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it’s a metaphor!

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My sermon this week grew out of three verses where Jesus talks about seeing ourselves as salt and light, and his words set me thinking about metaphors, particularly the metaphors we use to understand who we are. Thanks for reading. The sermon title gives me reason to also add if you have not subscribed to my weekly newsletter mixing metaphors, I wish you would. It is free and it comes out every Tuesday.

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For about a decade of my life I taught high school English.

Those three words–high school English–may cause a visceral response for some of you. Perhaps I should have given a trigger warning before I began. Some of us were fortunate to have good teachers–mine was Ms. Morse for senior English–while some of us felt like we were being severely punished for forty-five minutes every day. Algebra was the place that felt like that for me, but that’s a story for another time.

Today let’s talk about metaphors.

When I first started teaching, I dreaded the poetry unit because I remembered how poetry was taught to me, which was we cornered the poem in a corner of the room and wrestled all the meaning out of it, tearing it apart word by word. Neither we nor the poem survived the experience well.

I didn’t want to do that because by the time I had begun teaching, I had learned to love poetry–and not because I could interpret it. I loved it because of the images–the metaphors–that helped me find ways to talk about how life felt to me.

I taught for seven years at Charlestown High School in Boston. Seventy percent of my students were nonnative English speakers. About the same time, I learned of the poet Naomi Shihab Nye through her poem entitled “Famous.” Listen to her words.

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

I read it for the students a couple of times with the text in front of them, and then I asked different ones to read it. Then we began to talk about what lines spoke to them, and then we asked how the poem affected what we thought it meant to be famous: the river is famous to the fish; the tear is famous to the cheek; the cat is famous to the birds watching from the birdhouse.

The poet wasn’t talking about being famous like a movie star, but saw being famous as another way of saying connected or vital or important: the bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it. What she was saying about how we make our place in the world sounds a lot like the metaphors Jesus used in today’s passage: you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world.

His poetry, if you will, asks us to stop and think about what it means to be salt and light because he wasn’t speaking literally. Like Marisa Tomei said in the 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny, “It’s a metaphor!”

And here’s the place where I don’t want to turn this sermon into a bad poetry lesson by beating the life out of the metaphors. Instead of spending the next several minutes examining all the ways we can be salt and light, please sit for a moment and see how those images land for you. Jesus didn’t go into much detail, he just painted the images and let people take them in.

What does it mean to you to be the salt of the earth, or maybe just the salt of Mount Carmel?

What does it mean to you to be the light of the world, or at least the light of Whitney Avenue?

Let me ask it this way: Who do you think of when I say salt of the earth and light of the world? Who do you know that exemplifies those things?

Now, is there anyone who is willing to share their thoughts with the class?

As I worked with these verses this week, each time I looked at these metaphors I saw faces rather than concepts. I thought of my friend Leon who flavors the life of those around him with encouragement and hope. I thought of Abby who works at the coffee shop across the street from our house and who asks people what they want to drink in a way that makes them feel like that cup of coffee is going to change their day. I think of my goddaughter Julia and her wife Shelby who both work as child therapists, helping kids who live with trauma find their footing, the way salt on the sidewalk keeps us from slipping on the ice. I think of my friend Angela, who is an amazing singer and choir leader and has led a group called Shoreline Soul for twenty years, inviting people into the joy of singing gospel music.

The faces and stories tell us so much more about salt and light that any words studies or linguistic analyses. I think that is the reason Naomi Shihab Nye closes out her poem by saying,

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

Instead of defining famous, she pointed to it in those around her. Jesus did kind of the same thing–well, I guess since he did it first, we could say it was his idea. To be salt and light is to be the one who smiles and smiles back, the one who helps, the one who listens, the one who shows up, the one who does what they do best: be themselves.

What metaphors define our lives? How do we see ourselves in the world?

The questions are not rhetorical. The metaphors we choose shape the way we look at the world and how we see ourselves in it. For example, as a nation, war is a primary metaphor for America. We have had a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs. The image conveys the crucial nature of the issues, and wars have casualties and collateral damage. If war is a metaphor, then we are always looking for an enemy. How might the way we deal with poverty and drugs—and the people affected by them—be different if we didn’t think we were at war?

How are our personal metaphors shaping us? What new metaphors do we need? When we expand our vocabulary, we create new ways of looking at the world.

As we share Communion this morning, we lean into the metaphors of the bread and the cup–images of sustenance and sacrifice, as well as pictures of connectedness and solidarity. We remember who we are and who we want to become. We come to the table where everyone belongs, where everyone can eat and drink, where we sit alongside everyone who has ever taken this meal and everyone who will come after us. We are famous to God at this table, just as God is famous to us.

We will pass the elements to one another, serving the meal and being served, as though it has cosmic consequences–and it does because we are all in this together. We are not at war; we are at supper.

Come, let us go to the table. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

failer

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failer

it’s been thirty years
since we first watched
Phil Connors keep waking
up in Punxsutawney

trying to figure out how
not to live the same day
again and again and again
he failed failed failed . . .

someone calculated that it
took about thirty-four years
of February seconds for
Phil to get to February third

and finally free himself
from his festival of failing
except the years stood
on their heads for him

when the day finally changed
it was simply tomorrow
no one else understood what
it took for him to get there

I am two days away from
marking thirty-four years
since my first date with Ginger
Lyle Lovett at the Caravan of Dreams

we have not lived the same day
but I have kept circling the
same lessons same sadnesses
I feel like the king of near misses

one day she said you fail
better than anyone I know
my favorite compliment
from the one who knows me

she saw failing as an act of hope
not an indication of inadequacy
I know how to fail well
and I am loved: enough

Peace,
Milton

Thanks for reading. I write a free weekly newsletter, mixing metaphors that comes out every Tuesday. I would love for you to subscribe. If you would like to support my writing, you can become a sustaining member or buy me a cup of coffee.

blessed

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I started a new interim today–actually a bridge interim, which means I am there to bridge between two stages of life for the congregation. The passage today was the Beatitudes. As I say in the sermon, a book, a conversation, and a movie gave me a new way to look at these familiar words.

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I have been thinking this week about how to describe our passage for this morning and it strikes me that we might say it is “familiarly unfamiliar.” What I mean by that is we think we know what it means, but we would be hard pressed to actually describe it–sort of like the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I remember learning about it, so it is familiar, but ask me to nail it down and I couldn’t tell you if it is every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction, or things in motion stay in motion, or look both ways before you cross the street.

When we say we are going to talk about the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we could probably say that those are the verses that start with “blessed are,” and maybe even remember those who mourn, or the meek, or the peacemakers, but we might struggle after that. In addition, when we do read them, we let that word blessed go by like we understand it. Listen as we read them again this morning and see what you think that word means.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to God.” (Matthew 5:1-16 NRSVUE)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers; how can that word go in all those different directions and mean the same thing? What are we to make of what it means to be blessed?

Some translators use the word happy instead, but “happy are those who mourn” makes Jesus sound like he’s rattling off oxymorons–at least in the way we understand the word happy today. Some read the word blessing to mean a sign of God’s favor, sort of like the t-shirt I saw once that said, “Jesus loves you but I’m his favorite.” I’ve heard people talk about “the paradox of blessing,” meaning that being chosen by God is not always an easy thing. They use Mary, Jesus’ mother, as an example because she had the blessing of being his mother but that also meant she had to watch him be executed by the Romans.

But isn’t that the paradox of being human? Don’t most all of us lose those we love?

We have to be cautious as we talk about blessing because we bump up against the idea that suffering has a purpose, that we are supposed to learn something, which too easily becomes that God is trying to teach us something, and then we end up at everything happens for a reason, which means if we can’t figure out the reason then something is wrong with us.

To say those who mourn are blessed does not mean God won’t give us more than we can handle, or there is an explanation or a reason for our hardship. When we look back–when we remember what we have been through–we find meaning that might not have been apparent in the moment things were happening, but I’m not sure that is what Jesus was saying.

A book, a conversation and a movie helped me find a new understanding of our passage. The book is called Life is Hard by Kieran Setiya. It is full of good things, but I want to highlight one sentence and then ask you to keep it in your mind: ““Hardship is routinely hidden.”

Let me say it again. “Hardship is routinely hidden.”

In one of our conversations this week, Ginger, my wife, said she had finally realized I was always going to be depressed and she was able to stop feeling guilty about not being able to fix it.

I have lived with depression for most of my life, but I didn’t begin to figure that out until the fall of 2001 when a combination of choices and circumstance sent me into a free fall. I had no idea what was happening to me. I had never talked to anyone who had gone through what I was feeling. The way that Ginger loved me through those days is the main reason I am even standing here this morning. I didn’t expect her to fix it; I just needed her to be there.

As we were getting ready for church one Sunday–when things felt unbearably heavy to me–she said, “I have to ask you to do a hard thing this morning. I think you need to ask for prayer for yourself; I can’t do it for you.” When it came time for prayer requests, I stood up and said much what I just said to you and asked for prayers. At coffee hour, five people came up to me and said, “I had no idea we could talk about this out loud.” Hardship is routinely hidden.

Their words gave me a toehold: if I would tell people what was happening, I would be able to remember I was not alone.

And now–twenty-two years later–and we are still coming to new understandings of what my depression has meant in our lives. We have learned to love each other more deeply not because of the depression but because of our commitment to each other in the presence of my depression and all the rest that has made up our lives.

This weekend marks thirty-four years since the day we met. We went to the movie to celebrate–I mean, in the theater with popcorn and M&Ms. The movie we saw was A Man Called Otto. All I knew about it was Tom Hanks played what appeared to be a grumpy old man. What we learned early in the movie (without giving too much away) was part of his grumpiness came from grief: his wife, whom he loved dearly, had died six months earlier.

As the story unfolded, we got to know Otto and the folks who lived around him. In a way, they were a live action Beatitudes–they were mourners, meek ones, persecuted ones, people with pure hearts, peacemakers, merciful ones, along with a couple of other categories Jesus didn’t mention. And what they reminded each other was that the way we get through this life is to take care of each other.

Perhaps, then, one way we can read Jesus’ words is that he is saying,

This is how life is:
you are going to live with a wounded spirit;
you are going to mourn;
you are going to be humbled;
you are going to yearn for justice when it isn’t there;
you are going to be kind;
you are going to feel a singleness of purpose;
you are going to make peace around you;
you are going to be ridiculed for taking a stand.
And so is everyone else.
When you do these things together–when you share your stories and your burdens and whatever you have–you flavor the world; you make life worth living. You become a blessing.

From time to time, I hear people talking about “living their best lives,” and that usually means some sort of carefree existence. Jesus said that’s not our best life, in fact, life is not about comparisons; it’s just life, and we flourish–we find blessing, we live into the image of God that created us–when we engage whatever is happening, when we see our circumstances and experiences as means to offer help and to ask for it, as ways to connect, to flavor each other’s lives and the world around us.

Our verses this morning are part of a larger sermon that goes on for a total of three chapters in Matthew, and most of it has to do with how to treat one another, focusing on relationships rather than rules or doctrine. Jesus gives tangible examples of what it looks like to love our neighbor as ourselves, as well as how we learn to trust God that we ourselves are worth loving. We will look at parts of it over the next couple of weeks. For now, may we be people committed to speaking the truth in love, to not keepint the hard parts hidden, to listening with open hearts, offering help to one another, and asking for help even when we don’t feel like we are worth it. And if you don’t feel like you are worth it today, hear these words: you are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved, no matter the circumstances you face or the weight you carry. We are blessed because we are breathing. Amen.

hardship

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hardship

“Hardship is routinely hidden.”–Kieran Setiya

the sentence came at the
end of the second paragraph
I’m not sure he meant for
it to be as significant as it was
as I read down the page

I think about people I meet
our stories were mostly hidden
we are trained to keep them so
the answers we offer are only
as good as our questions

“how are you?” we ask
as a pleasantry more than
a question worth answering
because we have become
accustomed to saying “fine”

then what comes to mind is
the scene in Jaws where
they are comparing scars
while they waited for a giant
shark to attack their boat

their ship their hardship
a play on words that borders
on the more-than-obvious
still they came out of hiding
just as the fish hit the boat

life is more than we can
handle if we don’t ask for help
that feels even more obvious
but we can’t be found until
we come out of hiding

tell me about despair yours
and I’ll tell you mine Oliver
wrote in an honest invitation
should we choose to accept
we’ll need a bigger boat

Peace,
Milton

 

 

get rhythm

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get rhythm

I live with an arrhythmia
I know of what I speak
it’s awfully hard to dance
when you cannot find the beat
somewhere along the way
as I traveled through my week
the metaphor extended
‘cause we still can’t find the beat
to life beyond these past two years
of isolation and defeat
as we try to find each other
seems we cannot find the beat
one that’s steady and consistent
instead of faint and incomplete
it’s awfully hard to dance
when we cannot find the beat
life is a hard waltz anyway
without our COVID hide and seek
the din of woe and weariness
has taught us to retreat
but fear claps on the one and three
don’t fall for its deceit
our souls all know a deeper song
our hearts still know the beat
so don’t despair do not give up
hope is not obsolete
tap your feet and clap your hands
keep listening for the beat

Peace,
Milton

Thanks for reading. I write a free weekly newsletter, mixing metaphors that comes out every Tuesday. I would love for you to subscribe. If you would like to support my writing, you can become a sustaining member or buy me a cup of coffee.

disoriented

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The title of the interview was “The Pleasures of Disorientation”–a phrase that caught my attention. It was another in Conversations with Billy Collins, and from it came these words, in response to the question, “What is it about mystery and disorientation that is so appealing?”:

For disorientation to be a pleasure–an odd concept in the age of the GPS–one has to feel relieved to let go of the helmet of opinions we tend to wear everyday. . . . How refreshing to take a break from always knowing where we are, or at least fooling ourselves into thinking so.–Billy Collins (91)

My first thought went to my favorite coffee shops in the whole world, the trinity of Cocoa Cinnamons in Durham, North Carolina because, in their post this week about the tenth anniversary of their first shop on Geer Street (the shop that was the genesis of my Cocoa Cinnamon cookie), they talked about the tenth anniversary blend they are creating called, “Your Head is Round so You Can Change Your Mind.” The name, I learned, is an adaptation of a quote from artist Francis Picabia, “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.”

In my sermon last Sunday, I talked about John the Baptist calling on people to repent–to turn around, to go in a new direction if they wanted to understand what life was really about; perhaps we could say he was calling them to disorient their lives.

Orient.

Sixty-six years on and it had never hit me that the word we use to talk about our perspective on life is the ancient word for the East when a definitive article is added, as in The Orient. It turns out, there’s a reason why. The oldest Latin roots mean “the rising, the part of the sky where the sun rises,” which, of course, is the east. Once the European travelers moved that direction, they used themselves as the center of the world and Asia became The Orient.

At its roots, orientation has to do with facing east–facing the sunrise. Our words origin and original share the same “rising” roots of something appearing on the horizon.

Perhaps we don’t make the connection so much anymore because North has become our primary direction–true north, the North Star–or maybe I am just slow to notice. Either way, when it dawned on me (see what I did there?), I went back to Collins’ words about dis-orienting, not so much to think about not looking east but to sit with “how refreshing to take a break from always knowing where we are.”

Not long after we moved to Guilford seven years ago, we were down at the marina at dusk watching a beautiful sunset and then I realized I was standing on the East Coast watching the sun go down. It was disorienting. When we got home, I found a map and realized our slice of the shoreline faces almost due south, even though we are on the eastern edge of the country, so we can see the sun both rise and fall. The explanation is not nearly as rich as the experience of surprise to see the sun set where I did not expect it to do so.

Billy Collins is right: it was a pleasure.

I was on a retreat many years ago and we walked into a room and all the objects in the room had labels on them that gave them new names. The chair had a “lamp” sticker on it; the one on the table said “coaster:” the lamp was a “rug:” and so on around the room. Our instructions were we had to talk about the objects using their new names as a way to disorient us, even though they didn’t use that word. We moved from those objects to philosophical and theological concepts that were the furniture of our thoughts to see what else we could shake loose and send our thoughts in new directions.

The Francis Picabia quote is even stronger to me juxtaposed with Collins saying we have to be willing to take off our “helmet of opinions we tend to wear everyday” because the caroming thoughts are all inside the helmet–not much can protect us from internal disquietude. We were built to be disoriented, to be caught by surprise. Perhaps the hunger for a map is more learned than it is inherent in us. We were made to wonder.

I did not know anything about Picabia before I started writing tonight. One article said, “Like no other artist before him, Picabia created a body of work that defies consistency and categorization, from Impressionist landscapes to abstraction, from Dada to stylized nudes, and from performance and film to poetry and publishing. A primary constant in his career was his vigorous unpredictability.” He appears to have lived most of his life without a helmet.

My friend Donna wrote this week in response to my newsletter and shared words she had heard in a recent sermon: “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s certainty!” Yes. Hope means looking at the horizon and finding joy in the fact that anything can happen. Certainty and cynicism are cousins. I write that sentence after I have wondered from a poet to an etymological dictionary to a coffee shop to a painter, making stops at an old retreat and a sunset on the East Coast, and written it all down as though you could see the thoughts changing direction.

Here is where we have ended up. Now, what was the question?

Peace,
Milton

handed-down recipe

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I have had a quiet day today marking what would have been my mother’s ninety-first birthday. As I sat down to write, I went back to what I wrote for and read at her memorial service. They seemed like good words to repeat.

When my father died, I adapted a poem I had written for him a few years earlier, which allowed me to tell his story, express my feelings, and get through the whole thing without breaking down here at the podium. To my disadvantage today, I didn’t have a poem on hand for my mother. The memories and stories of her are stuffed in my mind and my heart like the pieces of paper crammed into one of the notebooks we found in her apartment this week, and they are full of emotion. There is so much to tell, so much for which to be grateful. What then shall I say?

My earliest recollections of her are in the kitchen. She loved to cook, and she loved to have people around her table. Both are things she passed on to me. So I thought the best way I could organize the thoughts and stories crammed in my brain would be to offer a recipe for the life of Barbara Cunningham.

Like the best recipes, this one is simple.

First, set the temperature of her life to tenacious. My mother loved being alive as much as anyone I have ever known. She was unflappable in her energy and determination. Whether it was telling first dates at Baylor that if they didn’t want to spend their lives in Africa there would be no second date, or pulling out her Texas drivers license during the Zambia Independence celebrations so that she could pass as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News to get into one of the festivities, or looking at the doctor when he came to visit her in hospice and saying, “If my goal is heaven, what do I need to do?”, she was going to get what she wanted. When he heard her choice to go into hospice, her primary care doctor said, “You have made a choice of courage and hope and not of despair.” Set the temperature on tenacious.

The first ingredient is a contagious faith. She wanted, more than anything, to tell people about Jesus. And she did, right down to the very end. It seemed every time she got on an airplane she came home with another story about someone she had called to faith in Christ. The story never stopped there, however. She had an amazing way of keeping up with those folks whom she had met through chance encounters. She wanted to know what happened after that first meeting, which leads me to my next ingredient: a hunger to connect.

My mother loved connecting with people and then connecting people with one another. One of her visitors in hospice this week was a Baylor student who came with his mother–they had driven all the way from Nashville. Mom found out he was interested in becoming a dentist. A couple of hours later, I came back into the room after stepping out to give her time with others who had stopped by. Mom told me to find her address book and call the young man because she had found him an internship with her dentist who had just left the room.

As I mentioned earlier, her love of cooking grew out of this hunger to connect. The table was a way to bring people together, o there was always room at the table for whomever she could find. Meal time was an event to be celebrated, even if it was just the four of our family eating ham sandwiches. It was also a time to try new things, which points to the next ingredient in this recipe.

A love of learning and a willingness to fail. I know—that’s two things, but I think they are tied together, particularly in my mother’s life. She loved to try new things. One of Dad’s favorite stories was about my mother getting ready for a big dinner party, which was only a day or two away. She was still figuring out the menu. They turned out the light and she said, “What have you ever seen done on top of a chicken?” A party was not the time to pull out old favorites; it was time to make a leap of faith, to go out on a limb, and if people didn’t speak up soon enough she would say, “Isn’t this good?”

And it was.

Around the time she turned eighty, she started taking piano lessons, partly because she regretted not doing it as a child, but also because she just wanted to learn something new. There was always room to grow.

Next we add an adventuresome spirit. When my folks were at Westbury Baptist Church in Houston, there were parents that would buy my mother a season pass to Astroworld so she could take their kids to ride the rollercoasters. One year they built a big new wooden coaster and advertised a free t-shirt if you rode it ten times in one day. Mom took several middle schoolers to the park. About ride number seven one of them said, “You go ahead, Mrs. Cunningham. We’ll just sit here and wait for you.” She got her shirt.

The last ingredient is an extravagant sense of generosity. She not only shared what she had, but she looked for ways to help you share what you had, too. When she realized she was not going to be able to go back to Africa to live out her days working in an orphanage, we all go letters inviting us to help buy blankets and supplies. Over two years she raised almost $60,000. One of the things of which she was most proud is the scholarship fund at Truett Seminary named for her and my father because it was a way to keep on giving and a way to stay involved with missions and with Africa. And if she were here today, she might remind you that you can still contribute so that we can fully fund the scholarship. I’m sure the ushers will be glad to take your checks.

Set the temperature on tenacious and add a contagious faith, a hunger to connect, a love of learning and a willingness to fail, an adventuresome spirit, and an extravagant sense of generosity, and couch them in the love of a lifetime she found in my father and throw in that she was never afraid to both repeat and embellish a story, and you’ve got Barbara Cunningham, a recipe she was always willing to share.

Peace,
Milton

the reading list

2

the reading list

I finished reading one of my Christmas books today: The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. Ginger gave it to me because “it looked like I would like it.” She was right.

The book centers around the relationship between two people: Mukesh, a widower who lives in West London and Aleisha, a student who has a job at the library for the summer holidays. She has her own grief because her mother is dealing with a severe mental illness. The other character is a reading list that Aleisha finds in a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird as she is putting books away. “Just in case you need it,” the list begins and then names To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, The Kite Runner, The Life of Pi, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, Beloved, and A Suitable Boy. I should mention that The Time Traveler’s Wife also plays a role in the book. (I should also say I have not read all of those and the novel still made sense.)

When Mukesh comes into the library looking for a book because he is trying to feel close to his wife who was a voracious reader, Aleisha gives him the first book on the list and also begins reading them herself. The circle of those involved in the story and affected by the books grows as the novel moves along and it is a wonderful journey.

One of the things that struck me was the was the characters’ view of life and even themselves was affected, or even altered, by the book they were reading. Part of the story was what they began to notice because of what they were reading.

Besides inviting me into the lives of several folks I will miss now that I have finished the book, the novel made me think about what books have altered the way I look at the world. The short answer, I suppose, is all of them; isn’t that the point of reading? Then I stepped back to think of novels, in particular–those stories that offer invitations into other worlds so we can get a better view of our own.

I decided to offer my own list tonight. In doing so, I am not claiming this to be a definitive list. These are the books that first came to mind. Also, I went with eight of them because that’s how many were on the list in the book. Last, they are presented in the order they came to mind.

Just in case you need it:

Frankenstein
Mary Shelley was a teenager when she wrote the story in response to a challenge to write the scariest story she could think of. I loved reading it with students when I was a high school teacher. The narration moves from the sea captain so driven to prove himself that he gets his crew stuck in the ice to the doctor so driven to prove himself that he creates a being out of spare human parts to the creature who is desperate to get the approval of his creator, and then it moves back out again. I could talk about this story all day. And into the night. Bring whiskey.

Cry, the Beloved Country
This South African novel was written before apartheid took hold, but the structure was already there. Alan Paton, the author, was a white South African who was an activist and advocate for racial equality. The story is beautiful and heartbreaking. Stephen Kumalo, the pastor whose son is chewed up by the system, may be my favorite character in literature.

A Wrinkle in Time
Ms. Reedy, my fourth grade teacher, read this book to my fourth grade class in Lusaka, Zambia in 1964, a couple of years after it was published. It was the first time I knew that a book could change your life. I still read it from time to time. And Meg Murry is my second favorite character in literature.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
This was the first Anne Tyler novel I read and I found myself in the story because it is about trying to find home. Ezra, a boy who grows up without a sense of home, opens a restaurant and cooks what others are homesick for, hoping to create the home he never knew. Gee, I wonder why this book stayed with me?

The Illusion of Separateness
Simon Van Booy’s novel may be one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Some of the sentences are breathtaking. The story is one of connection where there seems to be none, as the title implies.

A Mapmaker’s Dream
Fry Mauro is a monk in Venice who dreams of making a perfect map. The thing is, he never leaves his cell. He creates his map based on the stories travelers tell him as they come through town. The more he learns, however, shows him how much he doesn’t know.

The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison’s novel is another I read with high school students. Pecola Breedlove is an eleven year old Black girl who prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be beautiful, so that she will be noticed, and so her world will be something other than it is.

A Prayer for Owen Meany
The first time I read John Irving’s book, it was my subway book when I was on the T in Boston. I had to read it at home because I would get so involved that I missed my stops repeatedly. It is laugh out loud funny and ugly cry sad as well.

As I said, the list is not definitive nor exhaustive, but they are stories that have helped to shape me in various ways. I’d love to know what stories have shaped you.

Peace,
Milton

bread and water

1

The sermon below is one I preached for a church on the other side of New Haven to candidate to be their Bridge Pastor for the next five or six months. I started not to post it because it is kind of “teachy” (as I described it to Ginger) and, therefore, felt like it might not have much reach beyond those in the room Sunday, or on their Facebook feed. I came across an article—“Here Be Sermons”—written by a non-church person who saw a sermon as saw the audience as a community. He contrasted them this way:

Suppose you and I are listening to a physics lecture. Although we share the same goal — learning physics — we’re pursuing it more or less independently from one another (and from all other students in the lecture). If you happen to fail the class, it’s no real skin off my nose, and vice versa.

In contrast, suppose we’re listening to a sermon — on the virtue of kindness, say. In this case, I do have a stake in whether you learn the lesson, because unlike physics, if you fail at kindness, I’m going to suffer. Put differently, there are positive externalities to the act of listening to a sermon. When you internalize a sermon’s message, I stand to benefit, and vice versa.

The other reason I started not to post it is I’ve said pretty much all of it before. Then I read a Billy Collins interview where he said the most important thing about teaching is repetition. Even though a sermon and a lecture are different, I think what he is saying still applies. I know you’ve heard this before, but it’s good to hear it again: we are wonderfully and uniquely made in the image of God and worthy to be loved—and we’re all in this together.

Shoot, now you don’t need to read the sermon.

__________________________

We don’t know how long John had been baptizing people when Jesus showed up. All we are told is that John was at a part of the Jordan River that felt like it was out in the middle of nowhere–some twenty miles from Jerusalem–telling people it was time for a change. A big change. If they wanted to be a part of that change, they could demonstrate it by being baptized. “Repent” is the word he used: turn around, go in a new direction. He was a person literally and figuratively on the fringe of society telling people that business as usual was not the way God wanted them to live their lives.

In Matthew’s description, John comes across as rather righteously indignant. He goes hard after those who supported the political and religious establishments. John was talking not only about personal change but also, and perhaps more importantly, systemic change. When we think of what it means to repent–to go in a new direction–we think first about personal changes and decisions we can make individually, but we are also called to explore the choices we make together.

We can infer that John had been out there for a good while when Jesus showed up wanting to be baptized. We can also infer that this is not the first time they had met. John recognized Jesus and his understanding of Jesus made him hesitant to baptize, but Jesus said, “We need to do this to bring about God’s justice in the world.” So, John walked with Jesus into the river and baptized him. It was an act of consecration and an act of solidarity. It mattered to Jesus that he was baptized. He was making a public statement about who he was in the world.

Many years ago, I got to visit Israel and Palestine. I stood on the bank of the Jordan River with a group of UCC folks from a church in Massachusetts. We knelt at the water’s edge to “remember our baptism” as the ministers sprinkled water from the river on our foreheads. In the middle of our quiet, reflective moment a bus pulled up and from it flowed a group of Pentecostal folks in white robes who came running down the hill led by their pastor who was shouting, “Gloria a Dios!” over and over at the top of his lungs. When he reached the small landing at the water’s edge, he didn’t stop. He took a flying leap and belly flopped into the water, robe and all, closely followed by pretty much everyone else behind him. They splashed in the water as they sang and laughed and cried. I think I can speak for many in our group when I say we looked over and wished that was the way it felt to remember our baptism.

Jesus didn’t jump into the river shouting, but he was making a bold public statement. Alongside of that, his baptism was also a personal affirmation. Matthew says Jesus experienced the Holy Spirit like a dove landing on him and he heard a voice say, “This is my dearly loved son in whom I delight.” It does not appear that anyone else heard the voice or saw the dove. John went on baptizing, people kept coming, and Jesus went further out into the wilderness to fast for forty days.

We mark Jesus’ baptism as the beginning of his public ministry. The event is so significant that it has become one of the two sacraments of our denomination, along with Communion, which grows out of the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before his execution. The two sacraments are bookends to his time on earth, in a way. Today, thanks to New Year’s Day falling on a Sunday and pushing our monthly observance of Communion back a week, we get to look at the two of them together.

Baptism, for us, has taken on a different look than what Jesus experienced. John didn’t sprinkle water on Jesus; he dunked him. Over the centuries, the sense of blessing and affirmation that Jesus received has been translated to baptizing infants as a way of affirming that we are all wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. Likewise, our Communion table is open to anyone who wants to share in the meal as another way of affirming that God’s love does not require prerequisites.

Both sacraments are communal acts—things we do together as tangible reminders of something we need to hear again and again: nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Over the centuries, our sense of the magnitude of both things has led us to make them formal and solemn, when neither of them were, in their inception. Jesus waded out into a river in the desert and was baptized by a guy who wore animal skins and ate bugs. He shared the bread and the cup from the meal he was eating with his disciples that last night. It was more improvised than instituted.

When we come to the table together in a few minutes you will hear me talk about re-membering, as in putting ourselves back together in Jesus’ name, following Jesus’ words, “As often as you do this, remember me.” One way to hear the words “as often as you do this” is that he was talking about any time we sit down to eat. Similarly, I read one person this week who said they take the daily act of washing their face as a chance to remember their baptism and to remember they are God’s beloved child. I thought about that as I walked in the rain on Friday and the water hit my face.

We don’t observe the sacraments as a way of being more holy or more worthy of God’s presence. We don’t follow these rites because the form has some sort of magical power that protects us, or because they are some kind of initiation ritual. We reenact these scenes as tangible reminders to us that we are God’s beloved ones and as tangible promises to God that our lives will reflect God’s presence.

It’s a bit puzzling to think that Jesus somehow needed to go into the water and then hear that God delighted in him. He wasn’t just going through the motions of joining the club, he was aligning himself with John’s call to live into God’s justice and inclusion. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, just before the meal, Jesus talked about how those who followed him would be recognizable: “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was naked and you clothed me. I was imprisoned and you visited me.” Another set of bookends, this time with words. At the end of his ministry, he was saying the same things he heard John say at the beginning.

The sacraments of baptism and Communion pull us into the middle of each other’s lives and the lives of those around us to find any way we can to remind each other that we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and oh, so worthy to be loved.

We may not be jumping in the river this morning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come to the table full of joy as we re-member Christ in the waters of our baptism and in the meal that is before us. Jesus said the bread represented his body; the apostle Paul used the Body of Christ as his favorite metaphor for who we are together. In the middle of a world that feels torn apart, let us move to the table to re-member ourselves in Jesus’ name—to put the Body of Christ back together again. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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meal prep

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meal prep

the boxes of dried pasta
in my pantry are harbingers
invitations to improvisation
promises that dinner can
be something even on nights
when I don’t know what to cook

set a pot of water to boil
and then open the fridge and
find what wants to be cooked
leftovers whose time has come
mushrooms garlic baby spinach
last night’s chicken some peppers

salt the water drop the noodles
heat a sauté pan on another burner
as the pasta softens the sauce
turns fragrant and promising
the last of the white wine and
a little butter brings it home

I learned to drain the pasta and
add it to the sauce while it’s still
in the skillet and let it all sit
so the noodles can soak up the
sauce and everything meld
all that’s left is to get a big spoon

the way to get ready for a good
meal is never leave the pasta aisle
empty-handed to shop without
a list and listen to the foods that
know you that will wait for the
chance to make dinner a memory

Peace,
Milton