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lenten journal: everything in the fire

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Earlier this afternoon I received this e-mail message from our church office:

Dear Church family,
We have been made aware of a family of four (mother, father, and twin boys age 7) who lost everything in a fire. Below is a list of what is needed for them to rebuild their household.

Linens:
Twin Sheet sets for each boy—probably 2 each
Queen Sheets for the parents
Lots of Towels and washcloths
Bed Pillows
 
Kitchen:
Everything except a microwave and toaster . . . for example
Pots and pans, silverware, cutting board, knives, plates, cups, bowls, mugs
can opener, cooking utensils, spatulas, whisks, large spoons, forks etc
soaps and clean supplies including mops and sponges
 
Furniture
Coffee table, end tables
lamps—floor and table lamps
TV
 
Clothes and shoes:
For the boys:
shoe size 13, clothing 8
shoe size 12, clothing 7
 
Father:
Extra large- for shirts and jackets
40 inch waist, 32 length for pants
Shoe size 10
 
Mother:
shoe size: between 8 and 9
extra large for tops and jackets, etc

Ginger and I spent some time talking about what we had that we could give to help the family start to get back on their feet. It was some time later before I heard about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. I got to go there twice. Once, as a kid coming back from Africa with my parents and once with Ginger soon after we married. Northwest Airlines inaugurated direct Boston to Paris flights with a $99 introductory price, so we went for four days. While we were in the cathedral, we attached ourselves to a tour group. The guide was describing the two huge and stained-glass “rose” windows and commented that the “new one” has installed in the mid-1500s.

I never imagined it wouldn’t be there, any more than I never imagine I would turn the corner on to Church Street and find our house burned to the ground. When I try to imagine what it feels like to lose everything in a fire, I think about how it felt when my father died. I wanted to call everyone whose father had died before me and say, “I’m sorry. I meant well. I just had no idea this is how it felt.”

My heart aches for Paris and for the people for saw Notre Dame as their church home, which I am sure includes more than just Parisians. I wish I could go through my closet and offer something tangible that would matter the way I can share my belongings with the people here in town.

On another level, there is something lost to the world in the burning of a building that has been here for almost a millennium. It is, both factually and metaphorically, an altar—a stack of sacred stones. The people who are the church that meets there will go on, yes, and it is also not that simple. The family who lost everything will not be the same family in their new space any more than the parishioners at Notre Dame will be the same church going forward. We are defined by the spaces we build around us. We are who we are in context.

Part of our American context was the arrest of a white man in Louisiana who burned three historically black churches in two weeks. The story made bigger news when he was arrested than it did when the churches burned. Even as I write that sentence, I am aware that I know far fewer details about the fires in Louisiana than I do about what is happening in Paris. I read far fewer Facebook posts expressing either grief or outrage. It just didn’t matter as much beyond the borders of St. Landry Parish.

The five fires differ only in scale. All of them are stories of families who have lost everything. The resounding truth that burns at me is their losses do not affect us unless we choose for them to do so. Love is an act of will, not an emotional response.

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: sing to the night

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When I sat down tonight to write, what came to mind are songs that capture the emotions of the week ahead, which are not easy feelings. Part of the challenge every year for me is not to rush to Easter but to take the loss and grief seriously. Here, then, is my soundtrack, which is by no means exhaustive.

To set the tone, I’ll begin with Guy Clark’s “The Dark.”

in the dark you can sometimes
you can hear your own heart beat
or the heart of the one next to you
the house settles down
after holding itself up all day
shoulder slumps, gives a big sigh
you hear no one’s foot fall in the hall
that drip in the kitchen sink marking time
june bug on the window screen
can’t get in but he keeps on trying
one way or another we’re all in the dark

James Taylor’s “Lonesome Road” helps me picture how alone Jesus must have felt in the middle of everything coming down.

carry on—never mind feeling sorry for yourself
it doesn’t save you from your troubled mind
walk down that lonesome road all by yourself
don’t turn your head back over your shoulder
and only stop to rest yourself
when the silver moon is shining high above the trees

American Kid is the album Patty Griffin wrote after her father died. “Wild Old Dog” is an amazing expression of grief using a dog abandoned on the side of the interstate as a metaphor for God.

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

Randy Newman’s song “I’ll Never Get Over Losing You” is another statement of grief. The video below also carries the story behind the song.

when you’re young and there’s time to forget the past
you don’t think that there’s time but you will
and I know that I don’t have time enough
and I’ll never get over losing you

I’ve been cold I’ve been hungry but not for a while
guess most of my dreams have come true
with it all here around me no peace do I find
’cause I’ll never get over losing you
no, I’ll never get over losing you

I am going to close the set with Andrew Peterson’s “After the Last Tear Falls” because even in our bleakest times, love is still the last word.

after the last disgrace, after the last lie to save some face
after the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
after the last dirty politician, after the last meal down at the mission
after the last lonely night in prison
there is love, love, love, love
there is love, love, love, love
there is love

and in the end, the end is oceans and oceans of love and love again
we’ll see how the tears that have fallen
were caught in the palms of the giver of love and the lover of all
and we’ll look back on these tears as old tales

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: notes from the road

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notes from the road

we drove through a fog this morning so thick
we couldn’t see New Haven from the highway
though we could see the road in front of us
at least far enough to keep moving on

hold that thought

The particles of light in sky and sea that
look blue on the horizon is light that got lost
and never makes it all the way from the sun
leaving us with the color of longing

one more thing

small theories are what we use to explain
ourselves to ourselves—how we make
sense of where we come from and who
we think we are but nothing explains it all

and this–

this week I learned about an event horizon
which is another phrase for point of no return
in black-hole-speak but it took me to the
fog, the blue, and my small theories . . .

there’s just so much

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: ship’s log

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ship’s log

it seems like a lifetime ago
that we stood on the deck
of the USS Constitution
a still-commissioned vessel 
named
for our defining document
to learn much of it had been replaced
because it was still considered
active—a work in progress

only in museums does it matter
that nothing changes because
sameness is suffocating
every breath we take is
an act of resuscitation
that speaks hope into being
even as our joints creak
and groan like an old ship

every step of this voyage
reminds me that we need help
to ride these wondrous waves
no matter how strong our constitutions
or how well we exhibit courage
so on this day this storm this sea
I am grateful we sail together

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: an open letter to dr. linda livingstone

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An Open Letter to Dr. Linda Livingtone, President of Baylor University

Dear Dr. Livingstone,

I am one of the Baylor alumni who signed the petition asking you to recognize LGBTQ student groups on campus in light of the university’s decision to allow Matt Walsh to speak on campus. I was encouraged when I read through the list of names of those who signed before me—a list that spans generations of Baylor people. I know a lot of them, some more closely than others. One of the things I noticed was they are not a collection of “wild-eyed liberals” or—what’s the new derogation?—“social justice warriors.” The ones I recognize are people who love God, follow Christ, and love Baylor.

I read the petition urging you to hold to “traditional values” so that Baylor wouldn’t lose all its funding or be ostracized from the Baptist General Convention of Texas. I did not recognize names in its list of signers. I don’t know anything about them. I would imagine they, too, would say they are seeking to live out their faith.

l also read your “Presidential Perspective” dated April 4, 2019. You said,

As I reflect back over the past several weeks, our campus has struggled with demonstrating Christian hospitality while expressing different viewpoints. We know that once our students graduate, they will need to be equipped to handle difficult conversations or to face issues they may not agree with or that challenge our Christian beliefs.

Baylor has grown to become a diverse educational institution—with students from all 50 states and 90 countries—where students experience people from a wide range of backgrounds and with differing opinions.

It seems to me the struggle with “demonstrating Christian hospitality” has little to do with whether Matt Walsh feels welcome. He knows he’s a lighting rod. That’s exactly who he means to be. And he has an invitation to come be himself. Those who need to be the recipients of hospitality are the Baylor students who cannot be themselves because they are LGBTQ. They have to hide. They are reminded daily that they don’t belong. And it’s not because they are having premarital sex. Being gay, lesbian, or trans is not about having sex anymore than being straight is only about sex. It is about being the person God created you to be. I’m sure none of this is new information for you.

You said that Baylor “has become” a diverse place. There were gay and lesbian folks at Baylor when I was there in the 70s. There were gay and lesbian folks at Baylor when my parents were there in the 40s and 50s. That kind of diversity is not new. They had to graduate or leave to be able to fully learn that they were wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. Not all of them were able to do so.

To allow the LGBTQ students to meet as a recognized group on campus would be an act of radical Christian hospitality because it would be choosing relationship over doctrine—like Jesus did. It would truly create room for discussion, for engagement, and for community because it would demonstrate that the primary value of our faith in Christ is not being right but being love.

If it costs you money, then you’re probably on the right track, if I read Jesus’ words correctly. There’s a lot in there about how much our faith will cost us.

I should probably have started by saying I am writing to you because I am pulling for Baylor. I believe my alma mater is capable of being a beacon of love in the world. I’ve had my Baylor shirt on for four straight days up here in UConn country where I live because of the heart and spirit of the women’s basketball team. I’d like to wear it so I can tell the story of how my Baptist university incarnated the love of Christ in the way they worked to let all students know they belonged. I notice that you have a big athletic event coming up this weekend called “United for Family.” I borrowed the logo for my post. That slogan could have a more profound meaning in the context of this discussion.

The LGBTQ students are asking to be recognized. I love the verb. To recognize someone is to say, “Hey—I know you and I love you.” Recognize them. Unite the family. A whole lifetime of good things will come from that.

Peace,
Milton Brasher-Cunningham
Class of ‘78

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lenten journal: familiar extravagance

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This morning, like many who attend a worship service that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, I heard a sermon from John 12 about Mary pouring the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and Judas protesting about how the money could have been used otherwise. This is Mary, sister of Martha, who is also famous for wanting to hang out with Jesus when there was a lot of work to do. She was also the sister of Lazarus, who was at supper that night because Jesus had raised him from the dead. Mary, shall we say, had a keen sense of how to live in the moment.

I’m sure the story had been told many times before it was finally written down in John’s gospel, which also explains why John does everything but call Judas a sonuvabitch as he describes his objecting to the extravagance. I have a feeling he was not the only one in the room who was uneasy with Mary’s over-the-top expression of devotion and gratitude, but, since he was the identified betrayer, it was perhaps easier to remember him as the one who objected.

First of all, she poured a pound of perfume on Jesus’ feet. No wonder the whole house was filled with the fragrance. The whole neighborhood probably smelled that something was up—for days. And that pound of nard, as unattractive as the name is, would cost about $54,000 today, translating denarii into dollars. To name it as an extravagant gesture is understatement. I’m not sure it’s easy for any of us to understand. It was a gift so extravagant that it might have put her in financial jeopardy. It was a risky move.

“You will always have the poor with you,” Jesus said, “you will not always have me.”

In John’s timeline, the event happens just before Jesus enters Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. Though the gospel writers didn’t coordinate their chronologies, it struck me this afternoon that Jesus told three parables that Luke records some time before that night and those stories might help us look at Mary’s actions a bit differently.

In Luke 15, Jesus told a trio of stories that point to the extravagance of God. First, he talks about a shepherd who loses one sheep out of a flock of a hundred. He then asks, in a way that is both ironic and rhetorical, “Who wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine to go find the missing one?” The tone sounds the same as asking, “Who wouldn’t drop 50K on a bottle of perfume if you could wash Jesus’ feet with it?”

Then he tells of a woman who lost one of ten silver coins—we are not told the denominations—and proceeds to turn the house upside down looking for it, which leads me to believe she needed the money. When she finally finds it under one of the couch cushions, she spends the rest of the month’s grocery budget throwing a party in celebration.

The last story is the most often retold—the parable of the prodigal son. A man had two sons, as did almost all of the men in Jesus’ parables. The oldest one was compliant; the younger one was adventurous/rebellious/self-absorbed (your pick). He asked for his share of his inheritance and took off for whatever part of Palestine felt like Vegas and blew everything to the point that he thought coming back to his father and asking to be a servant was his best option. Before he even got to voice his contrition, which may not have been that sincere, the father ran to meet him, welcomed him home, and also threw a big party. The older son who had dutifully, though not joyfully, done what he was supposed to do, responded much like Judas: “Why does he get a party when the rest of us have been doing our job and never even got a barbecue?”

The father uses similar words to Jesus’ response: “You are always with me, but we thought your brother was dead and now he is alive. It is right that we should make merry.”

Whether Mary was there to hear those parables we don’t know, other than she seemed to understand how to live out the extravagant love of God in her words and actions. For Jesus, her actions were not unusual; he was familiar with extravagance. He was the incarnation of a spendthrift God. And he didn’t flinch when he told those parables, or follow them with saying, “Remember those kind of things only happen occasionally; it’s not like you can live that way.” He told the stories and left them there: this is what love looks like. Period.

I wish that such extravagance were so familiar to us.

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: threat landscape

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This week, I had to do an online training for work on cyber security. I was five or six screens in when they presented the “threat landscape.” The Oxford dictionary says the word threat finds its roots in German and Old English words that mean oppression, grieve, and irritate, which is an interesting combination.

the threat landscape
(mapped in haiku)

fear is the language
of people grasping for power
the brave speak in love

to be aware and
to be afraid aren’t two ways
to say the same thing

when you look at the
horizon do you see harm
or do you see hope?

the topography
of terror follows along
the fault lines of fear

there will always be
something to be afraid of
let’s walk together

if we’re in the dark
I’d rather look at the stars
and live in that light

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: work in progress

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About three years ago, I had a cortisone shot in my knee. It helped up until last December when they gave me another one and sent me to physical therapy. Neither was effective; in fact, the therapy made things worse, so I stopped going. Last month I went back to my doctor and he scheduled an MRI so he could see more of what was going on with my knee. He talked about doing gel injections and the possibility of an eventual knee replacement—at least that is the way I heard it. I went the following day and then the day after that I went to Texas on a trip for work. I saw him again today to get my results.

He led me to a computer monitor to see the images that looked as though they were moving sideways through my kneed in thin slices. The outside looked pretty good. Things fell apart when we got to the middle: no meniscus, bone on bone, even some deterioration. The gel shots would do no good—Jell-o shots might be an option—and we moved to schedule an appointment with the surgeon next Thursday.

I hesitated to write about it tonight because I am still not able to name my feelings, other than to say I am disquieted, or maybe numb. I have been in consistent pain for months and the thought of relief is wonderful. I read some about the success of the surgery and even got encouragement from my brother who had it done many years ago. And I have never had this kind of major surgery. They are going to take out my knee and put metal and plastic in there. Though it has been done for fifty years, I am still working to comprehend it in my body.

I am not one who has minded aging. There are many ways in which I like being sixty-two more than I liked being thirty-two. I don’t feel the need to try and look or act any other way than as myself in these days. That said, the consistent physical pain has made me mindful of my limitations in ways that has been sobering, to say the least, and discouraging. It’s not that I was ever anything other than an amazingly mediocre athlete, though I am an award-winning dancer, thanks to the Raise the Roof Gala a couple of years ago. But I have not been able to do some of the things I love and that feel like me. It has been, shall we say, a profound adjustment.

I know how it happened. In my years in restaurant kitchens, i didn’t pick up my right foot when I pivoted from the prep table to the stove, especially when we were in the weeds. I could feel it in my knee at the end of the night. It was also those years standing under the booming exhaust fan that cost me some of my hearing. One of my favorite places in the world is what left me impaired. I loved those days. There’s a parable in there somewhere. I’ll have to find it later.

Tonight, I am struck by my privilege—that I have health insurance, that I have access to great healthcare, that I have a job that will still pay me for sick days. I am aware of what we learn from pain—how it teaches us to listen to our bodies, how it makes us mindful of our limitations, how it bonds us to one another, how it drives us to relief. And I am grateful for connections—for Ginger who is always with me, for the family and friends I wrote when I left the doctor’s office, for the chance to share with you here.

As I learn more, I will share it. Tonight, it matters to just tell the story as far as it goes.

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: for such a time as this

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My father loved the story of Esther.

I guess he probably told it to me for the first time when I was six or seven. I don’t know how many times he repeated it just to get to the part where Mordecai says to her, “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

A little over a week ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was interviewed by the Christian Broadcasting Network who asked him if he thought Trump was “a modern day Esther.” He agreed. When I first heard the story, I passed it off as evangelical Zionism run amok. I thought about it again today when I read Ginger’s Facebook post:

Trump who talked about and acted on sexual assaults made jokes about Biden touching people inappropriately—seriously! Joking about these crimes and some people laughing—really? Men who think they are powerful must be stopped. I don’t care about status, party, vocation—stop it! The most pastoral care oriented thing I can say is, we are done with this. People who claim faith and don’t seem to care about abuse, must choose faith or abuse—can’t have both. Both women and decent men are needed to speak up, speak out, and stop this insane “ownership” behavior. Stop it now!

Her words were not a surprise to me. I am in total agreement. They helped me realize that I have not been vocal about it. I roll my eyes when I read things like the interview with Pompeo, or allow myself the luxury of not paying attention to Trump’s rallies or Twitter storms, but all that means is I am letting the bully have the run of the playground. I am letting him do damage.

I would like to offer another biblical analogy. The self-proclaimed Christian leaders who speak of Trump as the chosen ones and the Christians who say God can use an “imperfect person” to help reinforce their power and privilege are like Caiaphas and the other religious leaders who allied with the Roman oppression to gain power and to kill Jesus. The Romans knew how to play them and Caiaphas and his minions ate it up. We are seeing a live-action remake right before our eyes. Any so-called Christian who is willing to give Trump a pass on his despicable talk and behavior toward women—not to mention his denigration of Puerto Rico, Mexico, LGBTQ folks, and both mentally and physically disabled folks, to name a few—have sold their integrity and their faith for a promise of power and prosperity. You are killing Jesus all over again.

This is not about whether we are Democrats or Republicans. This man said he just grabbed women by the vagina when he wanted to and now he brazenly mocks others who are being called to account for their behavior, and yet they talk about him as “God’s man for our time.”

He’s not.

When a bunch of self-righteous men brought a woman to Jesus they said had been “caught in the very act of adultery”—though she was alone—he knelt down beside her and wrote in the sand. We don’t know what he wrote. Perhaps it was the Hebrew equivalent of #metoo. I think his doodling in the dirt was an act of kindness: he took the attention off of her and then he turned the tables on the men who, up to that point, considered themselves without sin. Jesus called their bluff and the left.

Then he comforted the woman.

Ginger’s post reminded me that I am here for a time like this, not to be a savior or a hero, but to be a truth-teller, an interrupter. We are here to speak the truth in love and to stand up for those who are being derided and abused and ignored and damaged. I don’t how that will look, other than I am going to make a point to speak up when someone defends Trump. His behaviors are indefensible. They are damaging.

In such a time as this, we cannot stay silent.

Peace,
Milton

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lenten journal: it’s worth it all . . .

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I spent last week in Texas on a work trip that centered around the New Story Festival organized by Gareth Higgins and Brian McLaren that focused on the myth of redemptive violence, which is a term coined by theologian Walter Wink to describe the belief that we can bring order out of chaos through brutal force. (Insert the history of most any country in the world here to prove his point.) What they offered instead a “seventh story” based on all that connects us.

“The seventh story,” Gareth said, “is a space rather than a closed narrative.”

All of the speakers and performers helped to create such a space. The event didn’t make the evening news, but we changed the world.

In the space afforded me as I traversed North and Central Texas let me catch up with my brother and sister-in-law, and my cousin. For one whose small family of origin has dwindled, the face-to-face conversations were life-giving. I got to spend time with a couple of high school and college friends and some of my authors as well. But there were four encounters I had that caught me by surprise.

I got to see four people who were a part of the youth group at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, where I was youth minister in the 80s. All of them are older now than I was when I was their youth minister. Three of them have children who are older than they were when I knew them. And all of them are dealing with significant hardship in their lives.

I went to the assisted living facility to meet one whose mother is making a long slow recovery from bacterial meningitis. Another is just a year past the death of their father. The third is still grieving from a move across country two years ago that has left them feeling unmoored. The last has endured a difficult year since their spouse was hit by a truck as they stood on a street corner. They have four kids. The spouse is cognitively aware and very much themselves, but still has a long way to go physically. The hardest thing of all seems to be that they have lost their sense of taste and food was one of their greatest joys.

Perhaps what I loved most about the space we found together was we didn’t have to tell old stories to connect. We kept telling the same story we began thirty years ago, which was that we loved each other. I saw the seventh story in a live-action version as I moved from one friend to another.

And that’s how it felt. Once upon a time, I was the adult (I should probably put that in quotes) and they were the teenagers, but this week we were fellow travelers—friends making space for one another to keep telling the story of our connectedness, which also meant to share our pain with one another.

One of the speakers I heard at the festival was Danielle Shroyer, who talked about “original blessing.” (And I also found out we share a Wilshire Baptist Church connection.) “We are in a relationship with God that God started,” she said, “and God is sticking with it.” As people created in the image of God, we are built with the same stick-to-it-ness, should we choose to live into our best selves and trust that love is the story we are most meant to tell and to share.

Even as I write about these encounters, I can name a number of people whom I love that I did not get to see while I was in Texas. I have been mostly off of Facebook for Lent, except to post these musings and some poetry, but even a brief scrolling-through when I got home put me in touch with others who are living through hard days, and some who are celebrating as well. None of us can be everywhere we want or need to be, yet we can be connected. We are connected. We just need to keep telling each other the story so we will remember.

Back in those youth ministry days, Billy Crockett and I wrote a song for youth camp called “Best of Friends.” I even got to sing the harmony part on the first chorus when he recorded it. The song grew out of watching the same folks I saw this week and others befriend one another. I had moved so much growing up that I did not know that kind of love. I watched them and wrote

these days of sunshine these days of rain
we pull together in days of pain
we share beginnings we share the ends
it’s worth it all in these days
to be best of friends

Yes, it is. Thank God.

Peace,
Milton

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