Home Blog

we all fall down

5

I am preaching this morning at our church in Guilford. The passage for today is Mark 13:1-8.

One of the memories that has stayed with me from my preaching class in seminary is one of a student questioning our professor about how to be original. A knowing smile came across the professor’s face and he said, “Originality is knowing how to hide your sources”—another way of echoing what the writer of Ecclesiastes said: there is nothing new under the sun.

I am going to be clear about my source. Peter Palumbo and I were having coffee yesterday and talking about life and he said, “It’s like that old nursery rhyme, ‘Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.’” And I remembered that nursery rhyme came from the seventeenth century plague in Great Britain that killed fifteen percent of the population. People carried sachets of posies to combat the stench; and “we all fall down” was another way of saying it felt like everyone was going to die.

Life hurts. On lots of levels. Each of us have pain that feels unique to us, and we all have shared pain, or perhaps I would do better to say we have pain we can choose to share—burdens we can bear collectively. The two categories are not mutually exclusive. As I have said before, life and faith are team sports. What we do as individuals ripples out in ways both seen and unseen.

The last six and a half weeks of my life have been focused on recuperating from a total knee replacement. Most every aspect of the process has involved pain of some sort. In the months before my surgery, when the pain I lived with was because my knee was deteriorating, the common wisdom offered me was to put it off as long as I could. I began to question that logic because I thought that the surgery offered me a new lease on life and putting it off just delayed that. So, I scheduled the surgery because the pain of recovery was more attractive than the pain of postponement.

Since my surgery, I have followed the common wisdom that the biggest key to my healing is my commitment to physical therapy. That wisdom is proving true—and it hurts. Healing hurts. One of the things I have learned in the process is how to differentiate between pain that heals and pain that indicates I am hurting myself. My therapist continues to remind me that there is a difference between PT and exercising. The point is not adding more weight at every session or doing more than I did before. The point is to help my knee understand that it is getting better, and I will not always hurt this way.

As much as I would like to mine what I have just told you for metaphors, that last part is where it all breaks down. Our lives are made up of both the pain that heals and the pain that damages, but we don’t necessarily have the choice to avoid the damaging stuff or postpone it. Life not only hurts, it often wounds us. I don’t want to be so flippant as to suggest that all we have to do is keep doing our exercises and things will get better. They might and they might not—which is the point Jesus was making with his disciples in the verses we just read.

Jesus and his disciples were leaving the Temple in Jerusalem, a magnificent building that represented the presence of God to the people who lived there. Even under the oppression of Rome the Temple was a tangible assurance that God was with them. The disciples were awestruck. Perhaps you know the feeling. Can you think of a building where you have stood that took your breath away? Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square, Boston is one of those for me. Let yourself go to that place as you hear Jesus’ words in response to their awe:

“See these great buildings? Not a single stone will be left on another. Everything will be torn down.”

A little later, Jesus was with four of them—two sets of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John—and they asked not so much for clarification, but for a warning: “What are the signs that this is going to happen?” Are we going to be able to see this coming?

Jesus doubles down with words that read like a Cormac McCarthy novel in many ways, particularly to our American ears so tuned to fear and distrust. But through the whole chapter Jesus keeps saying things like, “Don’t be alarmed when . . . ,” or “Things like this will happen” before he lists some sort of cataclysmic sequence. Wars. Rumors of Wars. Earthquakes. He makes it sound like Chicken Little was right, but then he says–in most translations–“Things like this must happen, but the end is still to come,” which, for those of us who have seen too many disaster movies sounds like an ominous statement. But a better translation would be, “But it is not yet the end,” or “The end is not yet,” which is to say all these horrible things are not the end of the story. God’s story all along has been a story of love. In the end, love wins. Therefore, as we often say, if love has not yet won, it is not the end.

Then he closes with an image that made me chuckle when I thought about it. Jesus was sitting in private with James and John, and Peter and Andrew. To that small circle of men he says, “This is only the beginning of the labor pains,” which is a wonderful metaphorical way to say that God makes meaning out of our suffering on the one hand, but I think it’s funny that he used a metaphor none of them could know experientially. I also find it hopeful. I trust that you can understand my knee replacement metaphorically without having to have one.

The pain we experience in life, whether hurtful or healing, is not a sign that pain is all that there is. When things fall apart, something else follows. Something new. More importantly, God shows up in new ways. Just because the symbols of God’s presence that we have counted on are temporary does not mean that the presence of God is temporary.

Mark 13, from which our passage is taken, is often labeled as “The Little Apocalypse.” Our modern understanding of the word is some sort of disaster–the end of the world–as if the world is going to end in the same violence we appear to be quite adept at perpetuating. But that is not what the word means at its root. It means an uncovering, a disclosure, a revelation, as if to say, “So that is what all of this means.”

Right after we married in 1990, Ginger and I moved from Texas to the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. Everything felt ancient compared to Texas. The next year we had a chance to go to Paris and we went to Notre Dame, another building intended to symbolize the presence of God. We listened to a tour guide at Notre Dame describe the “new” rose window that was put in the 1500s and smiled at all the things we thought were so old in New England. It felt like that cathedral had and would last forever. It didn’t–at least, not in its original form.

The Temple Jesus was talking about was destroyed in the year 70. It has yet to be rebuilt.

We have gathered in this building this morning, which was also built a symbol of God’s presence. We are still tentative in our gathering because of the pandemic and the questions it has raised about how we can be together without endangering one another, so we gather, but it doesn’t feel like the room we have always known. Just as the disciples had a hard time imagining how they would know where God was if the Temple were destroyed, we are having a hard time figuring out how to be the church when we can’t do it the way we are used to, or when circumstances make it feel like we might not get that chance again.

Some of us miss the fellowship. Some of us miss the singing. Some of us worry that we won’t have enough money to pay the bills. Some of wonder if our kids will keep things going after we are gone. We aren’t having the Harvest Fair this year. By the time we get back to coffee hour, the kids are all going to be two years older than the last time they ran around with fistfuls of cookies. None of us know what lies ahead—and I’m not just talking about church when I say that. We are frightened, anxious, angry, frustrated, depressed. In our uncertainty, the symbols of God that are most attractive are those that offer comfort. Yet, what Jesus offers instead is hope, which is not always comfortable.

Though the pain of my surgery and my recovery in no way compare to what I imagine it feels like to be in labor, the clearest answer I can give to someone when they ask me how things are going is that I am doing well and it all hurts. The only way to continue to improve is to keep hurting. I hurt before the surgery as well, but that bone-on-bone pain that wouldn’t go away was replaced by a pain that offers me hope of being more agile and involved in life. I won’t describe exactly what they did to my knee but suffice it to say they destroyed it and rebuilt it. I am a construction project. I couldn’t stay the way I was and keep walking, so I let them replace my knee, a rather gruesome process that offers me hope.

Our experience of the pandemic over the last twenty months has made obvious what was already true. Things do not stay the same. Life hurts. In many ways, big and small, the walls we thought were solid have fallen down. It feels as though all the stones of our security have been scattered. But none of those things are signs that destruction is the last word, or that the best we can do is hunker down and take care of our own.

The source of our hope in Christ is more profound than perpetuating the things that make us feel safe. The building is not the church. We are the church, the living, breathing Body of Christ, the incarnate love of God alive and hopeful in a world far too easily convinced that pain is the last word. Rather than allow ourselves to be swept up in outrage or cynicism or fear, rather than read the signs of the times as a call to safety, let us choose to remind one another that love is the last word. Instead of joining the chorus that thinks we are doomed, let us be midwives for one another, helping to birth love and hope in each other’s lives.

These walls will fall down. We will all fall down. And love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

reentry

4

Today marks five weeks since my knee replacement surgery. Since that time I have been more singularly focused than almost any time in recent memory. The last five weeks have consisted of doing my exercises, eating, and resting–though not always sleeping.

I came home from the hospital the day after my surgery and spent the next few days pretty drugged up to help deal with the pain. When I got to the one week mark, I realized I had not opened my laptop or engaged social media in any way. My job gave me a short term disability leave, so I had not opened my work computer either. Since I had two weeks of home health care, I decided the unintentional sabbatical a little more intentional and stay off until I started going to outpatient physical therapy, but when that time came, I was still finding something worth noticing in the silence and separation. I didn’t feel isolated. I reached out to people when I needed to and many sent notes and texts and e-mail messages. I just kept the computers closed and stayed away from social media. And my blood pressure dropped fifteen points.

One of the casualties of my recovery was the ability to concentrate, so I have not read much over these past weeks either. I have watched a great deal of television. Major League Baseball was kind enough to schedule the postseason during these weeks, which has been a true gift even though the Red Sox lost in the ALCS. One afternoon last week, I came across Apollo 13, which I saw many years ago. The timing was interesting because I had been thinking a lot about reentry into life and when I clicked into the movie it was the scene where they were discussing the danger of the capsule reentering the earth’s atmosphere because of the possibility of a crack in the heat shield. If they got the angle wrong, the capsule and the astronauts would have been incinerated. And there was a chance the parachutes had frozen and might not open. Still, they kept hurtling home.

I was never a real science-y kid, but I was captivated by the poetry of the space program: all of it was so filled with metaphor and mystery. I was thirteen the spring Apollo 13 went into space. We were living in Nairobi, Kenya, so the news was not immediate. I can remember sitting up with my dad listening to Voice of America to see if the men had made it home.

Last week I sat on the couch with my knee wrapped in a compression sleeve that was filled with ice water from the machine next to me as our Schnauzers snoozed around me. As I watched the movie, I thought through my own process of reentry. How would I get back to life that held more than healing? My unintentional sabbatical had proven to me that I needed one and, perhaps, five or six weeks were not going to be enough. The singularity of focus on my knee, along with the pain and discomfort, had pushed my depression out of view and I wondered what kind of comeback it might stage. Work holds issues and challenges that have not been made clearer by the distance of my recovery. The promises, demands, obligations, and choices that filled my life before surgery were still there.

As the astronauts talked about their concerns about the correct angle, or whether or not the heat shield had a crack in it, I found myself wondering how to reenter life with burning up.

I am still wondering. I’m a week away from going back to work and stepping fully back into life and I’m still not sure I have the angle right. I’m certain my heat shield has a crack in it. Who knows about the parachutes. At least I don’t feel like I am going 24,619 feet per second. I do get to pick my speed. Monday, I cooked dinner. Yesterday, I returned to my practice of posting a poem on Facebook. Today, I am posting here and planning to work to keep my promise to make this a daily practice as well. Next week, i go back to work. Any significant breaks in my routine will have to be by choice–and I am not always good at choosing them.

That last sentence makes me think that the breaks are not the real issue, however. October marked the one year birthday of my book The Color of Together: Mixed Metaphors of Connectedness. I’m proud of the book and wish I was better at finding ways to get it to people, but that’s another story. When I finished writing it, I told myself I was not going to let another five years pass between books. I had hopes of being well into the next manuscript by now. And I am not. I let my life fill up my writing space, which leads me to ponder that the lessons I am trying to learn in these days have more to do with being present rather than trying to meet the crushing demand of being current.

I don’t know. I suppose the next weeks and months will show me what I actually learned from these days. Here’s hoping I have the wherewithal to listen well.

Peace,
Milton

 

first lines

3

I started playing with words others have written that have become inscribed on my life for one reason or another. It was a nice distraction as I prepare for my surgery on Wednesday and turned out to be fun as well.

index of first lines

I pulled into Nazareth was feeling ‘bout half past dead
doctor my eyes have seen the years and the slow parade of tears
headlights are flashing down the highway
I wonder if we’re gonna ever get home
a look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping
when you’re down and troubled and you need a helping hand
keep a fire burning in your eye pay attention to the open sky
you who are on the road must have a code that you can live by
you come a-walking with a scar on your soul taking too much too lightly
I don’t want to hear a love song I got on this airplane just to fly
like a bird on a wire like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

there’s a river of love that flows through all times
there’s a river of sorrow in my soul
don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
there are the ones you call friends
old friends sat on the park bench like bookends
another turning point a fork stuck in the road
people get ready there’s a train a-comin’
you can play the game and act out the part
when you know it wasn’t written for you
baby I’ve been searching like everybody else
in the middle of late last night I was sitting on a curb
where have all my friends gone? they’ve all disappeared

I’m going down to the Greyhound station
gonna get a ticket to ride
I’ve been sleeping for some hours
just woke up and you were there
when the road gets dark and you can no longer see
in every heart there is a room a sanctuary safe and strong
didn’t say we wouldn’t hurt anymore
that’s how you learn, you just get burned
people that are sad sometimes they wear a frown
the secret of life is enjoying the passing of time
I’ve heard love songs make a Georgia man cry
you with the sad eyes don’t be discouraged

when it’s dark outside you’ve got to carry the light
the waltzing fool he’s got lights in his fingers
shut it down and call this road a day
we’re living in a time of inconvenience
you come home late and you come home early
we are swimming with the snakes at the bottom of the well
all the unsaid words that I might be thinking
it was all I could do to keep from crying
the presence of your absence follows me
something in your eyes makes me want to lose myself
here we go again another round of blues
am I young enough to believe in revolution

when you start if you exist God believes in you
oh play me a blues song and fade down the lights
so many years so many hardships
in this world there’s a whole lot of trouble, baby
it’s like when you’re making conversation
and you’re trying not to scream
I found your letter in my mailbox today
late night drives and hot french fries
and friends across the country
I’ve been lately thinking about my lifetime
I can hear her heartbeat from a thousand miles
I’ve been down this road before

Peace,
Milton

grateful

3

We have had the kind of weekend that makes me glad I live in New England: cool mornings, highs in the seventies, low humidity, and the long, warm, late-afternoon light that lets you know the days won’t be this way for long. Our little town put on a Performing Arts Festival that gave us good reasons to get together and celebrate one another, the Library had a book and bake sale, and we finished it off tonight with a youth group gathering on the church lawn where we ate hamburgers and got to know each other.

I have felt lighter. And grateful.

When I got home tonight, I went back to a sentence I had underlined in After the Locusts:

Strangely, the more I lament, the easier it is to praise and feel grateful.

The sentence comes in the middle of a letter Denise Ackermann wrote to her children entitled “The Language of Lament,” which mattered to her because she “found a language for dealing with, although not solving, the problem of suffering.”

Let me be quick to say that she was not writing about depression. She wrote to her children who had grown up in South Africa during apartheid. But as she talked about the suffering of her nation, I found words that spoke to me as I try to manage these days.

One can risk making honest statements about despair and grief at the same time one affirms all that is good and trustworthy about the relationship.

It strikes me that both grief and praise are most powerful when they are most specific.

I can better respond to the general malaise that makes me feel like I am swimming in molasses that is about two inches deeper than I am tall by thinking of specific tributaries of grief that have fed the reservoir over the landscape of my life. In the same way, I deepen my gratitude when I notice the specific way the evening light hits our church steeple, or the way Lila, our middle Schnauzer, shows her teeth when she smiles, or how my heart still leaps when I hear Ginger come in the house.

Tonight, I am grateful that for the last two days my heart has felt lighter and my hope more tangible. The weather will change, I know. And I am still depressed. Life is not as simple as either/or. I am depressed and I am grateful.

I’m alive.

Peace,
Milton

tiny waltz

4

tiny waltz

and somehow
a day worth
bottling
has slipped into
night without
leaving words
to describe
how it felt
and I have
spent far too
long staring
at a screen
as though the
sheer silence
of sitting
would shape my
sentences
and I have
deleted
far more than
I have saved
but that’s true
most any day
but I found
this little
waltz of a
poem and
I’ll leave it
here in hopes
it finds you

Peace,
Milton

how are you?

10

how are you?

is the throwaway question
in need of redemption
when asked
it should be followed
by a pregnant pause
the questioner
willing to be the midwife

we have let ourselves
settle for hit and run
compassion
for lots of reasons
we mean well
we want to know
–I’ve got to take this

i know you’re not good
I’m not either
everybody hurts
to say it out loud might
mean we’d just stand there
holding on for dear life
that would be a good day

life is full of incidental
contact waiting for
a few well-chosen words
that make room
for love to be born
when we had just stopped
for a cup of coffee

Peace,
Milton

good conversation

5

When I had my first knee replacement, a church member called about a week after the surgery and said, “I can help you,” and so we asked her to come to the house. To say she is a physical therapist feels her short; she is a healer. Her visits were a big part of my successful recuperation. As I have prepared for my second surgery, which comes up next week, I have been in touch with her. Over the weekend, we were at the same pizza party and she said she had something she wanted me to do that might sound odd. I was all ears.

“Before the surgery, I want you to have a conversation with your knee. I want you to talk out loud and tell it everything is going to be okay. Tell it that you are going to have surgery, that it is going to think it is going to die, but it won’t. It will hurt, and it’s a big deal, but everything is going to be okay.”

I am planning to follow her advice. And it might be worth saying to more than just my knee.

My depression is unrelenting. My job is going through some difficult changes. My knee hurts. This morning as I journaled, I found myself saying, “Things are rough, and they may get rougher, but they aren’t going to kill you. It will hurt, and it’s a big deal, but it won’t always feel this way.”

And also with you.

Peace,
Milton

harvest moon

2

harvest moon

I posted a picture
of the moonrise over
Long Island Sound and
a friend in Arkansas
wrote, “It was really bright
at our house too!”

Another friend in
Carolina told me
she is talking to
a group in Australia
who feed hungry people
about ways she can help

I have one more
from a friend who
took my words about
sandcastles to heart
that love is what lasts
“Time to deliver a pie.”

If there were room
in this poem for
you to write back
you would have
stories to tell
wouldn’t you?

Peace,
Milton

building sand castles

6

Part of my Sunday morning ritual is to pour a cup of coffee and watch CBS Sunday Morning until it’s time to go to church. I’ve watched the show on and off since the days of Charles Kuralt. It is just the right mix of calm and questions. Not a bad prelude for worship.

This week, one of the segments was on the final art installation of Cristo, who was known for his gigantic displays–wrapping buildings or taking over places like Central Park–all over the world. None of his works were on display for more than two or three weeks. He paid for them himself so he could retain control. Jean Claude, his wife, was his collaborator until her death in 2009. He died in 2020 with a project to wrap the Arc de Triomphe in fabric underway, so his associates completed the project.

One of the things they discussed in the segment was the consistent critique of his work over the years was that it wasn’t truly art because it was temporary. What it brought to mind was the one trip Ginger and I made to Paris in the spring of 1991. We went into Notre Dame and attached ourselves to a tour group that was standing in front of one of the rose windows as the guide explained that it was the “new” window that had been installed in the 1500s. Since then, the cathedral burned. It is not only the fabric wrapping the Arc that is temporary.

One of the folks I look for when I get to church is Julie. She is a poet and an actor. I told her about what I had seen and how it felt and she said one of her former directors used to say, “We’re all just building sand castles.” Her comment sent me searching for a sculptor I learned of years ago that built fantastic pieces out of driftwood, but he built them where the water would gradually dismantle them as the tide came in. I couldn’t find him again, but I did find Andres Amador, a sand artist who uses a rake to create intricate geometric patterns on the beach at low tide expecting they will get washed away.

Temporary and significant are not mutually exclusive.

Texas songwriter Sam Baker wrote a song called “Waves” that paints a picture of love and grief. I couldn’t help but hear the song as I watched the tide roll in over Amador’s artwork.

so many years so many hardships
so many laughs so many tears
so many things to remember
‘cause they had fifty years

and now the kids have got their own kids
and their own kids, they are grown
she told him not to worry
said he’d be fine when she was gone

he walks down to the ocean
bends to touch the water
Kneels to pray
he writes her name
in the sand
waves wash it away

Denise Ackermann says that we must remember that we are a body rather than we have a body, which says to me that embodied faith is a temporary work of art, a masterpiece in the making. It’s what made Mr. Keating tell the boys to seize the day: we will not be here forever.

Jason Isbell’s song “If We Were Vampires” does as good a job as anyone driving that point home.

if we were vampires and death was a joke
we’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
and laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
and give you every second I can find
and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

it’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
maybe we’ll get forty years together
but one day I’ll be gone
or one day you’ll be gone

One day, yes, but today we’re here.

I have often said that one of the things I loved about cooking is that I get to create temporary art that drew people to the table and asked them to stay. I work hard on my plates so that they look and taste good, but they are an artistic invitation to stay at the table and create a performance of togetherness. And then we go on to whatever comes next carrying the memory knowing that it mattered that we were there on that night for that meal.

One of the persistent lessons of the pandemic is that nothing is as permanent as any of us imagined. I don’t know of any of our institutions, those things in our lives most focused on self-perpetuation, that have been not been shaken. The sustaining forces are not housed in those places. Where I find the tenacity that offers me hope is in the temporary art that I call family and friends, those who keep showing up and reaching out even though none of us knows how long our exhibit will run.

Then again, that is not really a lesson unique to the pandemic. That’s been the story all along. We’ve always been building sandcastles.

My, aren’t they beautiful.

Peace,
Milton

melodies of mercy

1

As I journaled this morning, the word mercy worked its way to the top. And it struck me that mercy and merci might have something in common, which they do etymologically. Gratitude and kindness share the same roots. As I wrote, I thought of Mary Gauthier’s song “Mercy Now,” which has stayed close to me throughout the pandemic.

my church and my country could use a little mercy now
as they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out
they carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now

every living thing could use a little mercy now
only the hand of grace can end the race towards another mushroom cloud
people in power, they’ll do anything to keep their crown
I love life and life itself could use some mercy now

In the mid-eighties, Bruce Cockburn released “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.” I listened to it again this week in the light of all that is going on around us and I heard it in a new light–and then I found this cover by Shawn Colvin that is one of a series of recordings she did from home during the pandemic.

don’t the hours grow shorter as the days go by
you never get to stop and open your eyes
one day you’re waiting for the sky to fall
the next you’re dazzled by the beauty of it all

when you’re lovers in a dangerous time
lovers in a dangerous time

these fragile bodies of touch and taste
this vibrant skin, this hair like lace
spirits open to the thrust of grace
never a breath you can afford to waste

when you’re lovers in a dangerous time
lovers in a dangerous time

It is no secret that Jason Isbell is one of my favorite song writers. “Traveling Alone” is a cut from his first solo record that has taken on new meaning for me in these days when we hunger for connection.

mountains rough this time of year
close the highway down
they don’t warn the town

and I’ve been fighting second gear
for fifteen miles or so
trying to beat the angry snow

and I know every town worth passing through
but what good does knowing do
with no one to show it to

and I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
tired of traveling alone
I’ve grown tired of traveling alone
won’t you ride with me?

Taylor Goldsmith is the lead singer of Dawes and a pretty good songwriter in his own right. Someone who loves me sent a link to his song “Didn’t Fix Me.” It has been on heavy rotation around here.

I went to see a healer
with that mic strapped to his face
talked about which habits to surrender
and which habits to embrace
and for the next few days or so,
I was feeling pretty good
but It didn’t fix me

I even started volunteering
with the local Sacred Heart
we feed the homeless on some weekends
we pick up trash in all the parks
and even though we’re cleaning up
the whole damn neighborhood
it didn’t fix me
it didn’t fix me like I thought it would

I hope these songs offer some mercy for you as well.

Peace,
Milton