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time travelers

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time travelers

we shared a table
under the art tent
then a table next
to the pizza truck
at the sunday school
saturday kickoff

I remembered her
even though I had
not seen her in three
summers I didn’t
recognize her I
said to her father

she’s four now he said
and I realized
two and a half years
to me was half of
her entire lifetime
she wasn’t coming

back she was tracing
new lines coloring
fresh pages playing
tag eating pizza
in a world broken
open not broken

closed her pandemic
came early while mine
came late I am old
enough to remember
she’s young enough
to forget the half

of her life spent in
masks and missing all
that happened before
I’m a grief-pilgrim
she’s a wonderer
we used to cross paths

at coffee hour we
try to remember
the kind of september
where life feels tenuous
at least for me
she is still coloring

Peace,
Milton

PS–My writing here and in my newsletter are offered for free, thanks to the help of my members who help to support me. You can subscribe to my weekly newsletter (which is also free) and become a member. Thanks for reading.

volcano

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The days have been full and my mind and heat have been quiet, so Went back through words I have written before and found this poem in a Long Ago File that spoke to me tonight. I hope it finds you as well.

volcano

do you remember the grade
when we built volcanoes
hollow towers of papier-mâché
and the incendiary mix
of vinegar and baking powder
that spewed over the sides

it was about the same time
our sorrow began to stack up
the strata of struggle and
shame solidifying into a
debilitating monument where
our fault lines intersect

we watched movies of molten
lava bursting forth from the
center of the earth with
unstoppable fiery force
searing the landscape
and then turning to stone

what a surprise to find
that what forces up from the
core of our beings through
the fault lines of failure
the center of our sorrow
is the lava of laughter

a mighty river of love
that knows shame by name
and runs as hot as hope
down the stacks of sorrow
the geology of grace
the pumice of promise

My writing here and in my newsletter are offered for free, thanks to the help of my members who help to support me. You can subscribe to my weekly newsletter (which is also free) and become a member. Thanks for reading.

Peace,
Milton

 

chain reaction

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I learned a new word today: concatenation.

–the act of linking together in a chain; concatenating;
–the state of being concatenated; connection, as in a chain;
–a series of interconnected or interdependent things or events.

I read the word in Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, who was writing about her migraines what they had taught her about how we understand who we are together as a society.

I’ll come back to her in a minute, but first I want to tell you about the memory the word awakened in me.

When we first moved to Guilford, one of the folks in the church who is a font of historical knowledge about pretty much everything, as far as I can tell, offered to give me a tour of the town. As we walked around, he told me stories about Guilford, including that at one time there were five foundries in this little town. Some of the buildings that housed them are still standing, though they are now condominiums and other businesses.

As he talked about the metal work done in town, he told me about the effort to put a chain across the Hudson River during the Revolutionary War to prevent the British from attacking by ship from Canada. (He also pointed me to Chaining the Hudson: The Fight for the River in the American Revolution by Lincoln Diamant.) The reason the story mattered to Guilford was that the built the chain by calling on foundries all over New England to build the links, which were then transported by horse drawn wagons to a town on the Hudson and the chain was assembled there. Though the links were not uniform, each one weighed about 100 pounds; the whole chain was seventy or eighty tons. It was carried out into the river by barges.

And it worked, thanks to the concatenation of not only the chain but also the foundries that connected to make it a reality.

I have this mental image of blacksmiths all over New England making chain links as best they knew how–and probably larger than they had ever made–and then I can see a whole bunch of wagons working their way to the river to connect all of their contributions into something that was probably more than anyone imagined and certainly connecting people in ways they didn’t see coming. They even turned an image on its head, creating a chain that was a symbol of freedom.

As Macdonald talked about What she had learned about what happened before she a migraine set in, she talked about having to learn how to recognize connections that weren’t apparent, and then carried that metaphor to links we need to learn to see.

My migraine symptoms are a concatenation of unrelated things that seem to have nothing to do either with each other or with the pain that follows them: beet-root, banana milk, yawning, phonophobia (fear of sound–another new word), exhaustion. It’s hard to imagine how those things relate, or how they could fit together into a whole. And it’s just as hard for us to comprehend that things we have been taught are unrelated got each other, that seem only incidentally connected to the workings of the world–things like agricultural production, food distribution, international trade agreements, global corporate culture, among a thousand others–its hard fur us to comprehend that such things might be causal symptoms of the climate emergency. We’ve been conditioned by our times not to process some types of problems and solutions because they do not fit with how we’ve been taught to think about society. (72)

That last sentence made me wonder whether it would even be possible to create the kind of cooperation that built the chain across the Hudson if we had to do it today. We seem to have lost most of our ability to see the power of the common good. No wonder I didn’t know what concatenation meant. I don’t have much need to use it.

In the middle of those thoughts came an email from Ginger sent to the church leadership about the rat problem in Guilford. Yes, I said rats. For some weeks now, our part of town has been infested with rats. Not mice. Rats. We have seen them in our backyard. The people whose fence backs up on the lot where our kinship garden, and who had chickens, have killed twenty of them.

Part of trying to deal with the problem is learning about the connections that are not apparent. We have two folks in our neighborhood who have had chickens. One woman has had them for years. The chickens have not attracted rats before, but now that the rats are here, the chicken feed is a magnet. So is our giant pile of leaf mulch in the back corner of the garden–or so it seems since they found tunnels in it. We are also mindful that poisoning the rats requires we think of connections to wildlife that might catch and eat a sick rat, creating a toxic chain we do not intend.

I know, I’ve wandered a long way from the banks of the Hudson, but it seems that our town is once again having to learn how to work together to keep the enemy out of town, if you will. (I make that sound like we haven’t done that since the Revolutionary War, but you get my drift.) I realize that’s dramatic and I also wonder why it seems that most often we need someone or something to be against in order to come together, but that is a discussion for another time.

For now, I learned a new word that has to do with linking together. I hope I get to use it a lot.

Peace,
Milton

My writing here and in my newsletter are offered for free, thanks to the help of my members who help to support me. You can subscribe to my weekly newsletter (which is also free) and become a member. Thanks for reading.

the math of discipleship

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I preached this morning at our church in Guilford, and it was another peach of a passage as far as the lectionary is concerned. I had to write the sermon in traffic, as I like to say, because it was a hectic week, but some of those things became part of what helped me to see the verses in a new light. Since my interim is over, this is my last scheduled sermon for a while. I hope you find something here that speaks to you.

________________________________

Last week, I started publishing an online newsletter called “mixing metaphors.” Actually, Ginger was the one who came up with the title because, she said, it’s what I do. I like to mash up ideas and images that offer the chance for imaginative conversation about what it means to be human.

As long as my mother was alive, she admonished me to be like Jesus. After dealing with today’s passage and the parables that surround it, I wish I could tell her I think I’m pretty close because in the eight verses we read Jesus gives us a festival of mixed metaphors.

First, he said, those who did not hate their families could not be disciples. Then he said those who did not carry their cross couldn’t either–and they knew nothing about his upcoming crucifixion, so what that metaphor meant to them is up in the air. Maybe it had more to do with the weight of empire, since Rome used crucifixion as punishment for crimes, than our image of great sacrifice. Then he switched to talk about counting the cost of building a tower and counting the cost of going to battle against a more formidable opponent, and then he said, “Therefore, none you can become my disciple if you do not give up all of your possessions”–and then, in the following verses that we did not read, he said we were like salt. He hit everything from siblings to seasonings as he talked about what it means to be human.

Look, Mom, I’m like Jesus . . . ?

At least, I hope so.
But I have to tell you, when I read phrases like “must hate your family” and “renounce all your possessions,” I wonder what to do with them even though Jesus said them.

I have watched, for example, as some maliciously use the two stories about counting the cost to castigate those who have had their student loan debt forgiven, and part of me wishes those words of Jesus weren’t even written down so they could not be weaponized.

Though the gospel writers rarely give us any indication of Jesus’ tone when he spoke, I have been turning these words over all week listening for something that offers more than Jesus telling everyone they were a huge disappointment to God.

Then I saw something I had not seen before. Listen again:

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether they have enough to complete it? Otherwise, when they have laid a foundation and are not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule them, saying, ‘This person began to build and was not able to finish.’

Jesus said the reason the person had for making sure they could finish the tower was so they would not be ridiculed for a half-built tower. And the second story:

Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.

The result of the king measuring his army against his opponent’s was to decide the battle wasn’t worth it and to send a peace delegation instead.

The characters in both stories are examples of vulnerability, not victory. The first had a big idea that got knocked down by things they didn’t see coming, and the second had delusions of grandeur that were cut down to size in a moment of reflection.

The way Jesus talked about the kind of commitment it took to be a disciple, he seemed to say that there is not a way to communicate just how much it costs.

We can give lip-service to putting our commitment to God above family and possessions, or anything else for that matter, but living that out is a different thing, as is figuring out what that looks like. The truth is our lives are littered with lots of half-built towers and battles we didn’t fight. And most all of us are attached to our stuff.

These verses read, it seems, as if hardly anyone measures up as a disciple. But these verses don’t stand alone.

Just before this mess of metaphors, Jesus told three parables about banquets. One is about someone who goes to a banquet and tries to switch place cards to worm their way up to the head table only to be moved to the back (and Jesus said don’t be like that); one is about someone who hosts a banquet and only invites people they think will invite them back only to learn that doesn’t pay off (and Jesus said don’t be like that); and one is about someone who sends out invitations to a banquet to people who were used to going to banquets, and everyone responds with silly excuses, so the host instructs their servants to go out and find anyone who is hungry enough to come and eat (and Jesus said be like that).

In the chapter that follows our verses, Jesus tells three parables of people who appear to not count costs: a shepherd who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep to go out in the night to find one that had gotten lost; a woman, who loses one of the ten coins she possessed, tears up her house looking for it, and then blows her whole budget throwing a party for the neighborhood to celebrate; and a father who pulls out all the stops when his son, who had disowned him, comes home after losing everything because he has nowhere else to go.

The traditional reading of these last parables is that God is the extravagant one—and that is true about God. But what if we put ourselves in the place of the shepherd or the woman or the father? What if we think of these parables in the light of Jesus’ call to give up our possessions?

Perhaps what is missing in our understanding of what Jesus was saying in these parables is that Jesus understood most of us spend their lives counting costs. We measure our steps and choose our words; we run scenarios in our minds and make forecasts and predictions. We want to make sure we are safe. We want what is coming to us. We don’t want to get taken advantage of. We want to share, but we don’t want to give up too much.

The truth is that kind of math doesn’t add up because we can’t see what’s coming. What we can see are the invitations life is offering us right now—invitations to incarnate the love of God to those around us in tangible ways.

Our friends Jena and Marc felt compelled to pay for a student from A Better Chance (ABC) to go to college. When Julie became our foster daughter, they also gave us one of their cars because they knew we were going to need a second vehicle. They had the means to do both—and they were willing to do them.

Sometimes, the call to respond is more celebratory. Our goddaughter Ally and her partner Pete opened a restaurant in Athens, Georgia this week. As you can imagine, the opening was the result of years of dreaming and planning. Thanks to Avelo Airlines, we were able to figure out how to get there—and it mattered to her that we did.

At the same time, Ginger’s cousin in Alabama is facing a housing crisis and has nowhere to go, so we are in the process of adjusting some of our plans to buy a small place so he will have somewhere to live.

As I was working on my newsletter and trying to figure out life after my editing job, a person who I know through my blog but have never seen face to face spent two or three evenings after work helping me sort through some technical stuff I did not know how to do just because I asked.

I wish we had time to let the people here tell stories because I am sure this room holds many tales of ways people have been extravagant to us and ways in which we have counted the cost of what it means to be family or friends and then paid the bill.

Take some time to think of those stories and tell them to one another. They are stories of discipleship, if you will.

Jesus told these parables in response to questions that came from those who were critical of him: Why did you heal that man on the Sabbath? Why do you hang out with tax collectors and sinners?

Jesus’ answer was basically to say, “Why not spend my life on them? What else is going to add up to a life worth living?”

As followers of Christ—disciples—we are called to pay the cost of noticing one another, of witnessing one another, and attending to one another, of loving one another. We are called to offer our half-built towers as shelter, to share our daily meals as if they were banquets, to find one another no matter why we got lost in the first place for no other reason than that’s what Jesus did. And, like my mother said, we ought to be like Jesus. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

My writing here and in my newsletter are offered for free, thanks to the help of my members who help to support me. You can subscribe to my weekly newsletter (which is also free) and become a member. Thanks for reading.

out of tune voices

1

This has been a rollercoaster of a week. It started, for me, with finishing up my nine-month bridge pastorate in Westbrook and sending out the inaugural issue of my newsletter, mixing metaphors. On Wednesday morning, Ginger and I went to Athens, Georgia to celebrate the opening of Puma Yu’s, a new restaurant that is the realization of the dream of Ginger’s goddaughter, Ally (though I claim her too) and her partner Pete. Getting there on short notice meant we flew from New Haven to Savannah and then drove from Savannah to Athens. We got to eat at the restaurant both Wednesday and Thursday nights and then came back to Guilford on Friday, also by way of Savannah. As we drove, Ginger was talking to a realtor in Sylacauga, Alabama about a small house we found that we are trying to buy so her cousin (that I mentioned earlier this week) will have a place to live. Ginger led a memorial service this morning and then I rode with her to Wallingford, Connecticut so she could visit a severely injured parishioner who is in a rehab hospital there.

As I sat in the car while she was in the hospital, I let Apple CarPlay choose a random collection of songs. About thirty minutes in, a Joni Mitchell song came on from a 1974 live album called Miles of Aisles. I saw her on tour a year or so later at Reunion Arena in Dallas. her band was Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. The stage was in the middle of the arena and faced a horseshoe of fans. It is the only time I have ever seen her live.

The song was “The Circle Game,” and she introduced it by saying,

This song doesn’t sound good when sung by one lonely voice. It’s sounds good–the more voices on it the better and the more out of tune voices the better. It was made for out of tune voices, this song.

My guess is you know the song, or would know it if you heard it. The chorus says,

and the seasons they go round and round
and the painted ponies go up and down
we’re captive on the carousel of time
we can’t return we can only look
behind from where we came
and go round and round and round
in the circle game

As I listened to the song, I couldn’t help but think of the clips from the Newport Folk Festival of Joni singing the same song almost fifty circles later surrounded by an amazing array of voices on stage–including Brandi Carlile, Allison Russell, Shooter Jennings, Wynonna Judd, Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Marcus Mumford, and Phil and Tim Hanseroth–and a whole audience of out of tune voices who couldn’t believe what they had a chance to be a part of. Joni was not on the list of performing artists for the festival. Brandi Carlile was the one who made it happen. Instead of using her set to sing her songs, she made room for Joni and the others so that we all got a chance to hear Joni sing again.

Even when we are out of tune, it matters when we harmonize.

The opening nights at Puma Yu’s were for those who had supported Ally and Pete in their Kickstarter, which meant it was a room filled with back up singers, with out of tune voices that came to sing the songs of friendship and encouragement. Ginger first met Charles and Jennifer, Ally’s parents, when they were in seminary together. I met them even before Ginger and I got married. Soon after Ally was born they came to Boston and we took Ally to Fenway. Her younger brother, Samuel, is my godson. He’s been to Fenway, too. The realtor Ginger talked to lives in the Birmingham area and, though they have never met in person, figured out they know some of the same melodies. When the songs go like that they feel so good, so good, so good.

But those aren’t the only songs we sing.

Though the melodies of grief and struggle are often familiar to many of us, sometimes they are hard to sing together. When life takes a minor key, we don’t always show up for each other, or we don’t always think of how we could show up. We don’t recognize the harmony part. The hospital in Wallingford is thirty minutes from Guilford. It is a great hospital for spinal cord injuries, but the distance means the person Ginger saw isn’t getting many visitors. They are singing mostly alone right now. As Joni said, the song doesn’t sound good when sung by one lonely voice.

I think that’s true of any of the songs in the key of life. They are made for out of tune voices.

Peace,
Milton

Thanks for reading. What I write here is free because of those who support it. You can find out about membership here and subscribe to my newsletter here. And here’s Joni:

migration assistant

2

Monday did not begin as I had hoped.

What I pictured was getting up, doing my morning pages, reading (I’m almost finished with Braiding Sweetgrass), and then putting some finishing touches on the first issue of the newsletter.

What happened was I got up, poured myself a glass of water, drank about half of it, and then, before I could even open my journal, I split the water on my desk. I grabbed my MacBook as quickly as I could. It was not a direct hit and it didn’t feel wet. I laid it in a safe place and went about sopping up water and drying everything off. Then I journaled and read and had my breakfast, and then opened my Mac to work on the newsletter.

It stayed on for about ten minutes and then quit. I refilled my coffee cup (and set on something other than my desk) and turned the computer back on. It lasted about five minutes. Then three. Then it never got past the opening white apple on a black background.

And I knew I had problems.

The rest of my day was spent in a combination of conversations with Apple Support and then in person at the Apple Store in New Haven where I used to work. I left there six years ago and hadn’t been in the store since before the pandemic began. I walked in and was greeted by two of my former coworkers, and then I saw others as well. Seeing them didn’t fix my computer, but they helped my mood. When they opened up my laptop, they found water. They dried it out the best they could, but I drove home knowing its days were numbered.

I got up this morning and repeated my morning practice. My computer came alive–and stayed alive–long enough for me to send out the newsletter and do a couple of other things. But this afternoon, I went back to the Apple Store to pick up my new MacBook Air, thanks in part to an Apple colleague from my days at the Apple Store in Durham who was willing to let me use one of her friends and family discounts. It has been seven years since we worked together but the connection continues.

I came home and opened the white box, unwrapped everything, and then began the process of logging in and making the MacBook mine. Then I set the two computers side by side and got them talking to each other though a program called Migration Assistant that moves everything from one computer to another–this time from the damaged one to the new one. A couple of hours later, the new one looked just like the old one: everything was right where I left it before I spilled my water.

I am grateful for the way things played out and I am aware of how privileged I am even as I express my gratitude. The crisis was of my own making: I spilled the water. Still, I had options–people to call and ask for help, the money to buy a new computer (even though the timing isn’t great). As I waited in the Apple Store until it was my turn to talk to a Genius, I looked around at the others in the store and wondered what crises brought them in and what was at stake. From my days on the other side of the conversation, I know there were people in the room who didn’t have the kind of support I did.

While I was in the store, I got a text from Ginger saying one of her cousins was facing a housing crisis that was not their fault. The residential hotel where they have been living in Auburn, Alabama gave all the long-term residents a little over a week to find new lodging because the hotel can make more money renting the rooms nightly during football season. Ginger’s cousin asked the person at the desk why they were doing it now when they did not do it last year. “The people that let you stay should not have done that,” the desk person said, “and they no longer work here.” 

What moves me most about that encounter is that Ginger’s cousin wasn’t asking for themselves–they was asking about the other families that live in the hotel.

Ginger spent a good bit of her day trying to be a migration assistant, but we are not close by and moving a person being forced out of their housing is not as easy as transferring data. We were able to come up with a temporary solution that buys us a couple of weeks, but we have more to do before her cousin can feel safe and cared for. If anyone reading this has a lead on an inexpensive apartment in the Auburn, Alabama-Columbus, Georgia area, please leave a comment here or send me a note at miltybc@donteatalone.com.

One way of looking at what happened between my computers today was the new one reached out to all the stuff on the old one and said, “Your house isn’t going to last much longer. Come over here where we have room for you–and we’ll even help move you.”

I wish that’s the way the world worked for people, too.

Peace,

Milton

PS–Some of you have run into bad links while trying to subscribe to my newsletter. Here is one that works.

food for thought

1

Part of the reason pastors take vacation in August is because the lectionary passages are complicated when it comes to preaching. Or perhaps the Lectionary Committee thought, “Hey, let’s dump all of these in August when we know we are not going to be in the pulpit.” Either way, in the waning days of summer when we are all looking for a little relief, the passages like the one for today (Luke 14:7-14) make us think harder than we want to.

The good news for me is the two parables are about meals, and I am always happy to talk about cooking and eating, whether literally or metaphorically.

__________________________________

I think one of the reasons I like Jesus is because so much of what he did and said revolved around food. He fed people. He ate and drank with all kinds of people. He even cooked breakfast after his resurrection–on the beach, no less. And he used the idea of gathering around the table as one of his primary metaphors in his parables.

All of that speaks to me. Whether I am cooking or eating, hosting the dinner or being hosted, I like to be at the table with people.

You may have noticed that our passage started with, “When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable,” which is to say we are coming in during the middle of the story. Jesus was at a dinner at the home of some people of privilege who thought of themselves as The Ones Who Made Sure Everyone Kept The Rules.

I mean, Jesus would eat dinner with anybody!

A sick man came to Jesus to be healed, but it was the Sabbath and the Rule Enforcers frowned on Jesus “working.” Jesus stared them down and healed the man. And then he told these two parables.

The two stories are connected, but they go in different directions. The first is about people who get invited to a banquet and switch their place cards so they can be closer to the the head table. The second is about someone hosting a dinner for people they know will invite them in return.

Jesus said that neither approach was the way to live. Life is about relationships, not transactions.

A couple of years after I got out of college, a friend who graduated after I did called and said he was coming to town and wanted to know if he could take me to lunch. Of course, I said yes. We had a great meal and a good conversation. Towards the end of the meal he told me that he was working for a life insurance company and wanted to talk to me about my insurance needs. My insurance needs were taken care of at that point, but I thanked him for lunch and he went on his way.

About a year later, he called again, saying he was coming through town. We went to lunch again and he tried to sell me insurance again. And it happened a third time, some months after that. At the third meeting, I said, “I am glad to see you and to hear about your life, but I don’t want to buy insurance. If you’re coming to town and you want to eat because we are friends, that’s great. If you want to see me because you think I could be a customer, I’m not interested.”

He never called back.

I look back on him how and I can find grace that I did not find back then. He was just starting out in a career and he worked on commission and he needed customers, so he called people that he knew. And what soured me was he turned a relationship into a transaction.

If he could have said, “Hey, I am just getting started and I could use some help making connections with people; can I buy you lunch and talk it through with you?” the story would have been different. Or, if I could have said, “I know you’re under pressure to sell insurance, but let’s just have lunch and leave that for another time,” rather than being as blunt as I was, we might still be in touch.

I know another person whose parents told her that the proper response to a gift is to return the container full. I gave her some peppers I had canned and she returned the jar full of something. When I said she didn’t need to do that, she said her mother had told her that she had to do that to be polite. But now it leaves me wondering how that expectation leads her to feel about people, like me, who return her containers empty and just say, “Thank you.”

Hear me clearly: life is not as simple as this is the right way and this is the wrong way when it comes to how we relate to each other in most cases. The give and take of our daily lives requires of us to move back and forth between being givers and receivers, hosts and guests. Like is a series of exchanges, in a way–but here is where we have choices about what we make those interactions mean to us and to others.

At the heart of both stories is this: don’t keep score when it comes to giving and receiving.

If you go to a banquet and you are at the table against the back wall, take it as a chance to dance where no one can see you and have the time of your life. If you’re the one hosting dinner, invite the people who need to eat, not those who will make you look good. Either way, enjoy the meal for the sake of the meal. Make a memory, not an accomplishment.

Life is about relationships, not transactions. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

PS—my newsletter, mixing metaphors, starts Tuesday. You can subscribe here.

mixing metaphors

1

Over the past several weeks I have been contemplating what life might look like in the days ahead. My recent reading in quantum theology and cosmology has given me a deeper sense of the interconnectedness of the universe, and the things happening in my little life in the middle of it have proven it. The main lesson I have continued to relearn is that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but an indicator of trust that those who love you really mean it. So as I say I am starting something new, I want to state clearly what is implicit in all of it: I am not alone in this endeavor.

And for that I am deeply grateful.

I wrote a few days ago about working on some new ideas built around th

SUBSCRIBE TO MIXING METAPHORS

e metaphors in our lives. One of those will begin this coming Tuesday. I am launching a newsletter called mixing metaphors. I pan to publish it weekly. As the title suggests, it will have a collection of ideas and links, or perhaps I should say a conversation of ideas since I hope that is what happens, as well as a recipe and links to my blog posts from the previous days. Because it is a newsletter, it only goes to those who have subscribed. If you would like to do so, please click here.

BECOME A MEMBER

The second thing I have done is to create a membership program for those who would like to support me financially in my new job, if you will. You can click this link to find the different membership options, named after our three Schnauzers. I want to make what I am writing free to whomever wants to read it, so the membership does not give you access to a secret stash and the different tiers do not have graduated perks. All of them offer a chance for connection in a different way.

You can also find buttons for both on the sidebar of the blog. I tried to create a slide-in sign up, but I still have a few bugs to work out on that one.

As I have worked on this in earnest since we got back from Ireland, I have felt my spirit lighten. I am leaning into what feels right for the days ahead. I am grateful to all of you who have offered encouragement and support in many different ways.

Here’s to seeing what comes out of the mix.

Peace,
Milton

 

 

finding words

7

I realized again today that I keep an informal list in my head of movie scenes that help my understand the world. I’m sure I am not alone in that practice. Off the top of my head I can think of scenes from Miss Firecracker, Big Night, Moonstruck, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Elephant Man, and Three Amigos, to name a few. Even writing about the list makes me thankful for YouTube.

The scene that came to mind today was from Dead Poets’ Society, a film full of great memories for me.

INT. KEATING’S CLASSROOM – DAY

The students are all back in their normal seats and Keating leaps
up onto his desk.

KEATING
Why do I stand up here? Anybody?

CHARLIE
To feel taller.

KEATING
No!
Keating rings the bell on his desk with his foot

KEATING
Thank you for playing, Mr. Dalton. I
stand upon my desk to remind yourself
that we must constantly look at things
in a different way.

Keating glances around the classroom from atop the desk.

KEATING
You see, the world looks very different
from up here. You don’t believe me? Come
see for yourself. Come on. Come on!

I thought about Keating and the boys standing on the desk because my view of the world was altered by a book that I learned about through a conversation with my friend Sid: The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig.

(Pauses to give people time to order it.)

The title alone is enough to give me things to think about for several weeks. I was in the middle of an afternoon where I was canning the six pounds of jalapeños I picked this week from our church’s Kinship Garden, as we have come to call it–thirteen pint jars filled with peppery goodness to come back to when the garden is asleep. As the peppers were boiling in the canner, I opened the book to see what it was like. I quickly realized I was holding a gift before I finished the introduction. These are among the words that swept me up.

This is not a book about sadness–at least, not in the modern sense of the word. The word sadness originally meant “fullness,” from the same Latin root, satis, that also gave us sated and satisfaction. Not so long ago, to be sad meant you were filled to the brim with some intensity of experience. It wasn’t just a malfunction in the joy machine. It was a state of awareness–setting the focus to infinity and taking it all in, joy and grief at once. When we speak of sadness these days, most of the time what we really mean is despair, which is literally defined as the absence of hope. But true sadness is actually the opposite, an exuberant upwelling that reminds you how fleeting and mysterious and open-ended life can be. . . . And if you are lucky enough to feel sad, well, savor it while it lasts–if only because it means that you care about something in this world enough to let it under your skin. (xii)

The paragraph put me on top of my desk, gave me a view of the world I had not seen, akin to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s description of growing old as enrichment rather than deterioration that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. From the vantage point of sadness as taking it all in, I could see the courage of sadness, as well as the hope and meaning. Life is not either-or. We don’t live being either happy or sad, good or bad; at least I don’t find that very much of existence breaks into those kind of binaries.

What I saw in Keonig’s words–and what I am still turning over in my mind–is that sadness is not the opposite of joy but can see a wider continuum of emotions and exerpience that include joy but go beyond it. To be sad is to be filled up with life, so much so that it hurts.

Perhaps this would be a good time to say that the book really is a dictionary. It is a dictionary of words for emotions, except that these words have not existed until now. Let me also say, for those of you who remember, what he is doing is way beyond Sniglets. Koenig quotes Wittengenstein:

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

But then Koenig goes on to say,

Words will never do us justice. But we have to try anyway. Luckily, the palette of language is infinitely expandable. (xi)

I’m going to have to stand on his desk for a while with that idea. I have always thought I had new words to learn, but I don’t think I had considered that part of the task–or the hope–of being human is making up words to describe who we are and why we are here.

Madeleine L’Engle observed that vocabularies decrease during wartime. But Koenig is not talking about war, he is talking about sadness–sorrows–as something that fills us up, perhaps sometimes overwhelming us. I think about Johann Hari’s understanding of depression as overwhelming grief or sadness, and it makes consider that one way of looking at depression might be that I am simply overcome by the fulness of existence, crushed under the weight of it all. That helps me somehow.

As I sit and stare at the computer screen, faces are going through my head like the parade of boys getting up on the desk in the movie clip, people I love who live in the fulness of life, stuffed with sadness for a variety of reasons, people who know somehow that joy and sorrow are traveling companions. I have no idea if any of them know the etymology of sadness, but they know well what I am just now seeing, or perhaps I’m better to say what I am just now finding words for.

I am working on an idea for a retreat/workshop/whatever someone wants to do that I am calling Mixing Metaphors. Each of us has primary metaphors that we live by, whether we can articulate them or not. I would like to spend the day with folks looking at those metaphors and then talking about how we expand our vocabulary to create possibilities. I’ve been working on the idea for a good while, but haven’t spoken about it much. The new perspective of trying to make a living by writing and speaking has made me think more. Reading the first pages of my new dictionary has made me think I am may be on to something.

Who knows. Maybe I’ll even have people stand on the desk.

Peace,
Milton

untamed stories

2

One of the surprises of our Ireland trip for me was to learn that C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast and grew up there. I realized my knowledge of him was as a professor in England and I had never considered an Irish connection. The City of Belfast created the square, which has a beautiful open area, a whole bunch of trees and other plants, and several metal sculptures of characters from the books, as a part of a wider urban regeneration project designed to help East Belfast, an area that has struggled economically and one that also bore the brunt of a good bit of violence during the Troubles.

As I wandered around the square (and took my picture with Aslan), I couldn’t help but go back to my favorite conversation in the stories–one I wrote about in my book–where Lucy, the youngest of the children, encounters Aslan on a return visit to Narnia. She runs to meet him.

“Aslan, Aslan. Dear Aslan,” sobbed Lucy. “At last.”

The great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large wise face.

“Welcome, child,” he said.

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”

“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

Right before we moved on to our next place, several of us went into the coffee shop that sits on the square and I saw another of my favorite quotes in a tryptic on the wall:

“It’s not as if he were a tame lion.”

One other rather random memory that came back as a stood in CS Lewis Square is from our trip to Turkey for Ginger’s first sabbatical. We were in Istanbul and two Turkish teams were playing football on the television where we were. One of the teams was called Aslan. I asked someone about the name and they told me aslan is the Turkish word for lion. I have always wondered how Lewis made that connection.

This morning, I continued my slow journey through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and was taken back to that morning in Belfast with Aslan by one sentence:

I’ve noticed that once some folks attach a scientific label to a being, they stop exploring who it is. (208)

She was talking about the way scientists think about plants, and the way in which some can become accustomed to taking their presuppositions as truth–as though a name and a label were the same thing. She continued,

Most people don’t know the names of these relatives; in fact, they hardly even see them. Names are the way we humans build relationship, not only with each other but with the living world.

In the margin I wrote, “True of theology.”

One of the terms I have never understood is systematic theology. Kimmerer seemed to be describing those who were captivated by the idea of systematic botany. I don’t think either one works. As Tom my garden buddy says, “Nature doesn’t grow in rows.”

Labels have their value when they are on canned goods and prescription bottles, but they fall apart quickly when it comes to faith and relationship.

Another article I read today talked about how the chapter divisions and headings in our Bibles often keep us from seeing the larger picture. I thought of the parable we call “The Prodigal Son,” which is a story that has so much more going on than the misadventures of a wayward young man. The label tames the story instead of setting it free in our imaginations to see the nuances of family dynamics, the grief that shoots through everything, and the reckless nature of forgiveness.

I think that connection is what sent me back to Belfast. Any account of the Troubles seems to involve labels–Catholics and Protestants, Republicans and Unionists, Nationalists and Loyalists–that were both chosen and inflicted. Any definition of one of the terms is crippled by brevity: a Republican wants a united Ireland; a Unionist wants to stay with Britain, for example.

Labels create the illusion of a name.

We visited the Ulster Museum later in the day and, thanks to the direction of a very helpful docent, were led into an exhibit that showed the seeds of the Troubles going all the way back to ships in the Spanish Armada that sank off the coast of Ireland centuries before there was a Belfast. Towards the end of the exhibit was a blackboard from an episode of Derry Girls where Catholic and Protestant students tried to describe what they had in common. The lesson devolved into a cacophony of differences because they had no idea how to explore beyond their labels.

What is true of Aslan as a metaphor for God is true of us, who are created in God’s image: it’s not as if we are tame. Labels are a way of domesticating one another–please fit in this box and make my life easier; allow me to make you one-dimensional so you will fit in my system of good and evil, or whatever binary I have created to let me think I understand the world.

On an earlier page, Kimmerer said, “We learn from the world how to be human.”

Not to be tamed, but to be human–literally “earthly being,” actually made of stardust, the same material as all of our untamed universe. Instead of systems, we are better off telling stories, like Narnia, or the parables, or the one about why we are friends, or how I feel about my family now that my parents have been dead for years that I didn’t see before.

Good stories are expansive. When we hear them and tell them we grow and everyone–every being–around us gets bigger, like Aslan, which is not always a comforting thought but then, growth is not necessarily comfortable or painless. Aslan was a lion, after all.

I have deleted a couple of sentences because I felt like I was getting preachy and that’s not where I wanted this to go, so I’ll go back to imagining little Jack Lewis playing in the streets of Belfast long before the urban regeneration project was even a dream. I wonder he saw on those streets planted the seeds of Narnia, where he learned the Turkish word for lion, and how he managed to become an adult who could still tell fairy tales, just as I wish I knew more about how Jesus grew up and how he learned to talk in parables, which aren’t that different from fairy tales. They are both untamed stories.

Peace,
Milton