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lenten journal: nothing new


nothing new

I don’t know that I have
anything new to say
but grief is redundant
when the same thing
keeps happening again
and again there is nothing

new to say because there
is no one new to listen
we’ve heard it all before
we will hear it all again
after the next round of
gunfire in a classroom

I watched middle schoolers
walk down the sidewalk
in front of our house just
thirty miles from sandy hook
and wondered if they had
active shooter drills today

I did my best to avoid the
politicians who moved dead
children like chess pieces
in their calculated moves to
magnify the fear they know
will get them reelected

and then I sat down to write
wanting to say something
that could make a difference
and do more than entrench
both those who agree and
those who think I’m crazy

to imagine a nation that
was not continually at war
it’s our working metaphor
we don’t solve problems
we fight them because
violence is our pastime

we have armed ourselves
to the teeth and wonder why
we keep spitting bullets
see I told you I had nothing
new to say but then again
this is nothing new is it?


lenten journal: taking care of each other


One Saturday morning when I was working as a Creative at the Apple Store in Durham, a man showed up for a training appointment with a bag over his shoulder and his iMac in his arms. We set up his computer and I asked what he wanted to work on in our hour together. I was not expecting the story that unfolded.

The man told me he had served in Vietnam. The job of his company was to go first and clear places where helicopters could land. He carried a tape recorder with him and periodically his group would make a tape to send back to the States to their loved ones. They had almost completed clearing the top of a small mountain and were taking a rest, and making a tape, when they came under fire and rushed to get into the bunker they had just completed. He forgot to turn off the tape recorder. When they got back to their base and he listened to the tape, he realized what had happened.

“It’s ten minutes of us taking care of each other,” he said.

He didn’t send it to anyone, but he kept it–for forty years. A couple of days before he came to the store, he was finally able to get it digitized. He also had a bunch of photographs of his team converted as well. Now he wanted to learn how to use iMovie to let the voices be the soundtrack under the images so he could share it with those who were still living.

We worked on the basic information he needed and then I told him I was going to sit across from him while he worked because I knew the pictures were very personal and they were not mine to see. If he needed help, I would be right there. He stayed at the table for about two and a half hours, long past his appointment. As he worked, I could see his face over the top of his monitor. From time to time, his eyes welled up; sometimes he smiled.

When he finished, I showed him how to burn the movie on to a disc (it was that long ago) and he thanked me for my help. He never showed me the movie.

I thought about him today as I drove home from a veteran’s coffee hour in another Connecticut town. I was invited by a member of my church who works with and writes a lot about veterans. They wanted me to come because the speaker was a man who was drafted in 1967 and served in Vietnam, and then had become an Army chaplain after he came back from his tour of duty. He is now in his late seventies, I’m guessing.

Perhaps because of my age, when I think of Vietnam soldiers, I picture young men and women–like the photographs we used to see in TIME or LIFE, or the clips on the evening news. But we have all grown old and our memories of the war and all that went with it have aged as well. They have become stories. In Tim O’Brien’s book about Vietnam, The Things They Carried, the narrator says,

And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

As he stood in front of the group of men and women whose life experiences resonated with his, the chaplain, now retired, offered a detailed account of his company being ambushed somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. Twenty of the twenty-seven soldiers were “dusted off” (which I learned means evacuated because of injury or death); seven survived unwounded. He, too, was telling a story of them taking care of each other. In the midst of it all, he said, he promised God he would do anything if they could live through it. Then he smiled and said, “Becoming a priest wasn’t what I meant.”

The last draft lottery occurred on March 12, 1975, exactly three months after my eighteenth birthday. though the last draft call had been in 1972, my roommate and I scanned the numbers in the newspaper with some trepidation. My birthday, December 12, was 18. Had there been a call up, I would have been called. Whether I would have answered is another matter.

Learning about the war as an American living in Africa altered my perspective on combat in general and Vietnam in particular. I knew more about protest songs than I did about being a soldier. As I sat at coffee hour and listened to the chaplain share his story, I shared the room with about eighty men and women, all of whom had been in the military. The camaraderie was palpable. They weren’t gathered to hang on to old things; they were there because they felt understood by people who had been where they had been and seen what they had seen. As one who doesn’t encounter people who grew up like I did very often, I understand how valuable that sense of belonging is and how much it matters to tell stories of us taking care of each other.


lenten journal: stand and sing of Zambia


In the summer of of 1969, we moved from Lusaka, Zambia to Nairobi Kenya.

I lived in Zambia from first through fifth grade, and then again for seventh grade. When we moved there, it was still the British colony Northern Rhodesia. On October 24, 1964, we participated in the birth of the new nation. I still sing the national anthem for Ginger every October, standing in our living room.

stand and sing of Zambia proud and free
land of work and joy in unity
victors in the struggle for the rights
we’ve won freedom’s fight
all one, strong and free . . .

The song is on my mind because Zambia has found me three times over the last few days. First, in the form of a novel: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, a story about Zambia by a Zambian writer. I am only a couple of chapters in, but the writing is brilliant. Take her definition of history, for example:

the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure.

The book begins with a prologue of sorts about David Livingstone, the colonialist/missionary/explorer who died in the Eastern Province of Zambia and the Africans who knew him buried his heart there before they sent the body back to England.

My father went to the Eastern Province–a town called Petauke–at the request of a man who was a member of Matero Baptist Church in Lusaka, where we went. Dad told stories of driving until the road ended and then walking for three days to get to the village. Only one person there had ever seen a mazungu–a white man–and she was the oldest person in the village. When she told her story, Dad realized the last European to stand in that place was Livingstone himself.

The second Zambia sighting was an article at 3 Quarks Daily by the travel writer Bill Murray detailing a trip is making by rail from Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, to Kapiri Mposhi, a town in the Zambian Copper Belt. The 1,100-mile journey wasn’t possible when I lived in Zambia; the rail line was not completed until the 1970s, but reading about it makes me wish I could make the forty-two hour trip.

In the spring of 1969, before we moved north, my mother decided she would take my brother, Miller, and I back to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, which was the first place we lived in Africa, and the place my brother was born. She had a sense it would not be easy to get back there and she wanted us to see a place we had only known as small children. We left when I was five. Her choice of travel was by train, though that trip was only 775 miles, and we didn’t do it all at once.

And she was right: I have never gotten to go back to either Zambia or Zimbabwe.

Which brings me to the third thing. My brother called today for no other reason than we do our best to talk to each other every two or three weeks, and part of what he had to say was he will be in Zambia in April as a part of a trip he and his wife, Ginger, are taking related to their missions nonprofit. They support and work with churches in Malawi and Zambia, so they have been back a few times, and I feel a kind of wistfulness every time they go, wishing I could see our house on Valentine Close, or the one on Harding Road with the big backyard where all the neighborhood kids played softball and soccer.

When I wrote This Must Be the Place: Reflections on Home, I said,

In those days on Harding Road I learned to live in joy, to trust that sadness or difficulty or failure were never the last words. The people at Matero who filled up the room with song were acquainted with grief; they were not naive. Life was hard and God was faithful. Both things were true and they chose to sing about the latter.

When we left Zambia, I left home, but not for the first time, nor the last. I am grateful for the trinity of invitations to go back there through the words and journeys of others. Even from this distance, I can still stand and sing of a place I loved that let me belong.



lenten journal: hoop dreams


hoop dreams

I’ve spent the last two weekends
following a sport I cannot play
watching men and women spin
and shoot with an ease I have
never known inside my skin

my basketball career began
and ended in church leagues
sixth grade I was benchwarmer
an uninitiated American kid
from Africa who didn’t know

that you had to check in at
the scorer’s table to sub so
I just ran out on the court
and the ref and my coach
put me back on the bench

until the last two minutes
when coach sent me to the
scorer because we were so
far ahead that I was harmless
I would not be remembered

it took less than the time left
for me to do what no one
else on the team had done
I fouled out in record time
and went home with a story

In a week two teams will cut
down the nets as champions
after a season of struggle but
it only took one night when
I brought down the house


lenten journal: life goes on


My sermon this week is about the resurrection of Lazarus and wondering about what he might have felt about coming back to life, among other things.


It is hard to turn a life into a coherent story–or, maybe the better way to say that is it is hard to turn a life into a single story. In this memoir-laden age, people try to do that all the time, but the reality of life is that it doesn’t conform that easily. Some things have to be left out, some things perhaps ignored or untold to keep the theme going, some things get forgotten.

At different points, the gospel writers drop hints that they knew they were not able to paint the whole picture of Jesus’ time on earth. John, whose gospel we have followed through much of Lent, said that if all the stories about Jesus were written down, the world wouldn’t have libraries enough to store all the volumes of information. So John chose the moments that help him paint the picture of Jesus he wanted most to be remembered, as did Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

That doesn’t mean they were being dishonest or careless, they were doing what it took to make a coherent story out of a human life. John, the more poetic of the quartet of gospel writers, built his biography around what biblical scholars call the seven “I am” statements of Jesus

I am the bread of life (6:35)
I am the light of the world (8:12)
I am the door (10:7)
I am the good shepherd (10:11, 14)
I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)
I am the way the truth and the life (14:6)
I am the true vine (15:1)

as a way to convey Jesus’ world-changing presence as the embodiment of God in the world, which is not an easy thing to do. Neither is preaching on this passage.

We talked last week about Jesus’ miracles being “parables of event,” meaning there is more to them than just a spectacular healing or a spontaneous banquet. John calls them signs, rather than miracles, as a way to highlight that point. After Jesus healed the blind man, he said, “I am the light of the world.”

Get it?

John may be a poet, but he is not particularly subtle.

In our story for today, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life” before he calls Lazarus back to breathing. But if we reduce the blind man and Lazarus to object lessons or props for a point Jesus wanted to make, the accounts don’t match with Jesus’ consistent commitment to humanizing–to noticing and caring for–the people around him.

After the formerly blind man caused all sorts of commotion with his vision, Jesus and the disciples went back out into the wilderness–back to where he was baptized, which was also near where he fasted and was tempted with all the ways he could use his power for his benefit. You may remember: turn the stones to bread so you can eat; throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you; sell your soul to gain political power. The baptism site was also where he heard the voice say, “This is my beloved Son in whom I delight.”

While they were out there, Lazarus became deathly ill. His sisters sent word to Jesus asking him to come, but he waited two days before they started walking back to Bethany. No one knows why he waited. When he gets there and both sisters lament that he waited too long, and as he is surrounded by those grieving Lazarus’ death, he got angry. Our translation says, “troubled and disturbed,” but the word means agitated or indignant, so much so that his anger brought him to tears.

Jesus wept–and then he called Lazarus out of the tomb, even though his body had begun to decay and he was rather odiferous; even though he was wrapped up in grave clothes. We have no record of him saying anything, or Jesus speaking to him. After Jesus tells the people to unbind him, John’s story takes a different turn and focuses on some of those who wanted to kill Jesus.

I said earlier that this is a hard passage to preach about. The main reason is I keep wondering how Lazarus felt when he came stumbling out of the tomb after four days of death. I wonder if he was glad to be alive, or if he thought about having to die again, or if he was angry also. One ancient tradition says that the bits of decay that had begun on his body never healed after his resurrection, and he lived with the scars until he died again. There’s not really anything in the story that supports that, but it does seem like Lazarus would have lived with some trauma after they unwrapped him. After all, he had no say in what happened; life just went on.

There is not a cohesive explanation of this story that ties everything up in a nice bow–perhaps made from the cloth that ensconced Lazarus–and leaves us all feeling good like we do at the end of a hopeful novel or movie. This is not that kind of tale. It’s another messy miracle like the one we read last week, because life is messy. Mary and Martha both said, “If you had only been here, this wouldn’t have happened.” Our lives are full of contingencies like that. We are a part of circumstances beyond our control most every day. We share in the grief that Jesus, Mary, and Martha knew; we understand Jesus’ agitation when we face circumstances that leave us feeling cornered; we may even identify with Lazarus as one who needs someone to say, “Unbind them and let them go.”

And life goes on.

The hope of our faith is not that life–any life–leads to a happy ending, but that in the middle of the mess God is with us. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life”–whatever lies beyond death, life is happening right now, and Christ is present in our contingencies.

We are two Sundays away from celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, an event that is central to our faith, that gives us hope that love is stronger than death, and, even so, people have died every day since Mary first found the empty tomb. And in all of it, God is with us.

In times of peace, in times of trauma—God is with us.
In times of heartache and times of hope—God is with us.
In times of confusion and times of exhaustion—God is with us.
In times of laughter and in times of grief—God is with us.

Whatever the circumstance, life goes on and God is with us. Amen.

lenten journal: daffodil



the first daffodils opened
this week as if they had
marked their calendar
for the start of spring

in years past they have
not been so punctual
which is not entirely
their fault I should say

the lows at night still
dance close to freezing
and most of the garden
is still in hibernation

but there’s a dammit
to these daffodils a
determination to not
wait on the weather

or let the grey clouds
set the color scheme
it’s time to bloom now
even for a short time

by the time spring has
spring in New England
these yellow harbingers
will have fallen away

pouring their energy
back into the bulbs
to wait for next year
when winter ends again

we don’t move in a line
life goes in a circle
time to bloom time to
die time to daffodil



lenten journal: window seat


On Tuesdays and Thursdays I go to the office at my church in Hamden. Today was special because our office manager, who is of Italian descent, told me he was bringing Zeppole to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, one of the traditional foods made for the celebration in Italy and Sicily.

I didn’t know what a Zeppole was, but I wasn’t going to miss it since it involved the words Italian and pastry. I learned there are several variations, but the kind he brought we sort of like profiteroles (except bigger–think donut-sized); the pastry was cut in half and filled with a custard reminiscent of a Boston Cream Pie (my favorite). He stopped at a bakery on Wooster Street in New Haven, the heart of the Italian neighborhood there, and bought the bundles of deliciousness we all shared together. They were the real deal.

When we first moved to Boston in 1990, the only viable Protestant congregation was the Episcopal church in our Charlestown neighborhood, so that’s where we went. We had moved there as church planters and had yet to grow any gathering. (We were spectacular failures at church planting, but that’s a story for another time.) The priest in charge there, Franklin, knew everything about Episcopalianism–every knot in his garments, everything on the altar, and most everything about church history. From him we learned that the feast days (like the Feast of St. Joseph, which is March 19 and always falls in Lent) served as “windows in Lent,” which was a way of making room not only to venerate the saints but also to have weddings should the need arise, since weddings were not allowed during the season. If someone (say an unmarried person of noble descent) were to show up pregnant during Lent, to have to wait until after Easter for the wedding might make things awkward if not difficult.

So they opened a window . . .

There is some theological irony, I suppose, that Joseph’s day would be one that might provide cover for someone who was unexpectedly pregnant, but the whole point of the celebration is not quite that cynical. The Feast of St. Joseph dates back to the eleventh century when Sicily experienced a major drought. The people prayed for rain, promising to honor Joseph with a feast if the rain came to save their crops, one of which was fava beans. The rains came, and so did the feast (meatless, because it’s Lent). How the Zeppole became part of the meal I don’t know, but I think he would have liked them.

It was starting to rain today as the five of us who gathered to share in the Zeppole Fest. I was the new one in the group; the others came with knowing anticipation. We sat and talked and ate and wiped custard off our chins as we told stories about foods that mattered and meals we loved. Someone asked everyone’s favorite pastry and it took fifteen minutes for everyone to answer because of the additional responses each time someone named a favorite.

On this next to Last Thursday in Lent, no one spoke of what they had given up, and no one confessed any guilt in eating the Zeppole. Instead, our faces dripped with gratitude for our office manager’s willingness to share the view from his window–to gather us together, to tell stories, and to serve really good pastry.

We use the word Lent sometimes as though it were some kind of sentence for bad behavior. The root of the word means “to lengthen,” and is more about the ways the days grow longer than it is about doing without. The season does carry a long tradition of spiritual focus and discipline, but it, like Spring, has layers of life and death, of mud and sunshine. Spring is when we can begin to sleep with our windows open, at least for some of the nights–unless it’s pollen season, of course.

Joseph has always been one for whom I have felt a great deal of compassion. When the angel finally came to him, Joseph was confused and troubled, but he was still present. Name the child Emmanuel, the messenger said–God with Us. Though I have no basis from which to draw this conclusion other than our coffee break today, I think Zeppole might translate the same way.

After all, what better way to lean into that name than to share good food together.


lenten journal: train of thought


train of thought

she saw me first
as we stood in
among the apples
though I wasn’t
the one she was
looking for or at

her eyes went
over my head to
catch the train
that chugs around
Bishop’s Orchards
she squealed like

she knew everyone
on board or like
she was a passenger
on the adventure
of her young life
she squealed again

when the train blew
through the breads
and also at the register
standing in her cart
waving at the wells fargo
wagon comin’ down

I’m in that store
three times a week
I mostly miss the train
though it’s always
circling the ceiling
but the little conductor

called me out
had a ticket to ride
if I were willing
to jump on board
maybe next time
I won’t miss it


lenten journal: handscape



I’ve been staring at my palms
like they were a writing prompt
or a collection of coded runes

the deep rutted roads that run
like poorly planned highways
across an aging desert of skin

ancient river beds now run dry
from days when dreams roamed
these valleys like dinosaurs

I’ve stared long enough to get
lost in metaphors de manos
and the epidermal esoterica

of a little cellular cosmos
little lines marking mystery
whole worlds in my hands

weathered not wrinkled
fingerprints and fault lines
all they’ve held and let go

I’ve been staring at my palms
and rubbing one on the other
now I will let them rest


lenten journal: slow art


Because I went to the gym this morning, I saw the message on my dashboard that my car was due for servicing and I remembered to make an appointment when I got home. The Honda dealership had an opening this afternoon, as did I, so I told them I would be there around 2 o’clock. When I told Ginger my plan for the day, she said, “Eli’s is across the street. I’ll go with you and we can have lunch.”

And so we did.

Eli’s on the Hill is one of six restaurants with the same name dotted across southeastern Connecticut. It’s good food in a comfortable atmosphere. The bar at the restaurant in Branford is large and U-shaped. It was not crowded when we got there, so we sat at one bend in the U and ate and talked until the car was ready. The scene, for us, was familiar. We spend a lot of time eating and talking together, in a variety of settings.

At one point, Ginger asked, “What are your favorite things to do with me?”

I thought for a moment, and I answered something I don’t remember now because it wasn’t the best answer. Then I said, “This. Sitting and talking with you when we hadn’t planned for it.”

She agreed it’s one of our best things.

As I sat down to write this evening, I came across an article at 3 Quarks Daily titled “Patience With What Is Strange: In Praise Of Slow Art” by Chris Horner, which talks about the power of taking our time to ingest or digest things that seem strange, and it was that word–strange–that took me back to our lunch at Eli’s because, years ago, we found one of the Story People that said:

“You’re the strangest person I ever met,” she said
& I said, “You are too”
and we decided we’d know each other a long time

The article is full of good things not the least of which is the closing paragraph, which includes an incredible

Slow art has layers. And this is why it requires time and effort. We should see this as a good and necessary thing. If this is a kind of obstacle in the way of easy assimilation then it is an obstacle that is integral to the value of the thing itself. The mind is calmed, or disturbed, or made exultant by the art that rewards us for our goodwill and our capacity to take our time.

Then he closes with an incredible Nietzsche quote:

One must learn to love.— This is what happens to us in music: first one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life; then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity:—finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing: and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.— But that is what happens to us not only in music: that is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fair mindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty:—that is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way: for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned.

We don’t always have the luxury of taking the afternoon to hang out, but one of the things I have learned about love is to take any opportunity that presents itself, or better yet, make space where there doesn’t seem to be any. We have been intentional about learning that “we should miss it if it were missing.” And Nietzsche is right: it does continue to enchant us relentlessly.

The chorus of the first song I ever wrote with Billy Crockett says,

it’s an open heart
it’s a work of art
it’s the basic stuff
that makes another
picture of love

Thirty-four years on, I’m still finding layers and I am still enchanted by the slow art of love.