My friend Nathan Brown is a poet. For a living. And he’s good.
At the beginning of the pandemic, he began something called the Fire Pit Sessions on his Facebook page, which grew out of his invitation for people to commission poems about life in these days. He then began to come on every night or two and read some of them and then sing a song—usually a cover, but often an original.
He did his forty-eighth Fire Pit Session last night and they just keep getting better. After he finished his poetry, he cited a few lines G. K. Chesterton’s “The Deluge” from memory
Though giant rains put out the sun, Here stand I for a sign. Though earth be filled with waters dark, My cup is filled with wine. Tell to the trembling priests that here Under the deluge rod, One nameless, tattered, broken man Stood up, and drank to God.
I wanna ask all the questions with answers we’ll never know I wanna find my faith in records from long ago I wanna set fear on fire and give dreaming a fair shot And never give up whether anybody cares or not
and I felt compelled to write a response to my friend, and so I sent him this.
August 3 marks seven years since my father died—on the same day that Gracie, our little goofy Schnauzer, died as well.
the third of august
the thing I never really liked
about august is the way the
heat and humidity ride under
my skin making it all but
impossible to be comfortable
I can move from sweaty to
surly because there is no relief
grief is an endless august in
the weather of the heart
an agitating absence a
hot breath of a breeze that
sends sadness seeping out of
every pore even the soft sun
of the morning is ready to burn
it has been seven augusts since
you died early that morning
and I sat in the parking lot
of the nursing home in Waco
my sweat as heavy as my tears
feeling like a fatherless child
a long long way from my home
one might think I would be used
to august by now but I am not
acceptance is not an arrival
I keep living through augusts
with you still under my skin
I will carry your name and your
memory yet another summer
I preached this week for our church. The passage was Matthew 14:13-24—the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand—which is one of my favorites. Since our sanctuary is not air conditioned, we filmed in Ginger’s office.
One of the songs that was popular when I was in high school that has managed to stick around for almost half a century is a tune by the Scottish band Stealers Wheel called “Stuck in the Middle with You,” which includes the memorable lines
clowns to the left of me jokers to the right here I am stuck in the middle with you
A pandemic anthem well before its time, don’t you think?
I did too, as I worked on my sermon this week—only to be reminded that Ginger had referenced the song in her first virtual sermon back in March. But since March feels like it was years and not months ago, the song bears repeating because we are still stuck—or so it seems.
As August begins, we have gone almost five months since we last worshipped together in our meeting house or chatted at coffee hour. I am way behind on my NHQ–my Necessary Hug Quota. Because of my knee surgery in April of 2019, which sidelined me from cooking for most of the summer, our barn has gone almost a year without people gathered around our table for dinner. How I wish we could be together so we could share what we miss and the griefs—yes, plural—we are all holding. Whatever stories we are telling in these days of protest and pandemic, they are grief stories: stories of being stuck in the middle without resolution—and without each other.
I was grateful to find that the lectionary passage was the story we most commonly know as the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which you may not know is a grief story of its own. Our reading starts in the middle of things, as lectionary passages often do. The first sentence is the giveaway: “And hearing this, Jesus withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place to be by himself.”
“And hearing this . . .” The English teacher in me wants to say, “Your antecedent is unclear. What did he hear?
The first twelve verses of Chapter 14 give us that context. The short version is John the Baptist was murdered by Herod on a drunken whim. His disciples buried him and then came to tell Jesus. And hearing this, Jesus did all he could to get away from everyone and everything to grieve the loss of his cousin, colleague, and friend. But he couldn’t get away. The crowds of people hoping for healing were relentless in both their need and pursuit of him and they followed him out of town into the desert, as did the disciples whom, I imagine, were doing their best to deal with their grief over John’s death as well as Jesus’ sorrow, which was new to them as well.
When Jesus became aware of what was happening, Matthew says, “. . . he was moved inwardly with compassion for them” and instead of continuing to run away Jesus turned back into the mass of people and began to listen to their grief stories, to share their loads, and to offer healing. This went on all day and into the evening. The disciples’ response was a little less compassionate, though I think they thought they were trying to help. “We’re out here in the desert and it’s after supper time; don’t you think we should send them into the villages so they don’t starve?” Part of being a disciple, it seems, meant living with the grief of inadequacy, which was wearisome, I’m sure.
Jesus’ response was direct: “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
Their response was also straightforward. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes.” In Matthew’s version, they didn’t even have a cute little kid who was offering his sack supper. They just knew they didn’t have enough. The hunger of the crowd was not something they could solve. It didn’t matter what they did, they couldn’t fix the problem.
“Bring them here to me,” Jesus said. Then he turned to the crowd and asked them to recline, as they would if they were going to eat. (For our purposes, let us imagine they were masked and appropriately distanced.) He blessed the food and then gave it to the disciples to distribute. With several thousand people on a hillside, it is hard to grasp the logistics of it all, but the people seemed to know that dinner was being served. They sat down and began to pass the food as it came to them. Everyone ate and there were leftovers.
The willing suspension of disbelief has always come fairly easily for me, so I have never had much of a problem with taking the miracle stories of Jesus at face value, or, as one of my seminary professors used to describe them, as parables in event, which is to say the miracle of this meal is pointing to something other than the amazing set of circumstances.
The state of my life often affects what I see in the story. These months we have spent in quarantine, as many have turned mask-wearing into a violation of their constitutional rights, have helped me to see that the miracle in this story is that a whole mountain of grieving people looking beyond themselves and feeding one another.
I don’t think Jesus knew, necessarily, that it was all going to work out when he started passing out bits of bread and fish. He just knew it was the right thing to do. If you have food and you see hungry people, you feed them. You offer what you have. And then see where it goes.
The lectionary passage stops with the count of how many were fed and, in doing so, leaves the story too quickly. But the next verse, verse 22, says, “Then he insisted that the disciples embark into the boat and precede him to the other side, until he should dismiss the crowds.”
The day had begun for Jesus with an ambush of grief that had sent him searching for self-isolation. It ended with him being not quite ready to leave when dinner was over: “You go on and I’ll catch up. I want to say goodbye to everyone”—and, yes, I realize that is an extrovert’s take on the story. Still, Jesus found some healing there as well. As the disciples walked down to the water, I imagine them hearing Jesus humming,
clowns to the left of me, jokers to my right . . .
And then they went on to the next day, which held new grief of its own, and some old stuff as well.
Jesus didn’t take care of people or tell the disciples to feed the crowd because it made everything better. Healing people didn’t bring John back to life. Handing out fish and bread didn’t eradicate the Roman occupation. But they were the right things to do. The hopeful things.
Vaclav Havel was a playwright who became the president of Czechoslovakia in the late 80s. He told of something that took place just a few weeks before he unexpectedly became a head of state. He was out in the countryside at a dinner party and fell down a sewer pipe. In his words, he almost drowned in that “fundamental mud” but someone had the wherewithal to get a long ladder and saved him. That he was in a sewer and that he became a state official were equally absurd circumstances. In that context, he wrote about hope.
Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.
We have more days coming that we can imagine when we are not going to know how long this is going to last, or what is going to happen next, or when life will feel recognizable again. The days ahead are also going to leave us feeling like the disciples, more often than not, when it comes to how what we think we have to offer stacks up against the needs around us. Whatever happens, even in life beyond the pandemic and quarantine, life is not going to feel like the life we think we remember. But Jesus, to use Havel’s words, didn’t do what he did because he knew it would all turn out okay, he did it because he was certain it made sense to share what food they had. And then he stayed to talk, and to listen.
One of the verses of our song for today goes
trying to make some sense of it all
and I can see it makes no sense at all
it is cool to go to sleep on the floor
‘cause I don’t think I can take anymore . . .
So much of life right now doesn’t make sense, from the virus to the vitriol of our national discourse. Truly, there are clowns to the left and jokers to the right. The world feels full of naysayers, nutjobs, and ne’er-do-wells in every direction. It doesn’t make sense to keep screaming at each other. It doesn’t make sense to just wish that life would go back to normal—whatever that was. It doesn’t make sense to just hunker down and take care of ourselves and let everyone else fend for themselves.
What does make sense is to do all we can to let those stuck in the middle with us know that we are all wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. What does make sense is to see these days as open space that offers us the chance to change, how we treat one another on both personal and societal levels. We are stuck in the middle together. What makes sense is to offer all that we have to a hungry world. To feed one another any way we can—even the clowns and the jokers. Amen.
P.S.—Seems only fitting for this to be our postlude.
my baseball career consisted
of afternoon tosses with my father
and my brother in the backyard
of several houses in several cities
being a missionary kid meant
I moved like a mediocre minor
leaguer hoping for a big break
those afternoons of overthrows
and near misses taught me to
love the game from the bench
and the bleacher sharpening my
skills of solidarity and sharing
in someone else’s moment and
the treasure of a broken heart
this year opening day comes
ten days before we mark
the day we closed the casket
and said goodbye to my father
a week gone into extra innings
my heart is a long fly ball hit
deep into an empty stadium
When my parents married, they knew they were moving to Africa less than a year later. My father did not have much when it came to family. His mother died a month after he was born and his father was an itinerant minister and church planter, so his grandmother, Ma, raised him. His father remarried when my dad was about ten to the woman I knew as “Grandma C,” but my dad still never had much of a sense of home. His father died before my parents were married.
My mother asked him if there were any recipes from his childhood that he wanted her to learn. The only one was Ma’s strawberry shortcake. When Mom asked for the recipe, Ma gave it as a list of ingredients without quantities. My mother had to figure those out over the years. And she did. Our house in Nairobi was around the corner from a strawberry farmer. When it was berry season, Mom made the biscuits big and the shortcake was all we had for dinner.
I know very little about my ancestry other than what I have written here. A couple of weeks ago, I ended up in an ancestry.com wormhole and was amazed what I found. I now know that my grandfather, Milton I, is buried in Austin and my dad’s birth mother, Bertha, is in San Antonio. I also learned my grandfather had siblings and the names of his parents, Howard and Mary. Howard was murdered one Christmas Eve when he inadvertently surprised some cattle rustlers; my grandfather was a child. It seems all three Miltons in my family have struggled to know what family feels like.
Though I have not had much genealogical information, I do have recipes from my mother and her mother, in particular. Over the years, the strawberry shortcake has become our July 4 food for our chosen family who have gathered at our various houses. As I learned more about cooking, I adapted the recipe. My main contributions has been to add fresh basil to the shortcakes and to macerate the fruit in balsamic vinegar and sugar.
Ma and I got to meet each other before we moved to Africa. I was an infant, so I don’t remember the encounter. She died before we came back on leave when I was four. I am grateful that some sixty years later her recipe gives me a deep and flavorful connection to a family I never really knew. A taste of family.
1 pint strawberries, hulled and sliced
(you can also add blueberries or other fruit)
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 cups flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar
a big handful of basil
1/2 cup butter, cold and cubed
3/4 cup milk
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1/4 t cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon confectioner’s sugar
For the fruit: In a medium-sized bowl, combine the strawberries, vinegar, sugar, and lemon juice. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside. The more time you give it, the better, so try to do this an hour or so before you actually want to serve the shortcakes.
For the shortcakes: Preheat the oven to 450°.
In a food processor, combine flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and basil. Pulse until basil is completely mixed in. Add butter and pulse until the mixture looks like coarse sand, then turn on the processor and stream in the milk until it is all combined.
Dump it out on a floured surface and fold it over on itself until it takes a fairly firm shape. Roll it out into a rectangle about 1/2 inch thick. I cut it into twelve square biscuits, but you can make them larger or smaller. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a Silpat and bake for 12-15 minutes. Biscuits will still feel a little soft, but will be browned around the edges and a little on top. Place the baking sheet on a cooling rack and let them biscuits cool.
For the whipped cream: Combine the last four ingredients in a stand mixer or a deep mixing bowl where you can use a hand mixer. If you are using a stand mixer, you will need to wrap the top with plastic wrap so you don’s spray cream all over your kitchen. Whip until it looks like whipped cream.
To serve, cut the shortcake in half. Put a small dollop of whipped cream on the plate and place the bottom half of the biscuit on the plate. (The whipped cream just keeps it from sliding around. Put a generous spoonful of the fruit and its juices on the biscuit and then top with a dollop of whipped cream. Take the top of the biscuit and place it cut side up on top of your work-in-progress. Add more strawberries and more cream.
I hope whoever is gathered at your table for this meal has a family food story to tell of their own.
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to evaluate the political bands that have connected them with another, and to assess their place among the other countries of the earth, a decent respect to the opinions of humanity requires that they should declare how the principles of their founding call them to a greater good even beyond the understanding of the founders.
Those who came before us said they held these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal, and were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—even as they refused those rights to the people whose lands and lives they had stolen.
We declare the self-evident truth to be that all people—not just property-owning white men, not just citizens, not just people who look like the founders or share their lineage, not just people who speak English, not just people in “good neighborhoods”—are created equal and are endowed by their creator with the inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, community, agency, and belonging.
As our founders said, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to demand change, and to institute new laws and practices and organizing its powers based on principles that seem most likely to affect the safety and happiness of everyone. It is the right of the people to tear the house down and rebuild, to demand a better representation of ourselves in those whom we elect to govern us.
The founders said we shouldn’t change government lightly because when we do people suffer. Yet, when we change too slowly people suffer as well—and for far longer. The monuments to white nationalism that scar our cities remind us that we cannot simply wait for change to happen or expect that everything will work out. Neither can we afford to blindly trust our elected officials to choose our rights over their power. A healthy nation and a healthy government require that we the people pay attention, ask hard questions, work for justice, build systems that offer independence and interdependence for all, and carry the compassionate burden of belonging that will require deep can costly change of all of us.
Those who founded this nation came as colonists, not collaborators. Some were fleeing oppression; some came in the name of King George to conquer and capitalize. In their quests, they had little regard or respect for those who were already here—those who had lived on the land for generation after generation. Then, those who had come in search of life and liberty for themselves forced other people into enslavement, choosing prosperity over humanity. When the wealth and power of the colonies grew to a point that they no longer wanted to share it with Great Britain, they proclaimed a unilateral declaration of independence that had little regard for anyone other than themselves. They fashioned magnificent language to rise up against tyranny, unfair laws, lack of representation, immigration control, limitation of land ownership, biased control of the courts, tax laws that favored the rich, and human rights abuses, but the freedom they envisioned was for them, not for everyone. They were blind to the violence of their own privilege.
As we mark the anniversary of the signing of the document, we must choose to not acquiesce to the inherited and persistent blindness that has entrenched systems of racism and discrimination that have prioritized law and order over life and liberty. The empty claims that we are the “greatest nation on earth” are no more than adolescent bravado that belie the truth that we are not the nation we claim to be, no matter how loud we shout, “USA.”
The list of grievances that fomented a revolution among the insurgents who founded this nation have become common practice today, in part because our love of independence—of standing on our own—has caused us to lose sight of the power of the common good. True independence cannot stand on the back of someone who does not share in it. To say that all people are created equal and all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is to say we are interdependent.
The course of human events demands that, if we are to be the nation we have described ourselves to be, we must fight for the fundamental rights of all so that no one falls victim to unfair laws, draconian immigration control, economic systems that limit who can own property, gerrymandered districts that limit representation, blatant voter suppression, militarized police departments, a broken justice system that falls most heavily upon people of color, tax laws that favor the rich and engender poverty, and human rights abuses within our own borders.
Therefore, we the people who make up the United States of America—however we got here, solemnly publish and declare our free and interdependent right to grow beyond our founders and follow their words to conclusions they could not see. We pledge our interdependence—our connectedness. We embrace the burden of our past, of the things done and left undone that have created a country that has fallen short of liberty and justice for all. We accept the consequences of the actions of our ancestors, and pledge to move beyond slogans to the good and difficult work of reconciliation and reparation. We pledge to move beyond our privilege, our pain, our complacency, and our exhaustion. We claim the right to create communities, foster economic justice, stop going to war, and wage peace.
And for the support of this declaration, let us mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
It’s not so much that I have had nothing to say as I have felt it was not my time to speak. I needed to listen and learn. I needed to help amplify voices that were speaking to me. Teaching me. Inviting me to a larger, more loving world. And I have been spending a lot of time in the church’s communal garden behind our barn, which has been both a place to meet life hands on as well as a metaphor for these days.
I love working in the garden because I get to watch food grow and then feed people with it. I garden by the just-plant-stuff-and-see-what-comes-up method, which is to say I have a lot to learn. My gardening buddy Tom is the brains behind our outfit. More than once I have pointed at things growing in one of the beds and asked, “Now what are those?”
I was the last in the garden the other evening and saw the top of what looked like a radish to me, so I picked it. Actually, I picked several, greens and all, and came inside to look for recipes, which I will share shortly. I sliced the radishes and pickled them and, thanks to encouragement from a couple of different websites, made pesto out of the greens.The next day, I brought out my work to show Tom.
“I made pickles and pesto out of the radishes,” I said.
He smiled. “Those are turnips.” Then he added, kindly, “But they are related.”
The garden, for me, is an humbling place, which is part of the reason I love it. Just when I thought I understood what was happening around me, I realized my perception was lacking. Things were not as I thought. And I also was able to make a small contribution, I suppose, in that I learned baby turnips can be pickled just like radishes and turnip greens make a damn good pesto.
We have a lot to learn in these days–and what we have to learn keeps changing. I’ll stop there rather than turn it into a “You see, Timmy” moment and move on to the recipes.
turnip green pesto
One of my favorite books about cooking is Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking because he does more than share recipes; he teaches you how to understand how things work together. When I started to make this pesto, I went looking for ratios because of what I learned from him, and because I had already learned from others that pretty much any green leafy vegetable or herb can be made into pesto.
The basic relationships between the essential parts of pesto are
8 parts greens
1 part nuts (or seeds)
2 parts oil
2 parts grated Parmesan cheese
plus garlic, lemon juice, and salt to taste
A word about the cheese. Traditional pesto mixes the Parmesan in from the start, which works for me if you are going to use it right then. Most of the time I make pesto, I am not. Somewhere along the line, I started making mine without the cheese for a couple of reasons. First, you can freeze it. Second, I like to have the option to use it without the cheese. But the main reason is I think it tastes better to mix in fresh cheese when you get ready to use the pesto.
On to the recipe.
2 cups turnip greens
1/4 cup almonds
1/2 cup olive oil
Put the almonds and the garlic in a food processor and pulse until they break up. I used three cloves of garlic because I like garlic. Was and rinsed the greens, tear them and add them to the food processor. Add about a fourth of the olive oil and pulse until the mixture begins to come together. Scrape down the sides. Turn on the food processor and drizzle in the rest of the oil. Add salt and lemon juice to taste. It won’t take much of either.
NOTE: If you want to add cheese, you would add 1/2 cup after you have pulsed the greens.
You can store it in the fridge for a couple of weeks. You can also freeze it.
Pickling is a way of preserving vegetables. Much like making pesto, there is no one way to do it other than to say you need vinegar, sugar, and salt. And something to pickle. My pickling experience has mostly been in making dill pickles when the cucumbers are ripe, with a couple of other less than successful forays into other vegetables. When I thought I had picked radishes, I found several recipes, most of which leaned into Japanese cooking where the pickling is more delicate than what most Americans know.
The more I read, the more I found people telling me to use what I had when it came to flavoring the brine; I could enhance the flavor of the radish/turnips with what else I put in the jar–spices, herbs, and aromatics. Again, I’ll do my best to not explain the metaphor.
pickled baby turnips
The ingredients are what I had in my kitchen (I’m sort of a culinary hoarder), as well as what I brought in from the garden. The amounts are set by how many turnips I picked.
1 lb. baby turnips, trimmed and sliced thinly or quartered.
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
Heat the vinegars, salt, and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat until sugar and salt are dissolved. Put the prepared turnips into jars (I used half-pint mason jars–jelly lars–and this recipe filled three of them), packing them in along with the other ingredients. I used
fresh ginger, sliced
fresh garlic (a clove or two in each jar)
fennel fronds (looks like dill, smells like anise)
Pour the hot liquid into the jars until it covers the turnips. Shake the jars gently to let things settle and top them off. Put lids on and shake. Refrigerate for two weeks before eating them to get the full effect.
Some other things you could add: dried chiles, turmeric, dill, fresh peppers.
I have poured the pesto over pasta for lunch this week; the pickles are still a week away from tasting. Where these tasty metaphors have taken me is something I will keep chewing on.
Even as I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about what is going on in our country today, I am aware that my best work may be to listen rather than try to speak. I have nor written for a couple of nights because I, like many of us, am exhausted and despairing. Tonight, rather than gather my words, I offer words and images that have been meaningful and challenging to me.
If we take time to listen to this nation’s wounds, they tell us where to look for hope. The hope is in the mourning and the screams, which make us want to rush from this place. There is a sense in which right now we must refuse to be comforted too quickly. Only if these screams and tears and protests shake the very conscience of this nation –and until there is real political and judicial repentance – can we hope for a better society on the other side of this.