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lenten journal: the edge


the edge

I feel like I have
walked along the
edge of despair today
not so much a cliff
as a dimension

you’ve seen it on tv
when they move
between one world
and another somehow
I sound crazy but

between remembering
Martin and visiting
a nursing home and
learning about Cyclone
Freddy left me sad

and angry I think
I was already angry
slipping into despair
wasn’t much of a reach
instead we walked

and talked to the
couple in their new
salad food truck
first day on the green
hope on four wheels

we made it home
along with the anger
and the edge of despair
but they are not the
only things on the menu


lenten journal: practice


Since the NCAA Men’s Final started so late, I had time to participate in something I love that I have not been able to do for the past three years, which is to go to choir practice with the Shoreline Soul Gospel Choir. Angela Clemmons, the founder and director of the choir, is someone who has become a friend in our time here in Connecticut. She is a brilliant musician in her own right, having sung with Aretha Franklin, Steely Dan, Justin Timberlake, and Elton John, to name a few.

To say she directs the choir is an understatement. She creates a miracle. There are no auditions; anyone can sign up. We have no sheet music. She gives us lyric sheets and sends us mp3 files with our parts emphasized so we can learn them by ear. Then we gather for four or five Monday nights to practice and in that time she transforms a roomful of (mostly) white people in suburban Connecticut into a pretty good gospel choir. We even clap on two and four. Well, most of us.

I was invited to join the choir soon after we moved to Guilford by one of our church members and have sung with them five or six times over the years. Tonight was the first rehearsal in over three years because of the pandemic. Over one hundred and fifty people signed up to sing–twice as much as past choirs. When Angela sent the dates out, I realized that I will be out of town for the concert in June, but I signed up anyway because I wanted to practice, even if I wasn’t going to perform for an audience.

Whether it’s a choir in a concert hall or college athletes running from end to end of a basketball court, practice is crucial. We all know that. The amazing passing and shooting we have seen throughout both the men’s and women’s tournaments are testament to many hours spent practicing when no one was in the stands. But we also use the word in a way that has nothing to do with performance–spiritual practice, for instance. It, too, requires repetition and commitment, but it does not necessarily involve performance in the traditional sense.

My first restaurant job was in a small place that served breakfast (he said, telling a story he has told many times). I asked the chef to teach me how to flip the eggs in the pan. He showed me, but then he got a stack of pans and pulled out a flat of thirty eggs and said, “The only way you will learn how to do this is to practice. By the time you get to the end of the flat, you’ll figure it out.”

He was right. Somewhere in the low twenties, I had practiced enough that the flip of my wrist did the trick, over and over.

I had nothing at stake at choir practice tonight. I don’t mean it didn’t matter to me, but I can’t remember another time that I went to a rehearsal knowing I would not be a part of the performance. The choir matters a great deal to me. I love singing gospel music. I just love singing. And over the years I have noticed being a part of Shoreline Soul has given me a healthier voice. The tenor parts in gospel songs are high. I have to pay attention to my throat and work on using my falsetto and my head voice, rather than straining to reach the notes. I leave rehearsal feeling centered and relaxed, as well as invigorated by the harmony we make together.

I went to practice for the sake of practicing, for the sake of learning my part so I could share in the spiritual connectedness of singing together. The concerts are really fun, but practice is the real gift, even when I know that’s all there is to it.

It’s not always about results or performance. Practice is where we learn and grow, where we make mistakes and try again, where we look beyond ourselves and connect to something larger. For me, tonight, that was singing for the sake of singing.

It was perfect.


lenten journal: wonderings



we act like it’s a week
of happenings to call holy
but it’s only a day or two
most of the days go by
silent and unscheduled
like most days go by

sure there’s the donkey
and the coats in the road
but then nothing much until
supper for the last time when
no one really understood it
was their last time together

it’s late Sunday night
and I only have a hint of
what my tomorrow might
bring but I have questions
wonderings is a better
way to say it perhaps

what did they do on the
days that didn’t matter?
did they think it was
just another week
even with the donkey?
what did they think
was going to happen?

even in Jesus’ last week
not every moment was
saturated with significance
some days are for washing
cloaks and picking up palms
those don’t get written





lenten journal: extended run


extended run

it was foggy and grey
almost the whole day
rain hung like a curtain
in an empty theater
the sun didn’t show
until late afternoon
by then we’d played
our small scenes
that felt more like
a dress rehearsal
for a series of solo
acts or so it seemed
but I don’t believe it
a scene unseen is
still a performance
a book unread is
still an offering
a rained out day
is not a loss but an
invitation to improv
or perhaps a chance
to rest like it matters
after all this show
has an extended run


lenten journal: confession stand


In my newsletter this week, I wrote about Caitlin Clark, the point guard for the Iowa Hawkeyes who are playing tonight for a spot in the National Championship Game on Sunday. In describing her prowess, I said,

She is known for her shooting ability, particularly her three-pointers that she can drop from the confession stands on the upper deck of the arena.

The typo is obvious: I meant concession stand instead of confession.

I make errors on a regular basis–and not just on the blog–but a similar one that came to mind when I saw my mistake was this poem where I wrote,

would that we had a ladder to
make a consolation of ourselves

when what I meant was a constellation. After some thought, consolation seemed less of a mistake than I had imagined. We would do well to make a consolation of ourselves.

My life in church has been spent in Protestant houses of worship, so confessionals are not a part of my experience, but we normally have a prayer of confession during our services that we say in unison. My etymological dictionary tells me that the Latin roots of the word confess break down into con (together) and fateri (to admit): to admit together–which is what we do on Sunday mornings, but I’m not sure what that looks like on the upper deck of a basketball arena, much less what a confession stand might look like.

The point of confession is not to tell God something God does not already know. I had a friend in Dallas who said the maddest she ever saw her priest was when she, as a college student, went to Confession one Saturday afternoon and asked if she could confess what she knew she was going to do later and get it over with. It doesn’t work that way either. God is not keeping score. The power in confession is in coming clean to ourselves and to one another in the presence of God and reminding ourselves that God’s love and forgiveness aren’t riding on whether we left something out.

But I digress. I didn’t mean for this to become a mini sermon. Back to the confession stands.

I picture tables with folks standing around sharing stories, which means they would still need to serve food–hot dogs, for sure–since eating together opens our hearts to vulnerability. I’m not sure what would be served at a confession stand, but it wouldn’t all be about what we had done wrong. We confess more than our sins. We confess what matters to us, what moves us, what we are willing to go the wall for, what kind of long shot we are willing to take.

Come to think of it, this might be another way we make a consolation of ourselves.


lenten journal: soft opening


soft opening

the boys of summer
took to the field
at Fenway Park on
a spring afternoon
at the end of March
with the sun shining
and the temperature
in the high thirties
to start the season

I watched from the
couch with the pups
and tried to learn the
new names on the
Olde Towne Team
and thought about
the t-shirts I own
with names no
longer in the lineup

the game was a
near miss another
name for a loss
made interesting
but maybe that’s
what hope is about
taking interest in
our losses rather
than just giving up

my team begins this
year with delusions
of adequacy rather
than championships
but they’re my team
my freakin’ Red Sox
love that Dirty Water
hard times never felt
so good so good so good




lenten journal: nothing new


nothing new

I don’t know that I have
anything new to say
but grief is redundant
when the same thing
keeps happening again
and again there is nothing

new to say because there
is no one new to listen
we’ve heard it all before
we will hear it all again
after the next round of
gunfire in a classroom

I watched middle schoolers
walk down the sidewalk
in front of our house just
thirty miles from sandy hook
and wondered if they had
active shooter drills today

I did my best to avoid the
politicians who moved dead
children like chess pieces
in their calculated moves to
magnify the fear they know
will get them reelected

and then I sat down to write
wanting to say something
that could make a difference
and do more than entrench
both those who agree and
those who think I’m crazy

to imagine a nation that
was not continually at war
it’s our working metaphor
we don’t solve problems
we fight them because
violence is our pastime

we have armed ourselves
to the teeth and wonder why
we keep spitting bullets
see I told you I had nothing
new to say but then again
this is nothing new is it?


lenten journal: taking care of each other


One Saturday morning when I was working as a Creative at the Apple Store in Durham, a man showed up for a training appointment with a bag over his shoulder and his iMac in his arms. We set up his computer and I asked what he wanted to work on in our hour together. I was not expecting the story that unfolded.

The man told me he had served in Vietnam. The job of his company was to go first and clear places where helicopters could land. He carried a tape recorder with him and periodically his group would make a tape to send back to the States to their loved ones. They had almost completed clearing the top of a small mountain and were taking a rest, and making a tape, when they came under fire and rushed to get into the bunker they had just completed. He forgot to turn off the tape recorder. When they got back to their base and he listened to the tape, he realized what had happened.

“It’s ten minutes of us taking care of each other,” he said.

He didn’t send it to anyone, but he kept it–for forty years. A couple of days before he came to the store, he was finally able to get it digitized. He also had a bunch of photographs of his team converted as well. Now he wanted to learn how to use iMovie to let the voices be the soundtrack under the images so he could share it with those who were still living.

We worked on the basic information he needed and then I told him I was going to sit across from him while he worked because I knew the pictures were very personal and they were not mine to see. If he needed help, I would be right there. He stayed at the table for about two and a half hours, long past his appointment. As he worked, I could see his face over the top of his monitor. From time to time, his eyes welled up; sometimes he smiled.

When he finished, I showed him how to burn the movie on to a disc (it was that long ago) and he thanked me for my help. He never showed me the movie.

I thought about him today as I drove home from a veteran’s coffee hour in another Connecticut town. I was invited by a member of my church who works with and writes a lot about veterans. They wanted me to come because the speaker was a man who was drafted in 1967 and served in Vietnam, and then had become an Army chaplain after he came back from his tour of duty. He is now in his late seventies, I’m guessing.

Perhaps because of my age, when I think of Vietnam soldiers, I picture young men and women–like the photographs we used to see in TIME or LIFE, or the clips on the evening news. But we have all grown old and our memories of the war and all that went with it have aged as well. They have become stories. In Tim O’Brien’s book about Vietnam, The Things They Carried, the narrator says,

And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

As he stood in front of the group of men and women whose life experiences resonated with his, the chaplain, now retired, offered a detailed account of his company being ambushed somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. Twenty of the twenty-seven soldiers were “dusted off” (which I learned means evacuated because of injury or death); seven survived unwounded. He, too, was telling a story of them taking care of each other. In the midst of it all, he said, he promised God he would do anything if they could live through it. Then he smiled and said, “Becoming a priest wasn’t what I meant.”

The last draft lottery occurred on March 12, 1975, exactly three months after my eighteenth birthday. though the last draft call had been in 1972, my roommate and I scanned the numbers in the newspaper with some trepidation. My birthday, December 12, was 18. Had there been a call up, I would have been called. Whether I would have answered is another matter.

Learning about the war as an American living in Africa altered my perspective on combat in general and Vietnam in particular. I knew more about protest songs than I did about being a soldier. As I sat at coffee hour and listened to the chaplain share his story, I shared the room with about eighty men and women, all of whom had been in the military. The camaraderie was palpable. They weren’t gathered to hang on to old things; they were there because they felt understood by people who had been where they had been and seen what they had seen. As one who doesn’t encounter people who grew up like I did very often, I understand how valuable that sense of belonging is and how much it matters to tell stories of us taking care of each other.


lenten journal: stand and sing of Zambia


In the summer of of 1969, we moved from Lusaka, Zambia to Nairobi Kenya.

I lived in Zambia from first through fifth grade, and then again for seventh grade. When we moved there, it was still the British colony Northern Rhodesia. On October 24, 1964, we participated in the birth of the new nation. I still sing the national anthem for Ginger every October, standing in our living room.

stand and sing of Zambia proud and free
land of work and joy in unity
victors in the struggle for the rights
we’ve won freedom’s fight
all one, strong and free . . .

The song is on my mind because Zambia has found me three times over the last few days. First, in the form of a novel: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, a story about Zambia by a Zambian writer. I am only a couple of chapters in, but the writing is brilliant. Take her definition of history, for example:

the word the English used for the record of every time a white man encountered something he had never seen and promptly claimed it as his own, often renaming it for good measure.

The book begins with a prologue of sorts about David Livingstone, the colonialist/missionary/explorer who died in the Eastern Province of Zambia and the Africans who knew him buried his heart there before they sent the body back to England.

My father went to the Eastern Province–a town called Petauke–at the request of a man who was a member of Matero Baptist Church in Lusaka, where we went. Dad told stories of driving until the road ended and then walking for three days to get to the village. Only one person there had ever seen a mazungu–a white man–and she was the oldest person in the village. When she told her story, Dad realized the last European to stand in that place was Livingstone himself.

The second Zambia sighting was an article at 3 Quarks Daily by the travel writer Bill Murray detailing a trip is making by rail from Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, to Kapiri Mposhi, a town in the Zambian Copper Belt. The 1,100-mile journey wasn’t possible when I lived in Zambia; the rail line was not completed until the 1970s, but reading about it makes me wish I could make the forty-two hour trip.

In the spring of 1969, before we moved north, my mother decided she would take my brother, Miller, and I back to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, which was the first place we lived in Africa, and the place my brother was born. She had a sense it would not be easy to get back there and she wanted us to see a place we had only known as small children. We left when I was five. Her choice of travel was by train, though that trip was only 775 miles, and we didn’t do it all at once.

And she was right: I have never gotten to go back to either Zambia or Zimbabwe.

Which brings me to the third thing. My brother called today for no other reason than we do our best to talk to each other every two or three weeks, and part of what he had to say was he will be in Zambia in April as a part of a trip he and his wife, Ginger, are taking related to their missions nonprofit. They support and work with churches in Malawi and Zambia, so they have been back a few times, and I feel a kind of wistfulness every time they go, wishing I could see our house on Valentine Close, or the one on Harding Road with the big backyard where all the neighborhood kids played softball and soccer.

When I wrote This Must Be the Place: Reflections on Home, I said,

In those days on Harding Road I learned to live in joy, to trust that sadness or difficulty or failure were never the last words. The people at Matero who filled up the room with song were acquainted with grief; they were not naive. Life was hard and God was faithful. Both things were true and they chose to sing about the latter.

When we left Zambia, I left home, but not for the first time, nor the last. I am grateful for the trinity of invitations to go back there through the words and journeys of others. Even from this distance, I can still stand and sing of a place I loved that let me belong.



lenten journal: hoop dreams


hoop dreams

I’ve spent the last two weekends
following a sport I cannot play
watching men and women spin
and shoot with an ease I have
never known inside my skin

my basketball career began
and ended in church leagues
sixth grade I was benchwarmer
an uninitiated American kid
from Africa who didn’t know

that you had to check in at
the scorer’s table to sub so
I just ran out on the court
and the ref and my coach
put me back on the bench

until the last two minutes
when coach sent me to the
scorer because we were so
far ahead that I was harmless
I would not be remembered

it took less than the time left
for me to do what no one
else on the team had done
I fouled out in record time
and went home with a story

In a week two teams will cut
down the nets as champions
after a season of struggle but
it only took one night when
I brought down the house