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open and affirming

I didn’t write yesterday because I used what time I had reading This Is How It Happened on Real Live Preacher. Gordon does a great job describing his pilgrimage to inclusiveness. Then came the comments, which — if you’ve spent anytime on RLP — you know are many. I threw in my two cents and went to work.

As I sat down this morning, I checked in again to find fifty new comments since yesterday. I read them all. As I said there, by the time I finished I was exhausted, encouraged (by some), and deeply saddened by some of the things people will say in Jesus’ name. Comments on a blog do not communicate tone effectively in every case, so I won’t assume to know people’s feelings or motivations, but their words made me sad because they said, on one way or another, gay and lesbian people should not be welcomed unconditionally into the church.

I don’t believe that.

I also don’t believe homosexuality is a sin. It is an orientation — a way of being — not a choice. If I say someone chose to be gay, then I have to articulate when I chose to be heterosexual; I didn’t choose it. I was born this way, as were my gay and lesbian friends. We miss the mark when we let the discussion be about sex. All of us are more than just sexual beings. My parents talk about “the gay lifestyle,” which translated means sexual promiscuity, which is certainly not limited to gays and lesbians. Sex for the sake of sex without regard for the other human being and without the necessary relationship is sinful and damaging, regardless of who is involved; being gay or lesbian, however, is not a sin. I understand there are different ways to interpret the passages, and I’m not claiming everyone has to read it my way. Good scholars are deeply divided on this issue. I am saying I’m not going against the Bible to take the stand I’m taking.

One other thing I believe: rarely does anyone change his or her mind in these discussions. We’ve already decided where we stand and we like to make our points. I’m not trying to pick a fight here, I just want to go on record — again — for who I think God is calling the church to be.

As a minister in the United Church of Christ in Massachusetts, I have the wonderful opportunity to be a part of a denomination who has chosen to welcome everyone, has ordained gay and lesbian ministers since the late seventies (when the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as mental illness), and — based on each congregation’s decision — can perform marriages between two adults who have committed their lives to one another under God. When same gender marriage became legal in our state, opponents ranted about the threat to “traditional” marriage. I wondered what they meant: anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night? threatening letters? gangs of gay couples intimidating husbands and wives at the mall?

I would like to report, two years on, that Ginger and I have not been threatened in any way. Just the opposite. We have had the chance to attend the weddings of dear friends who have finally been able to feel completely welcome in the church and the faith to which they have committed their lives. One couple got married on their thirtieth anniversary. It was amazing.

The UCC designation for churches who want to be publicly intentional about welcoming everyone is open and affirming. You would think those two adjectives would fit any church. Too often, however, the public face the church puts forward is one of exclusion. Fred Phelps drove from Kansas to stand across the street from a wedding here in our state so he could scream,”God hates fags.”

That’s what Christians do?

I know he’s the lunatic fringe, and I know he’s also part of the “everyone” I think needs to be welcomed, and I know he’s sometimes the only person labeled “Christian” that some people encounter. I’m not trying to beat him up. My point is I can’t find a place where Jesus acted that way, or called us to do so.

When same gender marriage became the law here, our governor leaned into an old law to keep people from out of state from getting married here. The law, passed early in the twentieth century, was written to curb interracial marriage, which in its time was seen as a threat to “real marriage.” In terms of civil rights, his move brought the issue to clarity. The law was wrong then and it is wrong now. This is a matter of treating everyone equally, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes some of us.

Faith, however, is not about civil rights; it’s more than that. We are called to love the world — everyone not because it’s the legal thing, or even the moral thing, but because it is the truest thing we can do. There is a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea, says the hymn. From the beach at the end of my street, the sea is endless.

When it comes right down to it, all I know to say is this: when I stand before God to account for my life, if God says, “Why did you let so many people in?” I’ll take the hit. I can live with that. If God were to say, “Why did you keep closing the door when I intended there to be room for everyone?” I couldn’t take it.

And I can’t, for a minute, imagine God would ever say that.

Peace,
Milton

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reasons to blog

Ginger and I had time to meet for a cup of coffee in the middle of the day — unusual for a Thursday. When we sat down at Dunkin’ Donuts she asked, “So what do you get out of writing your blog?”

She’s never one for superficial questions, even during coffee break.

A couple of things came to mind.

First, I’m writing at least five days a week. This blog will be two months old on Monday and I will be sneaking up on fifty posts by then. I love to write, I want to write, I feel called to write and, for many years, I have let other things take the time I dreamed of using to put words together in a way that was meaningful to me. I feel like I’m making a good offering of my gifts. Writing regularly has also had a diminishing effect on my depression. This blog has made for an easier winter.

Second, I’m making significant connections. Some writers are loners: they go off by themselves, never sharing ideas, and stay alone until they give birth to whatever they are trying to get out of themselves. Not me. I do my best writing in the context of interactions: I throw out an idea, see what gets tossed back, and then make something new out of all of it. I’m deeply fed as a writer and a person by a sense of belonging. This blog has led me to some old friends and several new ones. Each week, my list of “stuff I like to read” grows because someone leaves a comment that leads me back to their blog and I try to pass what they are doing along to others.

I realize that either one of those answers is not unique to me as one of millions out here in the blogosphere, but they both bring me back here day after day to see what will flow from my fingers to the screen.

Peace,
Milton

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boats against the current

I’m sitting at my desk looking at the sunset over the marsh through the window in my office, which is unusual for me on a Wednesday afternoon. I’m usually at the restaurant. Life for me, right now, divides into three nights at church and three nights at the Red Lion Inn, and some of all seven days doing one or the other. I’m home tonight because this cold has gotten the best of me and I’m out of gas. I’ve been sick more this winter than I have in several years, which I take as a signal that something in this schedule I’m keeping needs to change. Knowing that it is most important to make a move toward something rather than just away from something, I’m waiting and praying about what comes next. But, for these days, this is what life looks like.

When I got to the restaurant on Friday, Robert, the chef, told me to come up with a new soup since we sold out of the chili. Still in a bit of a southwestern vibe, I found some black beans in the storeroom and decided to see what I could do with them. What I came up with was a Tequila and Lime Black Bean Soup; I wish I thought then to call it Soup From Stock, but then again puns are mostly lost on pubsters. It turned out to taste pretty good. I thought it was a little bitter at first, thanks to the lime, so I added some chopped chorizo and the meat balanced it out nicely.

It strikes me, as I try to figure out what happens next in my life, that I’m working on much the same kind of recipe. I’ve got to figure out what to make of what I have.

For some reason – and I think it’s the sunset tonight – my mind went to the last page of The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite novels:

And I I sat there brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come along way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter. . . . And one fine morning —-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I was reading Gatsby with my tenth graders at Winchester High the June we moved into our house here in Marshfield, which would qualify as part of the vast obscurity beyond the city. After a day of unpacking boxes, Ginger and I walked the 600 feet to the end of our street to stand on the beach and look eastward across Cape Cod Bay. As we stood there, I saw a blinking light – a green light –out in the ocean.

“Look,” I said, “it’s Daisy’s house.”

We moved to Marshfield chasing dreams: Ginger wanted to be a senior pastor; I wanted to write. By September, I was sinking deep into my depression and couldn’t do much of anything but walk down the beach. I started picking up pieces of sea glass – broken glass, smoothed and polished by the water that washes up with the tide. “Tiny bits of nevermind” I called them in a poem I wrote. As the pile of colored pieces grew, I taught myself how to make earrings out of them and made jewelry for Ginger.

One of my persistent ideas as I walked down the beach was what I saw as I walked was determined by the line I chose to follow. If I stayed up close to the sea wall, I would see certain rocks and shells; if I walked closer to the water, I would see other things. When I decided where I was going to walk, I was also deciding where I was not going to walk. There was no way to see it all. Being a person who has never liked to feel as though I was missing something, that realization was quite humbling.

I realize, sitting here at the window, that many nights have passed since I last saw the green light. I haven’t even looked for sea glass in a long time; my walks on the beach have been spent watching schnauzers bounce like bunnies as they run believing they really can catch the sea gulls. The line I’ve taken in my life has left me more aware of feeling beaten by the currents than captured by the possibilities. It’s not so much needing new ingredients as it is having the imagination to come up with a different recipe.

It’s getting dark now, at least at street level. The sky above is azure blue, a sheltering sky that will soon give way to starlight, as Orion and his friends begin their nighty sojourn over our house. And soon, the green light will start shining on the bay.

I know, even though I can’t see it from here.

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what’s the point?

I’m hanging out at the house today because I have a cold and I feel terrible. I have a couple of committee meetings to go to at church tonight, so I’m saving my strength. Our church is a part of something called The Timothy Project, a visioning emphasis of the Mass. Conference of the UCC to help thriving churches do even better, and our Timothy Team is gathering to talk about what happens next. My other meeting is our Stewardship Committee. Other Tuesdays of the month I meet with the Youth Team, the Diaconate, and the Christian Education Committee — and that’s not all of them. As I’m getting ready for those meetings, I can’t get the gathering I saw in the ice cream parlor Sunday afternoon. I’ve stumped myself trying to think of the last committee meeting I went to at church that was focused on something other than perpetuating the institution or taking care of our own.

I can’t remember one.

My friend Gordon, over at Real Live Preacher, just posted a great article on church marketing where he talks about the words we choose to describe ourselves. He starts by talking about church signs. When I was in high school in Houston, the church where my dad pastored had one of those signs where the slogan changed every week. I never knew who put the slogans up, but they were all cutesy and full of bad puns. The week it said, “It is no sin to cheat the devil” I came home and told my father I was going to change churches if he didn’t make the sign guy get a grip. I’ve never met anyone who said, “I joined this church because I love the little sayings on the sign outside.”

Jesus doesn’t fit in a sound bite.

I’m struggling to see how Jesus fits in a committee meeting where we only talk about ourselves. I don’t want to come across too judgmental because the folks in these meetings mean well and we have some important work to do, I just don’t think we are ever allowed the luxury of working on only one side of the equation of faith. When we talk about how we are going to challenge one another to give more to meet our budget deficit, we need to talk about how we are going to give away more at the same time. How could any church gather in the next day or two and not spend time talking and praying about the miners in Mexico and the victims of the mudslides in the Philippines?

I don’t understand enough about prayer to grasp how praying for faraway people in pain helps them, but I do know it changes me. If we make a point of having those kind of prayerful conversations each time we gather, it will change us as a church as well.

We have two slogans that show up in words, both printed and spoken:

“A growing church for a growing community.”
“No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.”

I think we put them out there with good intentions and we work to mean what we say. The challenge comes when life calls us to parse the phrases more closely than we had anticipated. We, like many churches, mostly think about how to get you through our doors, not so much how to knock on yours.

If you’ve read this blog much at all, you’ll understand when I say my problem is how to go into these meetings and not sound like Johnny-One-Note. I come loaded with thoughts on chocolate, free trade, being Open and Affirming, mission trips — and I’m grow quickly weary of the ease with which we spend money on windows and pew cushions. I struggle to find the balance between speaking a prophetic word and sounding like a pompous ass. I’m not the only one in the world — or in my church — who is worried about the people trapped in the mines and the mud. I’m nowhere close to having the corner on compassion. I’m afraid I get so busy looking around the world I don’t always notice the people in the room, people who have spent their lives in our church with great faith, love, and intention.

More than one time in my life I’ve been called back to the movie Mass Appeal, a story about a young seminarian working in a church with an older priest who has allowed himself to settle for comfort over faith. The seminarian is determined to change the congregation, but tries to do so with a flamethrower, rather than a pastoral word. He learns the folks in the pew, which he sees only as rich and clueless, are hurting and searching as much as he is — they just talk about it differently and have found different ways to cope with the pain.

You’d think, twenty-five years out of seminary, I would have finally learned that lesson.

The church needs my voice, but as part of the chorus of voices, not as the paid soloist. And I will only sing well if I’m listening hard to those around me. Then we have the chance for harmony. Without taking the choir analogy too far, one more thing: every choir that sings well rehearses a great deal, working on both the big picture and how things go measure by measure.

(The last paragraph was aimed mostly at me; take what you need.)

Peace,
Milton

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soar, run, walk

First, once again, I want to pass along the places where passion lives:

IMOM.org, which helps pay veterinary bills for folks who can’t and its community bulletin board. Thanks again to all who continue to share what matters most to you.

Yesterday afternoon we took my in-laws and friends into Boston. We ended up at JP Licks, the world’s best ice cream place in Jamaica Plain, a very eclectic neighborhood of the city. As we were settling into our table, I couldn’t help but notice the seven or eight folks at the table next to us who were engrossed in a very intentional discussion. At one end sat a woman with her laptop computer open; the title on the screen read, “Fostering Hope.” About twenty minutes later, as their meeting began to break up, I stopped one of the people and explained what I had seen on the screen and asked if would mind telling me about their discussion. He was happy to oblige.

It seems the group was from Hope Church in Jamaica Plain, a UCC church start that is doing wonderful things. The woman with the computer was a South African national who was dreaming out loud about trying to do something to speak to the tragic plight of AIDS orphans in her home country — as many as a million of them — and believing that a few people could get together over coffee and make a difference somehow.

The lectionary passage Ginger preached from yesterday was Mark 2:1-12, the story of the four friends who lowered their paralyzed friend through the roof so Jesus could heal him. Part of what she talked about was the initiative and the imagination of the friends: they had to come up with a plan beyond their good intentions. Next thing you know, the house had a new skylight and their friend was in front of Jesus. He couldn’t have gotten there on his own.

The story works as metaphor whether we are talking about helping our friends next door or the orphans in South Africa. I wonder how many nights they had sat with their friend saying things like, “Man, I wish there was something I could do,” as they helped him do his daily tasks. Their commitment to their friend helped create the opportunity. They didn’t give up.

I preached yesterday as well. My sermon was a week delayed, thanks to the blizzard; my passage was Isaiah 40:21-31: “They that wait on the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint.” I stayed with the sermon because I felt our congregation needed a strong pastoral word. When I got to church yesterday, I found out it was the anniversary of the death of one of our most beloved church members who died with cancer a year ago. Another member had planned a solo I didn’t know about. Turns out she sang “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

When it came my turn, here is part of what I said:

Those who wait on the Lord — interesting choice of words.

We don’t wait on God like we wait for a bus, or even like a kid waits for Christmas. Isaiah is talking about patience that grows with trust, with faith, who look to the stars and all of creation for reminders that the Creator of Everything knows us by name also and does not leave us alone. When we wait on the Lord,

sometimes we soar over;
sometimes we run through;
sometimes we walk in.

Among the folks who will sit in this room today are those who had friends and family members die and the wounds of grief are still fresh; some have loved ones overseas fighting in wars; some are dealing with cancer and other diseases which offer an uncertain future; some lived in fractured families; some carry bitterness towards one another and find it hard to forgive, or ask for forgiveness; some have been through painful court cases; some are struggling to keep their marriages; some would be here but are no longer able to leave their homes; some are dealing with aging parents; some are dealing with struggling teenagers; some don’t know what to do with their lives; some are dealing with overwhelming debt; some are unemployed and desperately in need of work; some wake up and go to jobs they hate everyday because they feel trapped; some are tired and cannot find rest; some are depressed and doing well to even get out of bed; some are lonely; some are sad; some feel broken.

Sometimes we soar over;
sometimes we run through;
sometimes we walk in.

Sometimes we crawl.

The hymn on the insert is one of my favorites, particularly for the first verse:

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish —
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Do we not know? Have we not heard? The everlasting God — our God — does not grow weary or tired. God gives strength to the weary and increases power to those who lack. Those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not faint.

Sometimes we soar over;
sometimes we run through;
sometimes we walk in.

In all things, we are together in Jesus’ name and in God’s hands.

The connection between the two passages, for me, centers around persistence. I am overwhelmed by the neneighborhoodigborhood, much less the world. I can’t even carry the people who live around me to Jesus, much less the AIDS orphans. And so I have to learn to wait on God, to trust that somehow I will find new strength — we all will — to soar, run, or walk and be changed in the process. On “The Writer’s Almanac,” Garrison Keillor quoted Robert Altman, who said, “To play it safe is not to play.” The four friends tore up someone’s roof without thinking about paying for it; they just knew that was how to get their friend some help. All five of them were healed in the encounter with Jesus.

And so may it happen to me.

Peace,
Milton

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our little tub o’ love

Lola is our oldest schnauzer. She’s five.

We got her from a breeder/groomer in New Hampshire who raised show dogs. Lola’s parents were champions; Lola was going to be one, too, except she never got tall enough. She is beautiful and, as they say, she’s a short standing schnauzer. (She’s also quite round. Our groomer calls her a little Ewok.) Since Westminster was not in her future, she came to live with us.

We learned quickly that she loved us dearly and has very little room for others in her life. To us, Lola is our little “tub o’ love,” but that affection is not so easily apparent to others. Our friend Jay lived with us for about a year and it took eight months before Lola would stay in the same room with him. Now, all we have to do is say Jay’s name and she gets all excited; they are best friends. Lola’s circle has grown slightly over time; there are now seven or eight folks who can enter our house without being verbally accosted. The rest of you have some work to do.

Over the years we’ve learned some things about how show dogs are socialized. For one, show schnauzers are plucked rather than cut (sounds painful). For two, they are raised to respond only to the trainer, so they don’t get distracted at the show. Lola comes by her social reticence honestly; it’s how she was brought up. What her trainers were trying to teach her was to focus; she learned, instead, how to fear.

Lola is scared, so she acts tough, angry — you get the picture. She’s just incarnating what we all do at times, except for her it’s a lifestyle. We’ve tried all sorts of things, from natural remedies to medication to intense training, and — though she improves — we can’t get to the root of the fear. The best we can do is to hold her, walk up to whomever the dreaded stranger happens to be and say, “Friend.”

My in-laws brought some friends with them, so Lola is adjusting to a house filled with people this morning. Her world has been seriously disturbed and she will tell anyone who will listen. Ginger and her folks just took Lola and Gracie, her little sister, to the beach to get a walk in ahead of the impending cold front. It’s low tide and the beach will be vacant; they can run all they want. That always makes things better.

At least it works for me.

Peace,
Milton

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family matters

First thing: here are a few of sites passed along to me that I pass along to you. I will eventually add them in the left hand column as permanent links as well.

Public Health International
Public Action to Deliver Shelter (PADS)
Marshfield Food Pantry
Interfaith Hospitality Network
Community Homeless Alliance Ministries (CHAM)
“Rainstoppers”: First Christian Church of San Jose

As you will see, some are local, some are national, some are worldwide. All of them are doing hands-on good stuff.

And now for something completely different: my in-laws are coming, which means we have been in a cleaning frenzy for the last forty-eight hours (we had a lot to clean up). They live in Birmingham, Alabama and rarely get the chance to see snow, so this year they planned their visit in the dead of winter. Some of the snow from the storm still survives, despite the last few days being unseasonably warm; the weekend promises to be frigid, which sends me thinking about what to cook while they’re here.

I’ve got a couple of things in mind — they’re here for several days, but the two I’m going to leave with you are of the “comfort food” variety: Uncle Milty’s Guinness and Chocolate Chili (you read it right) and Banana Pudding (for my father-in-law).

When Ginger and I began dating, it didn’t take me long to realize different families had both different attitudes and traditions towards food. I’m a cook because my mother made the kitchen the warmest room in the house. Every meal was an event. If she was making sandwiches, the mayo and mustard were put in bowls on the table; she would never think of just plunking down the jar. We all sat down for a meal. I described the difference to Ginger this way: my family thought meal time was an event; her family ate so they didn’t die.

Over the years, part of the tradition that has grown up as I have become a part of the Brasher clan is I cook when we are together. The fun part for me is they think I’m some sort of magician in the kitchen. My mother-in-law, who loves to learn more than anyone I know, sits at the counter and asks great questions. If I ever lack for affirmation, all I have to do is sit down at the table with them and they make me feel like the greatest chef in the world.

As you can see, I’m glad they’re coming.

Growing up overseas, I missed out on knowing what it felt like to be a part of an extended family and to feel like you were a part of something beyond the people that lived in your house. The Brashers are thick with cousins and kin and they welcomed me as if I had been a part of the mostly crazy bunch from the beginning, which is truly a gift. When Ginger and I married, we both took each other’s last names (thus the Brasher-Cunningham). Now, nearly sixteen years into our marriage, I feel as much Brasher as I do Cunningham; I have grown into my name much like Jacob wrestled with becoming Israel, or Abram learned to become Abraham.

My family is coming. What better place to meet them than around the table.

Peace,
Milton

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something to believe in

“Commit to something you believe in,” was the title of one of the twenty-two email messages that greeted me when I signed on this morning.

I considered it a bit of a sign, or at least a nudge.

I opened the letter from Sojourners Magazine (I’m on their sojomail list) to find they were asking for donations and subscriptions to their organization. Their logic was I get their stuff and I share some of their passion; I should pony up. I can’t fault their logic, but the title of the email had already sent my mind spinning in other directions.

I’m still wrestling with this chocolate thing. My posts last week generated some ongoing conversations between several folks, not the least of which is at church. Some of us have started talking about how we can become a “free trade congregation.” I like the sound of that. But there’s more. I went back to the Millions website because I’m thinking about showing the movie to my high school youth group in a couple of weeks, and found a link to WaterAid, who says their vision “is of a world where everyone has access to safe water and effective sanitation.” They are doing amazing stuff. I was humbled to see what the five bucks I plunk down for a case of Poland Springs half liter bottles will do in Mali or Burkina Faso.

But there’s more. When I searched to find the Sojourners site, I first typed in sojourners.org and that led me to Sojourner’s Place, an organization in Wilmington, Delaware that helps homeless people get off the street. (Part of the reason I was intrigued is I’ve never actually met anyone from Delaware; I was almost convinced it was a fictitious land, sort of like Narnia or Middle Earth.) Thanks to Bono and others, the “Make Poverty History” campaign is getting necessary and deserved attention. I can go on: Habitat for Humanity, Amnesty International, Compassion, Human Rights Campaign, and the Pine Street Inn (a Boston homeless shelter) are some that get my attention.

The world is bleeding with need and there are a lot of folks trying to do something about it, which is both comforting and overwhelming. Every issue brings a rush of resolve, guilt, hope, and helplessness in me; I want to do something even as I feel incredibly inadequate to do so.

Commit to something you believe in.

I can’t do it all. I can do something. The creative tension that lies between those two statements holds the power to change the world. Years ago, Compassion had a poster filled with cartoon images of people, each one thinking, “What can one person do?” The poster didn’t need a caption. Which leads me, finally, to my point.

Almost two months into this blogging thing, I’m amazed by the sense of community that can develop online. I check in everyday, hoping for comments, recognizing names of people I’ve never seen, yet to whom I somehow feel connected. I want to know what you’re committed to doing. I want to know what you believe in. So I’m asking for links and stories, for connections to the things that matter, for suggestions about how we get off our butts and do as well as talk about what is important.

I’ll be happy to work as a clearing house of sorts, creating a links list so folks can follow up on what we share with each other. I’m hoping for ideas and encouragement for all of us to not feel alone or insignificant in the face of a world so desperately in need of people to believe it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’m looking for a conversion experience here. I want to be changed by what happens here. I want to be called to a life different than the one I’m leading. I want to claim for my own the phrase I see plastered all over the Olympics: “passion lives here.”

Conversion is not a solo sport; neither is life.

All together now . . .

Peace,
Milton

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baby pygmy goat day

My friend Patty drives from Higgins Lake to Ann Arbor, Michigan regularly. She calls when she’s on the road. Just south of St. John’s, the highway flattens out into farm country, which is usually when my phone rings because I think the landscape gets boring, or at least hypnotizing.

One day last year she called laughing because she had seen a sign for “baby pygmy goats.” Neither one of us knew what they were, but we both had fun saying the words. She noticed it was early spring and said, “Next year I will watch for the first day the sign is out and that will be Baby Pygmy Goat Day: the first sign of spring.”

She called yesterday afternoon to say February 13 was Baby Pygmy Goat Day. The sign was out; five babies were available. Since I had already blogged yesterday, I did not get a chance to tell you, but a few Baby Pygmy Goat festivities added to Valentine’s Day have to be a plus, don’t you think?

As far as the little goats go, I found a bunch of information here and even an audio clip of a goat bleat. The goats are cute and evidently a bunch of folks are really into them, but I’m celebrating Baby Pygmy Goat Day because of my friend. We’ve known each other for almost twenty-five years and have seen each other through a lot of stuff. She stood up with me at my wedding. She and Ginger are also good friends. I will mark February 13 on my calendar as An Important Day because I’m friends with Patty.

Which brings me to February 14.

Tuesday night is committee meeting night at my church, every week a different committee. Christian Education meets the second week of the month. When we got to the end of our January meeting, the chairperson said, “Our next meeting will be February 14.”

“I can’t meet then;” I said, “it’s Valentine’s Day.” So they moved the meeting a week earlier.

A former teaching colleague chided me one year because I was making plans for Valentine’s. “It’s nothing but a Hallmark holiday,” he said. Several others around the lunch table agreed.

“Maybe so,” I replied, “but I figure any excuse to tell Ginger I love her is worth enjoying, regardless of who came up with the idea.” And so I’m off to pick up roses (peach) and chocolate (free trade) and then we will make our annual pilgrimage to the Hard Rock Cafe.

Valentine’s Day 1989 was early in our relationship. I took her to the Hard Rock in Dallas because she loved the place. They had a band that night. The restaurant gave everyone a glass of champagne. The night was full of energy and electricity for us; we both knew something was happening we didn’t quite comprehend. About half way through the set, the lead singer called his girlfriend up on stage and proposed. Ginger and I both knocked over our champagne glasses. When we got to the car after dinner, I moved to unlock her door and surprised her with a kiss that rivaled the one between Wesley and Buttercup at the end of The Princess Bride. It was a great night.

Life does enough to pull as apart, whether we are friends or lovers. The people who stay connected are the people who are determined to stay connected, who work at it, who find ways to build reminders of the bonds that matter into the daily routines of existence. When we get our cell phone bill every month, Ginger and I laugh because most of our minutes are spent talking to each other, and most of those calls are just to say hello.

I don’t really care about pygmy goats, but Baby Pygmy Goat Day matters because it connects me to my friend Patty.

Hallmark or not, I’m going to celebrate the hell out of Valentine’s Day because Ginger — the woman I love more than anyone else in the world — is going to dinner with me.

And when we get to the car, I’m planning on the Best Kiss Ever.

Peace (and Love),
Milton

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every last one

I got home from the restaurant about 10:30 Saturday night, put on my pajamas and Ginger and I hunkered down for the storm. It’s now Monday morning and neither of us have left the house or changed out of our pajamas. Both our congregations cancelled services. We watched a couple of movies – Millions (highly recommended) and The Polar Express – and we kept checking back with the various weather people to see how the storm was progressing. We knew it was snowing (we could see) and we knew it was windy (it blows through our house like water through a sieve), but we wanted to know what was happening around us.

Most of the forecasters were downright elated by the storm. Their jobs have been fairly boring this winter, I guess, since we haven’t had much snow. I was amused by how jazzed they got every time they were on camera. When the storm met the criteria for a blizzard they were beside themselves. Then they moved on to talking about how this ranked as an all-time storm. We got a fair amount of snow – twelve to twenty inches across eastern Massachusetts, but the storm only ranked as Number Eleven on the all-time list. We didn’t even break the top ten.

They seemed a little disappointed.

Last night, we kept checking in on the Olympics. Two events caught my eye: snowboarding and short track speed skating. The snowboarders capture me with their free spirits and reckless-but-purposeful abandon. The sport is packed full of creative tension and whimsy. They are non-conformists and precision performers at the same time: bungee-jumping ballerinas. When they soar up about the edge of the half-pipe doing flips and turns, they make it look as though any of us could do it. Even though we all know better, for a moment we get to go along for the ride.

The speed skaters are another matter. Short track means they are going as fast as they can on a course that is too slick and two short for the kind of speed they achieve. As Ginger noted, it’s human NASCAR, which means, of course, we’re all waiting for the crash.

Two Americans ended up center stage in the two events: one won and one didn’t. Shaun White, the Flying Tomato, won the gold medal in Snowboarding. Apolo Anton Ohno, who was supposed to win, didn’t make the finals because he slipped in the final turn. He was in second place, which would have qualified him, but he pressed to win the heat and it cost him.

Both White and Ohno gave it their best shot. Both do things most of us can only dream of doing. Yet, in a world where even our weather competes against itself, one will be remembered and one will not. Such is the logic of competition, particularly in America.

A couple of things to clear up: one, I’m an amazing average athlete. As the perennial last-picked-why-don’t-you-play-right-field-kid, it’s no wonder I’m a cook and a writer. Two, I’m not without my competitive streak; I’m just questioning why we only remember the winners.

(Quick, name three fourth place finishers in any event at any time.)

One of the biblical metaphors that gets lost in our go-for-the-gold mentality is the idea of life as a race. “Let us run the race that is set before us,” says the writer of Hebrews, “fixing our eyes on Jesus. The point of the race is to finish, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, everyone encouraging one another. I’m afraid the American translation would challenge us to get across the finish line first so we could shout, “Jesus love you, but I’m his favorite!”

In 1968, a young African was sent by his country to run the marathon in Mexico City. His name was John Steven Okwari . (I heard his story years ago, but I’m afraid I don’t remember the county or how to spell his name.) He finished dead last. Four hours after the winner crossed the finish lines, Okwari entered the Olympic stadium. He was so far behind that the closing ceremonies were over. When word reached the stadium that one person was still on the course, about thirty thousand people stayed in the stands to wait for him. After the race he was asked why he bothered to keep going.

“My country sent me to finish the race,” he said.

He was last — even Google can’t find him now – and he did his best.

Shawn White was the best in the world at what he does yesterday. He deserved the gold medal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t congratulate or reward him. I am saying life is not a competition. Our churches and classrooms are packed full of folks who are not Number One. They’re not even Number Four. While we often talk of the courage it takes to play through the pain to win, we fail to notice the courage it takes to live day to day feeling unnoticed or even invisible.

I see it in the eyes of the “fringe kids” who come to youth group because they know they belong. I hear it in the voice of the Brazilian woman who sings while she washes dishes for nine bucks an hour. We matter not because we are all winners, but because we are breathing – because we are God’s creation, every last one of us.

Every last one.

Peace, Milton


PS — Thanks to Gwen, one of the readers of this blog, I can clear up the details on the marathon runner I mentioned:

John Stephen Akhwari (b. 1938?, Mbulu, Tanganyika) was an Olympic athlete at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He representated Tanzania in the marathon but he fell during the race badly cutting his knee and dislocating the joint. Rather than quitting, he continued running. He finished last among the 74 competitors. When asked why he ran he said simply, “My country did not send me 7000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 7000 miles to finish it.”

Akhwari has lent his name to the John Stephen Akhwari Athletic Foundation which supports Tanzanian athletes training for the Olympic Games. (from wikipedia)

Thanks, Gwen

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