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lenten journal: thank you, john prine

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I had some things in mind when I sat down to write, but then I saw the news that John Prine is in critical condition and on a ventilator with Covid-19. Though I do not know him personally, he feels like a friend because of the impact his words and music have had on my life. So tonight I want to offer a small collection of his songs. I have spent the last couple of hours listening to songs and looking for videos to share. I could go on all night, but I am going to stop and share some of what I have found.

I am going to start with my favorite song. Period. “Angel from Montgomery.” One of my favorite memories of singing this song was that I introduced it by saying, “I think I relate to this song more than any song I know.” Then I sang the first line: “I am an old woman named after my mother.” Even though I had a good laugh at myself I stand by my statement.

there’s flies in the kitchen
I can hear ‘em a buzzin’
and I ain’t done nothin’
since I woke up today
how the hell can a person
go to work every morning
and come home every evening
and have nothing to say

make me an angel that flies from montgomery
make me a poster of an old rodeo
just give me something I can hold on to
to believe in this living is just a hard way to go

Here are Bonnie Raitt and John singing it together.

One of the strengths of his songs is his ability to paint pictures of people. He can make you feel something without telling you to feel it. “Hello in There” is a great example.

we had an apartment in the city
me and Loretta liked living there
well, it’d been years since the kids had grown
a life of their own left us alone
John and Linda live in Omaha
and Joe is somewhere on the road
we lost Davy in the Korean war
and I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore

you know that old trees just grow stronger
and old rivers grow wilder every day
old people just grow lonesome
waiting for someone to say, “hello in there, hello”

He can write a pretty good love song, too. Though he seems pretty tough, there is a tenderness to his words that ring true. This is “Long Monday.”

soul to soul heart to heart and cheek to cheek
come on baby give me a kiss that’ll last all week
the thought of you leavin’ again brings me down
the promise of your sweet love brings me around

it’s gonna be a long Monday
sittin’ all alone on a mountain
by a river that has no end
it’s gonna be a long Monday
stuck like the tick of a clock
that’s come unwound again

He also has a good sense of humor that shows up in all sorts of ways, at times more subtle than others. “Fish and Whistle” is one of the softer ones.

I been thinking lately about the people I meet
the carwash on the corner and the hole in the street
the way my ankles hurt with shoes on my feet
I’m wondering if I’m gonna see tomorrow

father forgive us for what we must do
you forgive us and we’ll forgive you
we’ll forgive each other ’til we both turn blue
and we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven

John released an album of new songs in 2018 called The Tree of Forgiveness. One of the most powerful songs is “Summer’s End,” which is a song of grief. The video speaks to the pain of the opioid crisis on so many families.

the moon and stars hang out in bars just talkin’
I still love that picture of us walkin’
just like that ol’ house we thought was haunted
summer’s end came faster than we wanted

come on home come on home
no you don’t have to be alone
just come on home

Prine was working as a mailman when he first started singing, as me mentions in this clip. He wrote the song “Souvenirs” as a young man, but the older I get the more the words mean to me.

all the snow has turned to water
christmas days have come and gone
broken toys and faded colors
are all that’s left to linger on

I hate graveyards and old pawn shops
for they always bring me tears
I can’t forgive the way they rob me
of my childhood souvenirs

memories they can’t be boughten
they can’t be won at carnivals for free
well it took me years to get those souvenirs
and I don’t know how they slipped away from me

Let last two songs are hymns to me. The first, “Boundless Love,” also from his last album is about as gospel as it gets.

sometimes my old heart is like a washing machine
it bounces around ’til my soul comes clean
and when I’m clean and hung out to dry
I’m gonna make you laugh until you cry

surround me with your boundless love
confound me with your boundless love
I was drowning in the sea, lost as I could be
when you found me with your boundless love

I first heard “The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” on Nanci Griffith’s record Other Voices, Other Rooms, which was a recording of some of her favorite songs. The metaphor in the title describes how hard we work sometimes to keep others from reaching us.

you come home late and you come home early
you come on big when you’re feeling small
you come home straight and you come home curly
sometimes you don’t come home at all

so what in the world’s come over you
and what in heaven’s name have you done
you’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness
you’re out there running just to be on the run

The song became a hymn for me on a road trip when I realized I could sing the words to one of my favorite hymns to the melody of this song and then go into the chorus in a way that expanded both songs.

prone to wonder Lord I feel it
prone to leave the God I love
here’s my heart o take and seal it
seal it for thy courts above

so what in the world’s come over you
and what in heaven’s name have you done
you’ve broken the speed of the sound of loneliness
you’re out there running just to be on the run

I post these songs tonight in hopes we can celebrate his recovery and in gratitude for his words and music. They have been one of the things I have held on to.

Peace,
Milton

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black-eyed pea risotto

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Sunday mornings are a bit different around our house these days. The elements of the worship service were recorded on Thursday so they could be e-mailed this morning. Ginger doesn’t have to go over for the 8:30 chapel service and we will all stay home at 10 to worship online and visualize all the things that connect our congregation.

It seems like a good time to post a recipe.

This one grew out of a dinner I made for a group of women who gather monthly to build their friendships. They invited me to come cook dinner and talk theology; how could I refuse? (This was pre-virus, by the way.) I made a pimento cheese stuffed pork tenderloin (I’ll post that recipe another time) and black-eyed pea risotto, or New England Hoppin’ John. When I came home and told Ginger the menu, she asked why I didn’t bring any risotto home. Ginger is allergic to onions and the recipe I made had shallots in it. I knew she would want some, so I made a Ginger version here at the house, which brings me to an important truth about risotto: you can add or leave out pretty much anything you want.

If risotto is not something you have cooked, here is a good basic tutorial.

black-eyed pea risotto

Here is a list of the ingredients I used. As I said, you can add or take away according to your own taste.

4-6 slices bacon, chopped (Could also use pancetta)
2 tablespoons butter, or olive oil
2 shallots, sliced thin
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
2-5 cloves garlic, minced (up to you)
1/2 cup white wine
4 cups chicken stock, hot
1 can black-eyed peas, drained and washed
1 can green chiles
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

(other possible ingredients: greens (if not cooked, add them early in the process so they will be), parmesan cheese (or other grated cheese), hotter peppers, diced carrots or celery)

Cook chopped bacon in a dutch oven over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until bacon is crisp–5-6 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain. Leave bacon grease in the pot.

Add butter to bacon fat and heat over moderate heat until the foam subsides, then add shallots and cook until they are caramelized and golden–6-8 minutes. Stir occasionally.

In the mean time, heat up the chicken stock in a saucepan. You want it good and hot, but it doesn’t need to be boiling. Open the can of black-eyed peas; wash and drain them and set them side. Open the can of green chiles and add them to the black-eyed peas. Once the bacon is drained, you can add it here as well.

When the shallots are ready, add the garlic and cook for about a minute, then add the arborio rice and cook, stirring, for about a minute. Add the wine and cook over moderately high heat until the wine is mostly absorbed–about two minutes. Then begin adding the chicken stock about a half a cup, or a ladleful, at a time. Stir until liquid is almost completely absorbed and then add another half a cup. You will be stirring almost constantly. This is not a recipe you can walk away from. When you get down to the last cup of broth, add the black-eyed peas, chiles, and bacon. After you add the last of the stock, add the lemon juice. If you wanted to add cheese, add it here.

Salt and pepper to taste. Turn off heat and stir in fresh parsley. Put the lid on the dutch oven and let the risotto sit for about ten minutes before you serve it.

Yes, this takes some work. It’s worth it.

Peace,
Milton

0

lenten journal: the best of ourselves

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One of my favorite stories in the Gospels is in John 8–what is usually called the story of the Adulterous Woman, though adultery is not a solo sport. I’ve known the story for so long that I still hear the King James language in my head: they brought forth a woman “who had been caught in the very act of adultery.”

What that means is the men who dragged her naked into the middle of the village was someone they went looking for. They didn’t care about her or what she was doing. They wanted to make an example of someone. She was dispensable. Invisible. As Pádraig Ó Tuama says, “The woman was about to be stoned because of the addiction of the stoners.”

Here’s the next sentence:

They were addicted to a violent kind of belonging, a kind of community that forges its borders through selective exclusion.

The verb forge can mean hammering away at something or shaping or constructing; it can also mean falsifying or creating a counterfeit.

When I did allow myself a bit of time to read the news today–a time frame that grows shorter everyday for my personal well-being–I read what Trump said about some of the governors:

I say, “Mike, don’t call the governor of Washington; you’re wasting your time with him. Don’t call the woman in Michigan. It doesn’t make any difference what happens.’ You know what I say: ‘If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”

I thought to myself, “He’s addicted to stones.” He forges–falsely creates–selective divisions to fortify his violent sense of belonging. No matter how hard he works at it, it is still counterfeit. He is addicted to stoning. To violence. He doesn’t see people, he sees power. And he is not alone.

I also thought back to Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, which was recently made into a movie. One of the scenes in the book that didn’t make it to the screen is one that had the deepest impact on me. Towards the end of the book, he talks about meeting a woman who said she came to the courthouse everyday to help people. Many years before, her son had been murdered by two other teenagers, all of them African American. The boys were tried as adults and imprisoned as such. She spoke of a woman who had sat with her in those days, and she came each day. Part of what she said was,

All these young children being sent to prison forever, all this grief and violence. Those judges throwing people away like they’re not even human, people shooting each other, hurting each other like they don’t care. I don’t know, it’s a lot of pain. I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.

Ó Tuama uses the word addiction twice in his book. His second reference is the one I mentioned first. The other is his working definition of sin: “an addiction to being less than ourselves.”

I’ve been turning that one over for a few days now. It seems to me that one addiction feeds the other. When we are consumed with being less than ourselves, we can easily become consumed with a violent sense of belonging–that for there to be an us, there has to be a them.

That’s the lie. That is the forgery.

The barriers we create out of fear, or power, or whatever, make us less than ourselves; less than whole. If we can only feel validated at someone else’s expense, we are less than ourselves in a larger sense, a collective sense. To be wholly ourselves is to be united. Together.

Being fully ourselves is not a solo sport. When we take seriously the responsibility of the power of belonging, we make the most of ourselves. That’s what the woman in the courthouse understood. Maybe that’s what Jesus doodled in the sand before he stood up and told the ones without sin to bring the high heat. As Bryan Stevenson says,

But today our self-righteousness, our fear, and our anger have caused the Christians to hurl stones at the people who fall down, even when we know we should forgive or show compassion. . . . [W]e can’t simply watch that happen. [W]e have to be stonecatchers.

Yes, we do, even as the stones are flying hard and fast. We must be ready to offer the best of ourselves.

Peace,
Milton

5+

lenten journal: allergies and anger

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dandelions

I have wrestled with allergies as long as I can remember.

I don’t remember a time in my life when I did not take antihistamines. I have seen a number of allergists over the years and most all of my encounters have ended up with me being dissatisfied and they being upset because I expected more of them.

Last month I started seeing a naturopath here in Guilford in hopes of finding another way to think about my allergies. Her name is Synthia Andrews. When we enlarge our vocabulary about anything we create possibilities. I needed some new words. New metaphors. And she has some.

I can’t say I understand all that she is doing, but I am learning from it, as well as finding some new possibilities. She uses a machine that is in the biofeedback family. It reads the frequencies in my body and spirit and then offers frequencies as invitations too healing. She attaches the sensors to my wrists and ankles and puts a small band around my head. I lay still for about fifteen minutes and then she starts giving me verbal feedback. Some of what she has to say relates to my physical body and some to my emotional and spiritual state. What continues to amaze me is how the two are connected.

Yesterday, one part of the treatment for my allergies involved the machine sending out the frequencies and then sending her words based on what it was reading in me. She said the words could be about me or someone around me, but they were connected to my allergies. I didn’t have to respond, just take them in. As I sat there she said three words over four or five minutes.

ANGER

BETRAYAL

SADNESS

The reality is we live in days when anger, betrayal, and sadness are pervasive, particularly in the irrational and irresponsible way Trump has engaged both his presidency and the pandemic. But aiming all of this at him would be for me to take the easy way out. What she was saying is the anger, betrayal, and sadness are in my cells, my bones.

The way I understand allergies is that they are a reaction to something the body deems a danger. The body produces histamines in hyperbolic amounts trying of offer a defense. The sneezing and itchy eyes are the body’s reaction to the pollen or whatever. That I take five antihistamines daily and still fight allergies means that my body’s histamine production has lost all sense of reality and stays in an unending crisis mode. I am overwhelmed by my own responses. I stop up. I break out. I can’t think. I feel less than myself. The force with which my body responds takes me out. I have to find new frequencies–new resonances–to change my responses.

What a helpful metaphor.

David Whyte has the most helpful words on anger I think I have ever read.

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 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 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.

And then,

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

Anger is compassion at its most profound and, perhaps, most vulnerable. Sadness–grief–is love living with loss. Betrayal is broken trust. In the same way that anger expressed violently is the “incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care,” so my allergies are an incoherent and incessant reaction, even as my body is trying to protect itself.

I’m so wrapped up in the metaphor now that I am not sure this makes sense to anyone but me, so I will sing myself out. I recorded a mashup of “Everybody Hurts” (REM) and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” for use in one of our upcoming virtual worship services.

Keep looking for resonance.

Peace,
Milton

6+

lenten journal: (un)opening day

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Today was supposed to be Opening Day for Major League Baseball but, like so many things over the past few weeks, it fell victim to Corvid-19. Or else this is payback for the Red Sox trading Mookie Betts. I grew up as an amazingly average athlete and the son of a man for whom sports was the primary metaphor for life. While we sat up late at night in Africa listening to games on Armed Forces Radio, he taught me to love baseball. And, because he loved the Yankees, I became a Red Sox fan.

Football has become the most popular sport, but baseball is our pastime. And there is a big difference , as George Carlin points out.

Bart Giamatti, who, among other things, was the commissioner of baseball, wrote,

That is why it breaks my heart, that game–not because in New York they could win because Boston lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to the Yankees of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

In my favorite baseball movie, Field of Dreams, Terrance Mann says,

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

By the time I came to live in America for good, my chance to play baseball had come and gone–not that I would have ever actually gotten to play. The closest I got was church softball, and even then I ended up in right field. So this song by Peter, Paul, and Mary holds a special place for me.

playing right field, its easy you know,
you can be awkward, you can be slow,
that’s why I’m here in right field,
just watching the dandelions grow

But then along came Steve Earle and sang a song about baseball that has been an anthem for me: “Some Dreams.”

well, just because you’ve been around
and had your poor heart broken
that’s no excuse for lyin’ down
before the last word’s spoken
‘cause some dreams don’t ever come true
don’t ever come true
aw, but some dreams do

If it’s the middle of the eighth inning at Fenway, the crowd is going to sing “Sweet Caroline” and when we do, good times truly never seem so good. This week, Neil Diamond rewrote the words in the wake of Corvid-19; that feels like a good way to close out.

Peace,
Milton

1+

cocoa cinnamon cookies

4

I became a cookie baker because of a friendship.

I mean, I had baked cookies over the years, but I had never thought about making special cookies. I just followed recipes. When our friends Areli and Leon opened Cocoa Cinnamon in our Old North Durham neighborhood, I wanted to do something to help mark the occasion. They started with a Coffee Bike, making custom coffee drinks at the Durham Farmers’ Market. As Ginger and I got to know them, we learned they had so much more that they wanted to do. Cocoa Cinnamon was coffee, but also Mexican drinking chocolate. Amazing.

As they began getting ready to open the shop, I learned that every move they made had a reason, and an artful one at that. They named the drinks on the menu after people and places that were significant in the history of coffee. They paid their workers a living wage, not a minimum, from the first day. They weren’t just serving coffee, they were creating a community.

I decided I would surprise them with a Cocoa Cinnamon Cookie for their opening day. I played around with recipes until I came up with the one written below and made a double recipe. The morning they opened, Ginger and I took them down to the shop and gave them the cookies. A couple of days later, Leon said the cookies had been a big hit and wondered if I would bake them regularly so they could sell them.

I did. A few days after that, I was in the shop and saw my cookies in the baking case with the label “Milton’s Famous Cookies,” because, Leon said, they were famous in the shop. When I opened my cookie business, Milton’s Famous, they let me turn the coffee bike into a cookie bike so I could sell at the Farmers’ Market. I wish I could still bake for them.

Today, there are three Cocoa Cinnamon shops in Durham, as well as a coffee roasters. Though they share a name, they are different in that each reflects the neighborhood it inhabits. Areli and Leon continue to pay a living wage and are committed to amazing diversity and community with both their employees and their customers.

The shutdown because of Corvid-19 is a challenge for many. Areli and Leon are working hard to find ways to make money so they can pay all of their staff through this crisis. If they can sell 230 bags of coffee a day, they can make payroll. They ship coffee all over the country. You can be a part of helping sustain their wonderful endeavor by ordering something from Little Waves Coffee Roasters.

When the coffee comes, make the cookies and a fresh pot and you will get a little taste of Durham.

cocoa cinnamon cookies

1/2 c butter
1/2 c shortening
1 c brown sugar
1/4 c sugar
1 large egg
1 t vanilla
2 c flour
1 t baking soda
1/2 t baking powder
1 T espresso powder
1/4 t salt
12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips
8 oz Heath Bits-o-Brickle (1 package)

1 c sugar
1 t cocoa powder
1 t cinnamon
1/8 t cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 350°.

Combine butter, shortening, brown sugar, and sugar in a stand mixer and beat until light and creamy–about five or six minutes. Add the egg and vanilla and mix until combined well.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, espresso powder, and salt. Mix well and add to wet mixture. Mix until mostly combined and then add chocolate chips and Heath bits. Mix until it looks like cookie batter.

In yet another bowl, combine the sugar, cocoa powder, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper.

Using a 2 oz. scoop, scoop the cookies on to a parchment-lined baking sheet or a Silpat. Once you have them scooped out, roll each one in the cocoa-cinnamon sugar and place back on the baking sheet.

Cook for 13 minutes. Makes about two and half dozen cookies.

Peace,
Milton

2+

lenten journal: help somebody

1

I did my best to stay away from the news today. Instead, I got up early before work and kept my morning date with Pádraig Ó Tuama’s In the Shelter, journaled, prayed, drank coffee, and fed puppies. Actually, the pups demanded they be first on the list and then the rest fell in order.

Pádraig pointed to one of my favorite stories in the gospels in my reading this morning: Jesus’ encounter with the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. Mark is the gospel writer who tells the story, and his is the gospel of human touch. No social distancing here. The woman had heard of Jesus and was determined to get to him in the crowd. She is not named. But the way Mark tells the story, we know the details of her life. We may not know what to call her, but we are in the crowd with her, we are seeing Jesus as she sees him, we know what she has at stake as she jostles and pushes to get closer to Jesus. All she wants to do is touch his cloak. She is convinced that would do it.

Mark gives us her eyes.

That also means Mark doesn’t tell us about any of the others she pushes past. We are taken by her singleness of purpose; we no nothing of anyone else’s story, just like the disciples who were gathered around Jesus trying to protect him from the crowd–the abstraction.

This evening I dared to open the Times digital front page to find that the Economic Stimulus Bill was being blocked by four Republican senators who are worried that the unemployment compensation is so generous that people will choose not to work. As though that is actually a choice at this point. The fact that we keep using the language of stimulating the economy is troublesome to me because the economy is an abstraction. We do not need to stimulate an abstraction, we need to help people. If people have enough money to pay bills and buy stuff, then those own businesses will be able to stay in business and the communities they live in will be able to thrive. The more abstract the bill is, the more likely it will be abused and the money won’t go to those who need it most.

We need to take care of people. Nurses. Doctors. Respiratory therapists. People working in nursing homes. Restaurant people. Grandparents. School children. Teachers. Folks experiencing homelessness. Single parents. Daycare providers. Shop keepers. Mechanics. Actors. Musicians. Artists. Baristas. Office workers. Sanitation folks. Mail carriers. The list goes on . . .

Let the corporations figure it out from the ground up, not from the perspective of the CEOs and the stock brokers. They can live off of what they have been skimming. (I will admit my bias: I am willing to let them be the anonymous crowd we have to push through to find healing.) Those who are sick and vulnerable are not the abstraction. We have gotten way too used to doing that. Those who live in poverty and who have no health insurance have been anonymous for decades and abstracted as “Welfare Moms” and the “Working Poor” whose benefits can be cut and who can be blamed for our deficits.

But compassion requires specificity. Humanizing. The virus became real to many when Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks were diagnosed. We all wait to hear the names of those we know, because we treasure those we know. They are real. They are reasons to make changes, to stay home, to pay attention. To help.

Mark says that Jesus turned around when the woman touched him and asked who had done it. The disciples were incredulous. All they saw was the crowd.

“I felt power go out of me,” he said.

The woman stepped up and identified herself.

Though Mark never gives us her name, Jesus says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” The fact that the woman had been bleeding for twelve years probably means the age difference between her and Jesus was not that big. Jesus wasn’t talking down to her. He was naming her in a relational context: daughter. You belong. Specifically. You are more than a face in the crowd.

Corvid-19 is its own abstraction. I see the numbers going up and I don’t know how to make sense of them. So I look to see what has changed in Connecticut. I check the numbers in Durham, North Carolina. I watch my Facebook feed for names I know. Today, it was Jackson Browne. We need to change our language. We are not trying to stop the virus; we are taking care of each other. You are taking care of me. I am taking care of you.

Trump’s daily ramblings show he sees no one but himself, so he is incapable of seeing beyond the abstractions of power and wealth. He can’t lead. Andrew Cuomo, by contrast, broke through the abstraction by talking about his mother. It gets real when it gets personal.

Pádraig said the Irish words for hug literally mean “to squeeze somebody with your heart.” We can do that across physical distance. We can deal in specifics. We can let the power go out of us, even if we can’t touch.

Peace,
Milton

8+

lenten journal: quarantunes

1

Inspired by Rita Wilson, who is recovering from Corvid-19 with her husband, Tom Hanks, Ginger asked me to make her a “Quarantunes” playlist to help get us through our isolation. As these days turn into weeks, I thought it might be time for some more music. Most of these songs have been around a while, but they sing like they were written last week.

The first track tonight is a Mark Heard tune recorded by Buddy Miller called “Worry Too Much,” which Heard recorded first in 1991.

it’s the quick-step march of history
the vanity of nations
it’s the way there’ll be no muffled drums
to mark the passage of my generation
it’s the children of my children
it’s the lambs born in innocence
it’s wondering if the good I know
will last to be seen by the eyes of the little ones

sometimes it feels like bars of steel
I cannot bend with my hands
oh oh I worry too much
somebody told me that I worry too much

Bruce Cockburn wrote “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” in the 80s. He and his music are still going.

when you’re lovers in a dangerous time
sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime
but nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight
when you’re lovers in a dangerous time
lovers in a dangerous time

Mavis Staples has been singing songs that matter longer than most of us have been alive. Nine or ten years ago, Jeff Tweedy produced a record for her and wrote several songs, one of which is the title cut, “You’re Not Alone.”

you are not alone
I’m with you
I’m lonely too
what’s that song
can’t be sung
by two?

a broken home
a broken heart
isolated and afraid
open up this is a raid
I wanna get it through to you
you’re not alone

Another song from a decade ago is “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” by Jakob Dylan.

was born in a stable and built like an ox
down in the pastures I learned how to walk
mama, she raised me to sing and just let ’em talk
said no rich man’s worth his weight in dust
bury him down same as they’ll do us
God wants us busy, never giving up
he wants nothing but the whole wide world for us

nothing but the whole wide world for us
nothing, nothing
well there’s nothing but the whole wide world for us
nothing, nothing
well there’s nothing but the whole wide, whole wide world for us

The Indigo Girls released Swamp Ophelia in 1994 and since that time “The Wood Song” has remained one of my favorites because of its tenacity in the face of uncertainty.

sometimes I ask to sneak a closer look
skip to the final chapter of the book
and then maybe steer us clear from some of the pain it took
to get us where we are this far yeah
but the question drowns in it’s futility
and even I have got to laugh at me
no one gets to miss the storm of what will be
just holding on for the ride
the wood is tired and the wood is old
we’ll make it fine if the weather holds
but if the weather holds we’ll have missed the point
that’s where I need to go

Pierce Pettis is one of my favorite songwriters. “I Will Be Here” was released in 1993 and is the kind of wonderful statement of solidarity we need to be singing to each other.

it would take a lot of work
to drive me away
I can take a lot of hurt
I’m willing to share your pain
no, you don’t impose
you don’t intrude
I’ll never turn my back on you, no no
I will be here

I am the friend you cannot lose
I am the one you did not choose
I am the friend who loves you still
I am the one who always will be here
I will be here

JD Souther will offer our closing song tonight, “Little Victories.”

in my hometown and family circles
they seem unsure and un-empowered
oh, they don’t understand and you can’t help that
though you can love so hard, that never comes back
till you just can’t take it for one more hour

little victories
I know you need one
iittle victories

I know it hurt sometimes to look around
the sameness of it beats you down
and the best seems all behind
before you start

little victories
oh, I know you need one
little victories of the heart

All of these songwriters are acquainted with both grief and hope, not so much that everything will always turn out alright, but that what matters most is that we are in it together. We are not alone.

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: what’s the story

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One of my enduring metaphors is that life is a lot like a Saturday Night Live skit: it starts off with a pretty good premise, but no one has any idea how to end it well. I thought about it again this morning when I read these words from Pádraig Ó Tuama:

I don’t know if the story of our griefs has an ending, only a next chapter or, perhaps, the careful telling and retelling of the recent chapters.

At this point in human history, none of us was here for the beginning of the story and we will not be here for the end. Our life stories are all being told in the middle of it all. If we want to think about it as one big story, then we are on stage for our scenes and then we exit, stage left. If it is all one big story, it is an incredibly convoluted one. The plot is all over the place. It helps me to think of it more as an anthology, rather than an epic–a collection of loosely, and sometimes surprisingly, connected short stories.

Pádraig’s words also make me think about those who point out that all our stories follow basic plot lines. Somewhere, probably tucked inside a book, I have a card with a quote on the front that reads, “The story of my life has a wonderful cast of characters, I’m just not sure about the plot.” The real life of any story is in the characters, not the plot twists.

We are living in an extraordinary moment when our global circumstance has connected us in unusual ways because of Covid-19. We are all trying to figure out what to do and hearing about parts of the world we rarely consider. It has reminded me of a poem I wrote many years ago about all those in the world who live happy and fulfilled lives and never miss knowing me.

spokane

a family is gathering
for a meal outside Spokane
the daughter is still wearing
her soccer uniform
the mother is chatting
as she passes the potatoes
the father is nonverbal
tired
trying to engage
the dog is waiting
for someone to share

they will finish their dinners
their conversations
their homework
they will turn on the television
the phone will ring several times
it will not be me

no one in that house knows
I live across the continent or
I have tales to tell
of my youth
of my life
of what I did yesterday
they don’t know
I can cook or play guitar
or that I’m writing a poem
they don’t know
I’ve never been to Spokane
they’re not concerned

they are finding their dreams
building their lives
breaking their hearts
living out their days
without knowing me

they are not the only ones

in all my years
no has ever called to
“Come quickly to Spokane
we just realized
we can’t go on without you”
the same could be said
for the table
across the room
from me
in this coffee shop

the gossamer tether
of humanity
doesn’t appear
to reach as far
as the next booth
unless the light
is just right
and I can see the lines

I’m not sure which view
is easier to live with

It struck me this morning that another way to imagine how our stories fit together is to se4 them as some sort of cosmic multi-track recording, each track layered on the others, harmony and instrumentation, with the melody jumping from one track to the other–improvisational jazz–depending on who is taking the lead in that moment.

All my metaphors so far imply that we are the actors or the characters; we are also the audience; the readers; and, at least, co-writers who will all leave the ending unwritten.

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: good questions

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We moved from Africa back to the States for good the middle of my junior year in high school. For the first time in all our moves, I started a new school in the middle of the year and i started at a school where I knew no one. When they asked me what electives I wanted to take, I didn’t really know what an elective was, but I saw Drama on the list and signed up.

The students, all of whom had been in the class for awhile, were getting ready for one-act play competition and used the class time to perform and ask for critique from the rest of the class. One pair of folks did a scene from The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco, which was my introduction to the Theater of the Absurd.

I haven’t thought about that class for a long time. It has come to mind several times as I have watched the White House daily briefings and listened to the absolute–no, absurdist–disconnect between the questions asked and the random string of words that come as responses. For the Absurdist playwrights, the point was that life has no ultimate meaning. As fascinated as I was by Ionesco and Beckett and others, that is a perspective I have never been willing to fully embrace.

On the other side of the continuum, I grew up as a Baptist kid who heard more than once that “Jesus was the answer,” which pretty early on made me wonder what the question was because life never felt that simple. The more I got to know Jesus, the more he became the question.

Sometimes the answers we get depend on the quality of our questions, as demonstrated in this clip from The Pink Panther.

Pádraig Ó Tuama tells of leading an Ignatian prayer retreat for a group of teenagers at a church in Australia. After a guided meditation, one of the young people said in his “imagination walk” he had encountered Jesus and that Jesus had asked him three questions:

How would you describe today?
Have you seen anything interesting along the way?
Is it working?

I carried those with me as the day passed. I thought more about what it would mean to answer them instead of just thinking about today. They feel worth carrying for the coming days.

How would I describe today?

It is tempting in these days to just say it was a lot like the last few days of our unfortunate isolation, or rattle off a list of details, but describing today asks for something more that just rattling off what I did or didn’t do. The question is asking for more than a line drawing of my day; it wants a full color image. Details. Feelings. Relationships. Awareness.

I walked over with Ginger at ten this morning to meet Jake, our Minister of Faith Formation, so they could ring the bell for worship and hit send on the link for the online service. The day felt like the room: vacant when it should have been filled. The online stuff was meaningful, but it was not filling in the way the smiles and hugs and joys and concerns of the people I am used to seeing every week are.

That was not the only way the day felt, but there is definitely a vacancy sign on the door of my heart.

Have I seen anything interesting along the way?

The question seems to be another way of asking have I paid attention. It calls to mind the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

It was cold today in Guilford, but sunny. The sky was as blue as the air was chilled. A number of people were out walking, which is about all we have left to do when it comes to getting outside. We all paid attention as we passed one another to create safe space. Ginger and I watched a really fat squirrel try to negotiate the huge acorn he had found as he tried to climb back up the tree. Whatever time of day it is, the way the light hits the steeple of our church always catches my eye.

Paying attention leads to lots of questions: What is growing? What has died? What did I hear? What did I listen to? What did I see? What did I miss?

Is it working?

I am more puzzled by this question. I wonder what it is, and I wonder what working means. Ruminating on it also led to other questions: What resonates with the picture of my life? What needs to change? What can I change? Is the way I am living sustainable? Who can help me make this work?

All three of the questions pull me into the moment. They are not of the what-are-you-going-to-do-with-your-life kind of questions. They are questions that need to be asked over and over; the power is not the answer, but in the asking.

In one of the songs we wrote together, Billy Crockett looked back on our friendship and thought about questions friends ask each other over the life of a friendship. The song “Are You” put those questions to music. I hadn’t heard it in a while, but tonight, with all of these questions, I went back and listened. It seems worth sharing.

put on the coffee
and I’ll tell you a memory
we stood on the edge of time
as the river flowed silently by

we looked up at the stars
I still remember
and talked of what your life could be
you’re an old friend
won’t you tell me

are you as sure of the dream that you had on the way
finding enough of the truth at the end of the day
caught now and then by something like grace
are you

are you still keeping the light on inside
shimmer of hope against the tide
finding your life is worth the ride
tell me are you

remember that summer
we told one another
how we could change this world of ours
and quoted our heroes by heart

and here in this moment
we watch the way the river bends
you’re an old friend
I’m going to ask you again

The meaning of life, my friends, is not in our answers, but in the quality and persistence of our questions.

Peace,
Milton

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