said, and dropped the bat. His bat. His game. His pitcher. His imagination. And he struck out. Billy and I were both dumbfounded and, somehow, we understood. Failure is an organizing principle of our existence. . . .

Baseball marks time in ways other sports do not because it is fundamentally about two things: making errors and coming home. When we come to the Communion Table, we remember Jesus’ death, which Frederick Buechner called “the magnificent defeat,” and we offer one another fellowship and forgiveness. . . .

To know God knows what failure feels like strengthens my faith because I’m reminded that what lies beyond failure is love rather than success. We are always going to strike out more times than we hit it out of the yard, therefore we need each other to tell the stories and remember we are not alone. James Carroll says, “The game affirms the normalcy of physical communication with another — and with many others. That communion, we understand from an early age, is what we live for.” Therefore, we step up to the plate, if you will, to break the bread and share the cup remembering how God organizes the world: Jesus’ magnificent defeat, our own spectacular failures, and the grace that saves us all.

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Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: don’t give up

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This post started because a friend posted a video with a song title I recognized, but it wasn’t the song I knew. It did however send me back to a song embedded deep in the soundtrack of my life that I needed to hear today on behalf of friends who are hurting deeply–and also for myself. Most of the songs tonight fall in that category. As we move into the heaviest days of Holy Week I offer these songs of lament and loss. You may have heard them if you’ve been around me much. Then again, a good song is worth listening to over and over.

The video for “Don’t Give Up” is as compelling as the song itself because Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush are in a constant embrace through the whole song.

in this proud land we grew up strong
we were wanted all along
I was taught to fight, taught to win
I never thought I could fail

no fight left or so it seems
I am a man whose dreams have all deserted
I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name
nut no-one wants you when you lose

don’t give up ’cause you have friends
don’t give up you’re not beaten yet
don’t give up I know you can make it good

I can remember the first time I heard Tracy Chapman. The song was “Fast Car.” I still love that record. The last track on her second album is the one I keep coming back to: “All That You Have is Your Soul.”

here I am, I’m waiting for a better day
a second chance, a little luck to come my way
a hope to dream, a hope that I can sleep again
and wake in the world with a clear conscience and clean hands
‘cause all that you have is your soul

so don’t be tempted by the shiny apple
don’t you eat of a bitter fruit
hunger only for a taste of justice
hunger only for a world of truth
‘cause all that you have is your soul

oh my mama told me
‘cause she say she learned the hard way
she say she wanna spare the children
she say don’t give or sell your soul away
‘cause all that you have is your soul

When John Mellencamp came out with Scarecrow it changed the way people thought about him. He was no longer Johnny Cougar. We can all sing “Pink Houses,” but one of the songs in the middle of the record is my favorite: “Between a Laugh and a Tear.”

when paradise is no longer fit for you to live in
and your adolescent dreams are gone
through the days you feel a little used up
and you don’t know where your energy’s gone wrong

it’s just your soul feelin’ a little downhearted
sometimes life is too ridiculous to live
you count your friends all on one finger
I know it sounds crazy just the way that we live

between a laugh and a tear
smile in the mirror as you walk by
between a laugh and a tear
and that’s as good as it can get for us
and there ain’t no reason to stop tryin’

When Jonatha Brooke wrote “Ten Cent Wings” that’s what chicken wings went for at Happy Hour, and where she got the inspiration for an amazing song.

I will love across the borders, I will wait until it’s dark
I will fly and you’ll be with me, my wings, your heart
then our memory may fail us, and our language will go too
but the shooting stars will catch our celestial view

ten cent wings, I’ll take two
pin them to my sweater and I’ll sail above the blue
ten cent wings, tried and true
orbiting like satellites I’ll sail away with you

Emmylou Harris is probably best known for “Boulder to Birmingham,” when it comes to grief songs, but “Bang the Drum Slowly” is the song she wrote after her father died. Her lament fits the losses we live with in these days.

I meant to ask you how when everything seemed lost
and your fate was in a game of dice they tossed
there was still that line that you would never cross
at any cost

I meant to ask you how you lived what you believed
with nothing but your heart up your sleeve
and if you ever really were deceived
by the likes of me

bang the drum slowly play the pipe lowly
to dust be returning from dust we begin
bang the drum slowly I’ll speak of things holy
above and below me world without end

Patty Griffin’s record American Kid is the album she wrote after her father died, which happened around the same time my dad died. “Wild Old Dog” is one of the most visceral metaphors of what it feels like to find God in grief, or, perhaps, to understand how deeply God feels our grief. During Holy Week, I hear it as a crucifixion song.

God is a wild old dog
someone left out on the highway
I seen him running by me
he don’t belong to no one now

it’s lonely on the highway
sometimes a heart can turn to dust
get whittled down to nothing
broken down and crushed
in with the bones of
wild old dogs
wild, old dogs

I bought Bookends when I was I school and the song “Old Friends” has haunted me ever since. I think I am finally starting to understand it.

old friends, old friends
sat on their park bench like bookends
a newspaper blown through the grass
falls on the round toes
of the high shoes of the old friends

old friends, winter companions, the old men
lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset
the sounds of the city sifting through trees
settle like dust on the shoulders of the old friends

can you imagine us years from today
sharing a park bench quietly?
how terribly strange to be seventy

old friends, memory brushes the same years
silently sharing the same fears

On the record, it was paired with “Bookends,” as it is in the video I found.

time it was, and what a time it was,
it was a time of innocence,
a time of confidences
long ago, it must be,
I have a photograph
preserve your memories;
they’re all that’s left you

One of the perennial favorites on my soundtrack is Pierce Pettis. I am going to let him close us out tonight, not with a song of resolution as much as a call to tenacity–to keeping on. This is “Hold on to That Heart.”

Molly works on the children’s ward
the ones that aren’t gonna make it
she holds those little hands
and says a prayer sometimes
she just can’t take it

I lay me down to sleep
pray my soul to keep
if I die before I wake
slouching at the bar
she says some people are hard
they look at me like I’m crazy

I say hold on to that heart
hold on to the love you know
hold on to that heart
Molly don’t let go

he picks up the telephone
she says how you doing
he says I’m alright
no that’s wrong
but I’m getting through it

said I used to have a wife
used to have a life
it wasn’t that long ago
she says you’re going through hell
I have been the myself
but you can be strong I know

she says hold on to that heart
hold on to the love you know
hold on to that heart
boy don’t let go

whatever is honest
whatever is true
whatever is loving and lives in you
Think on these things
and hold on . . .

Don’t give up. Hold on. I will, too.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: one step removed

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Alma Cocina on Folsom Street is closed due to coronavirus shelter in place edict in San Francisco, Calif., on Monday, March 30, 2020.

one step removed

the advantage of living
through holy week
after the fact is we
know what is coming
we read the events
as connected sequence

if this then that
we have turned the
unexpected into ritual
meaningful repetition
but still repetition
we know what’s coming

but the rituals seem
empty because of the
scares and surges of
life in the pandemic
things we have not seen
and don’t understand

might give us a glimpse
of why the disciples
acted as they did
had they known Easter
was inevitable would
they have run away

not everyone ran
the women stayed
they stood shoulder
to shoulder with
soldiers and sadness
even unto death and

then stayed longer
life is not certain
unless you’re a cynic
hope is not a return
to what was but staying
for what could be

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: anger as spiritual practice

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Anger

I had a dream the other night about a huge reservoir. I was standing on the banks, taking it in. I didn’t go in the water and I don’t remember much else that happened, other than I was aware that the body of water that stretched out in front of me was my anger.

As Marisa Tomei said in My Cousin Vinny, “It’s a metaphor.”

I woke up with the realization, or perhaps I should say finding words for the realization, that as I get older, I am getting angrier. I don’t mean the sort of grumpy-old-man-get-out-of-my-yard kind of mad. I mean I can feel that reservoir of anger growing in my soul, expanding its banks. I can feel the power there, the possibilities.

For someone who grew up in a family that prided itself on not getting mad, that growing lake feels like progress because there is much to be angry about.

My father grew up in a home where his father and stepmother yelled at each other. He was determined not to create that kind of home, so we weren’t allowed to yell. The lesson I internalized, which was not necessarily the one he was teaching, was I wasn’t allowed to get angry. As I learned that Jesus said, “Be angry and don’t sin,” it led me to think that perhaps anger was not the problem but a reality: we have a great deal to be angry about; we should be angry–and we should do the work to figure out what that anger can fuel or, if I stay with my reservoir metaphor, what the anger can water and feed, or even flood.

The poet David Whyte has been one of my recent teachers on anger and, I think, is perhaps the one who sent the first streams of thought that helped created my reservoir.

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. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; 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.

I won’t quote the whole essay (though I’m tempted), but I will pick up at the end.

But anger truly felt at its center is the essential living flame of being fully alive and fully here, it is a quality to be followed to its source, to be prized, to be tended, and an invitation to finding a way to bring that source fully into the world through making the mind clearer and more generous, the heart more compassionate and the body larger and strong enough to hold it. What we call anger on the surface only serves to define its true underlying quality by being a complete and absolute mirror-opposite of its true internal essence.

When we think about anger, at least in its public expression, we think about rage–the way my dad thought about not yelling–so on this day in Holy Week when we have to come to terms with Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple we wonder why Jesus “lost his temper.” I’m not sure he lost anything. He wasn’t out of control. He wasn’t on a tirade. He was, to use Whyte’s words, full of compassion for those about to be hurt.

Maybe part of the reason anger grows with age is because pain and grief do as well. Sadnesses stack up over time. The aches and pains of living develop a constant level that offers a grinding reminder of our mortality every time we stand up. The fundamental loneliness of existence is more and more apparent, as does the superimposed inequity that divides us.

As I talked about this with my spiritual director last week, she led me to asking how anger could be a spiritual practice: how I could feed the reservoir, channel it?

Anger creates streams of compassion because it requires me to change in order to not be consumed. Letting the lake continue to rise breeds disaster. Flooding. Whole towns and villages washed away downstream. But a regulated river offers hydro-electric power. An irrigation ditch feeds a field. My stream of thought takes me to Norman Maclean:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.

As I think of Jesus turning tables, I am mindful that he never got to feel what it is like to be old. He knew what it felt like to know death was inevitable, but he didn’t get to age. I am becoming increasingly aware as I age that I feel more isolated. A big part of that is my hearing loss: I am more isolated because I just can’t hear well. The pandemic has made apparent, or at least emphasized, that I live a long way from a lot of the people that I love most dearly and that is probably not going to change. Not being able to go see them has made the distance more visceral. As I said, grief increases with age.

Early on in coming to terms with my depression, one of the definitions offered that made sense was that depression was anger turned inward. The words don’t cover everything, but they hold a good bit of truth. This past year, I read Johan Hari’s amazing book Lost Connections where he posits that depression is profound grief. That sent resonating ripples across the reservoir of my soul. I am angry and grieving just like everyone else is one of the ways I hear Whyte’s words that anger is the “deepest form of compassion,” and it makes me think of one of my favorite passages in literature:

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

To the sentence that ends, “. . . you get loose in the joints and very shabby,” I would like to add, “and you lose your hearing.” I am angry. I am grieving. I am not alone.

Peace,
Milton

 

lenten journal: prelude

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My continuing conversation with Rob Walker led me to these words today:

Next time you have dinner planned with someone you care about, arrive (or plant yourself nearby) early. And do nothing. Observe the world; think about the person you’re about to see; cleanse your mental palate of other obligations or distractions. A significant moment deserves a considered prelude. Be ready.

prelude

maybe that’s the way to think
about the days between now

and when we finally get to hug
and smile unemcumberedly

to shed tears that won’t
get caught in our masks

waiting expectantly is not the
same thing as passing the time

can we foster our exhaustion
water our lives from the

growing reservoir of anger
let despair become a doorstep

we know the day is coming
life will not always be this way

if a significant moment does
deserve a considered prelude

then I am going to sit here
under the worm moon

and picture your face
your voice your hug

and do all I can to get ready
to take it all in

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: a short un-guided tour

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I have continued to meander through Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing. A couple of days ago, as hew was talking about taking in the soundscapes around us, he quoted artist Marc Weidenbaum:

“The world is a museum. You are the docent.”

I decided to let those words guide my writing tonight, after a loving nudge from Ginger to re-engage the practice of my Lenten journal.

a short un-guided tour

first, let me say
the exhibit holds more
than you can possibly
take in on one visit

those who know it best
come back daily
to look at the same things
that are never the same things
and to notice what
is missing and what has
been added or found

stop look and listen feel
free to touch most anything
it is all breakable, irreplaceable
we have no permanent exhibits

things to notice today:
the screaming baby just hit
the same pitch as Paul in the
middle of the na na na nanana nas when
he screams, “Judy, Judy, Judy . . .”
the beam of light across the
steeple is the shade of orange
Van Gogh was looking for
and never could find

not really . . .
but that would be pretty cool

I will leave you to your senses
and let you find what you find
while I notice that today
two people asked me
how long it had been
since I talked to my brother
and then late this afternoon
I called him by mistake
and we both laughed
at the same time

I need to sit with that memory
before it fades away
you can show yourself out

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: how can anybody be okay with this?

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One meme I read this week said, “I am hopeful that the pandemic will bring about necessary changes in healthcare the same way Sandy Hook and Parkland brought about necessary changes in gun laws. And now we can add Atlanta. The most recent expression of white terrorism sent me looking, first, for words and when I couldn’t find them I went looking for songs. Protest songs. Songs of lament. That’s what I offer here.

Just last week I learned of Chris Pierce for the first time. His songs are going to open and close our set. He has a new album called “American Silence” and the title track says,

we see the music move you as you lay your burden down
we feel the music grip you as your heart is soaked in sound
and when the song is over, if you decide to clap aloud
will your applause mean anything with stitches on your mouth

can we sing a song for you
will music move your heart and mind
will our song arrest you
american silence is a crime

Raye Zaragoza is described in her bio as a “Japanese-American, Mexican, and Indigenous woman” and she is a wonderful songwriter. “In the River” was written about Standing Rock, and she sings,

there’s got to be some hope
there’s got to be some hope
there’s got to be some way
for you to send your dogs away
and to leave the land alone
it’s got to be a crime
somewhere in your heart you’ll find
we’re fighting for our right to keep our future bright
and protect the ones we love

in the river is our sisters and our brothers
we are camping out for each other
we are stronger when we band together
and we’re standing up for the water
don’t poison the future away

J. S. Ondara is a Kenyan immigrant who learned how to play Bob Dylan songs in the slums of Nairobi and then set out for Minneapolis to find him. His songs are achingly beautiful.

will you let me in, or are you at capacity
will you set me free, are you holding onto history
will you be sincere, are you averse to honesty
will you dare to hear those children matching on the street

oh God bless America, the heartache of mine
oh God bless America, the heartache of mine

In “Preach” John Legend speaks to the contagious sense of helplessness we have to consciously engage.

I can’t sit and hope,
I can’t just sit and pray, that
I can find a love, when
all I see is pain
falling to my knees
and though I do believe
I can’t just preach, baby, preach
whoa, oh
I can’t just preach, baby, preach

all I hear is voices
everybody’s talking
nothing real is happening, ’cause nothing is new
now when all is tragic
and I just feel sedated
why do I feel numb? Is that all I can do? Yeah

Jason Isbell is the one person on this playlist that I’ve listened to for a long time. He makes the list tonight because of one of his most haunting songs, “White Man’s World.”

I’m a white man living on a white man’s street
I’ve got the bones of the red man under my feet
the highway runs through their burial grounds
past the oceans of cotton

I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
wishing I’d never been one of the guys
who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke
oh, the times ain’t forgotten

there’s no such thing as someone else’s war
your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for
you’re still breathing, it’s not too late
we’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate

Kae Tempest is a poet and a rapper and a playwright and, well, the list goes on. And it’s not just their words but the way they deliver them. “People’s Faces” is a prime example.

we’re working every dread day that is given us
feeling like the person people meet
really isn’t us
like we’re going to buckle underneath the trouble
like any minute now
the struggle’s going to finish us

and then we smile at all our friends

it’s hard

we got our heads down and our hackles up
our back’s against the wall
I can feel you aching

none of this was written in stone
there is nothing we’re forbidden to know
and I can feel things changing

even when I’m weak and I’m breaking
I’ll stand weeping at the train station
‘cause I can see your faces

there is so much peace to be found in people’s faces

As I said, Chris Pierce started us off and he is going to take us out asking the question for the day: how can anybody be okay with this?

I’m sick and tired of this song
we’ve been singing it too long
singing we shall overcome someday
it’s been four hundred years
it sustains loud and clear
it’s so hard to believe, the outcry and the tears

why is it taking so long?
why should I have to write this song?

tell me, how can anybody be okay with this?
how can anybody be okay with this?
how is this land for you and me
when we can’t run in our own streets
tell me, how can anybody be okay with this?

Hope is not guaranteed. Let me say it another way. Hope is not obvious. To find it, we have to pay attention–mostly to one another. Hope grows out of solidarity and compassion. We cannot be okay with this because it’s not okay.

And Kae is right: there is so much peace to find in people’s faces.

Peace,
Milton