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advent journal: this particular tuesday

1

this particular tuesday

it snowed all day
but nothing stuck
is a good description
of this particular tuesday
afternoon or so I thought
until I realized it was
wednesday and as I
turned to make my way
back home I wondered
why fogelberg could sing
about the snow turning
into rain and make it
worthy of a saxophone
the difference between
a snow globe and a muddy
mess is just a few degrees
tonight the rain turned
back to snow still
without a saxophone
I made dinner out of
what was in the fridge
neither will last
past the morning
(thursday morning
I remind myself)
without needing to
demand any more of
the weather than
what it had to offer
on this particular
wednesday

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: no comparison

7

One of the things I often find is when I become aware of something I begin to notice it everywhere, which leaves me wondering if I see it everywhere because I’m looking for it or if I am just slow to the switch when it comes to catching on to stuff.

The last couple of weeks as Advent has begun, what I have noticed is not new to me. I’ve written about it before. But the pervasiveness of it has been much more apparent this year. I’m talking about the metaphors of light and dark, where light is good and dark is bad or troublesome or something not good. What is also not new to me is that the metaphors are problematic in our day because of the many ways the same metaphor we lean into during Advent has been used to justify racism over many centuries of Western expansion and colonial oppression.

I know. That took a turn, didn’t it?

Once again this year, I have spent some time searching for articles and books that talk about the impact of the metaphor and how to engage the biblical accounts in a way that doesn’t do damage to a large number of our siblings in Christ. Once again, I have found a lot of white people trying hard to deal with the problem, but struggling because they appear to enter the discussion determined to redeem the metaphor rather than beginning by listening to the impact of the words on those who are not light skinned.

Let me go ahead and say right now I am not writing because I found something no one else has thought of. I’m writing because I want to learn more about how to use my words to create solidarity and I figure the best way to do that is talk about it out loud and learn from what I miss in the process.

For me there is more at stake than just the biblical or philosophical metaphor. As one who lives with depression, I have found it there as well. William Styron’s book on his mental illness is called Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Matthew Johnstone wrote a book called I Had a Black Dog about his depression. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I liked Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression because he changed the metaphor. My depression mugs me in broad daylight. Nighttime–sleep–has always been an escape, a hiding place. When it comes to my depression, I am grateful for the dark.

“Comparison is the thief of joy” is a quote attributed to Teddy Roosevelt. It came to mind as I was thinking about this today, alongside of working on a worship service for the Third Sunday of Advent, which is traditionally the Sunday of Joy.

Perhaps one of the issues in the metaphors of light and dark is that we use them comparatively almost all of the time without stopping to think of what we are leaving out in the process. One of the articles I found today that was new to me was written by someone named Catherine Bird. The site did not give any information about her. From her writing and her use of the word whilst, I gleaned that she was thoughtful and probably British. She said,

Whilst I would not like us to lose light as a positive metaphor, it is important to recognise that it is not universally helpful – light has many harmful and destructive qualities – and if we deny that Darkness can also describe God we are perhaps missing some very important characteristics of God, as well as being rather unfair on darkness. George Orwell said, “uncritical acceptance of existing phrases can shape thinking and hinder new thought.

Then she offered “A Dark Creed.”

A Dark Creed

I believe in God
The creator of darkness,
Who conceived of its potential,
And allows it to live.

I believe in Jesus Christ,
The prince of darkness,
Who raises a canopy of grace
to shade the startled ones.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The inner shadow,
Who clings to our soul
and distorts the shape of our sorrow.

And she offered another thought:

If you find the image of Jesus as ‘the Prince of darkness’ concerning, then I ask you to reflect on the term Lucifer – which actually means ‘bearer of light’ or ‘Morning Star.’

During the Exile of Israelites to Babylonia, there they encountered the King, who was the son of Bel and Ishtar, associated in local mythology with Venus, the Morning star (so called because of its closeness to the sun and appearance in the sky just before sunrise) So, the King of Babylon became known as the ‘Morning Star’ or Lucifer.

As she went on to talk about how Lucifer and Satan ended up as synonymous, it made me think of other words and phrases that live on separated from their dubious history. I had to learn to quit saying “rule of thumb” when I learned it came from a law that allowed a man to beat his wife as long as the stick was not larger than his thumb in circumference. I chose to quit using father as a metaphor for God not only because it assigned gender to a God who transcends it, but also because I know too many people with problematic relationships with their fathers and I didn’t want them to be alienated by my choice of words.

And if I want to tell the story of the birth of Christ in a way that invites everyone to the manger, I need to learn how to do it without comparing light and darkness. Let there be light, yes, but not at the expense of the dark.

My favorite Texas songwriter, Guy Clark, wrote a song called “The Dark.”

In the dark you can sometimes hear your own heart beat
Or the heart of the one next to you
The house settles down after holding itself up all day
Shoulder slumps, gives a big sigh

You hear no one’s foot fall in the hall
That drip in the kitchen sink keeps markin’ time
June bug on the window screen can’t get in but he keeps on tryin’
One way or another we’re all in the dark

Fireflies, sparks, lightning, stars
Campfires, the moon, headlights on cars
The Northern Lights and The Milky Way
You can’t see that stuff in the day

When the earth turns its back on the sun
The stars come out and the planets start to run around
Now they call that day is done
But really it’s just getting started
Some folks take comfort in that

And how dark is it?
It’s too dark for goblins
And how dark is it?
It’s so dark you can smell the moon
How dark is it?
It’s so dark the wind gets lost
How dark is it?
It’s so dark the sky’s on fire
How dark is it?
It’s so dark you can see Ft. Worth from here

I love the song because he’s describing somewhere I want to be. Just as the cycle of our lives takes us from sunset to sunrise and back again, so must our theology and our language make room for the whole spectrum of existence, the shadows and sunshine, the clouds and clear blue, not because they are opposites but because they are partners. Siblings.

John wrote that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it. I’m guessing it works both ways: the light doesn’t always understand the dark either. But that does not pit them against one another, that just means they both have some learning to do, as do I. Rather than cling to an old rugged metaphor, I’ll trust that the God who made the dark is larger than light.

Now I just have to find the words.

Peace,
Milton

PS–Here’s Guy, if you follow the link.

advent journal: cold comfort

1

I have offered music posts most every Advent that I have been writing, so I thought I would keep up the tradition here in the middle of the season. These are not Christmas songs, or specifically Advent songs, but they are songs that speak to me in these days, songs that offer cold comfort. Most of them are new to me, since I went looking for them rather than counting on old favorites. The one exception is the first one, “That Kind of Love” by Pierce Pettis.

love rejected and ignored
held in chains, behind closed doors
stuff of legend and of songs
and deep down everybody longs for that kind of love
oh, that kind of love

some people never know that kind of love
though it only takes a child to show that kind of love
widows smile and strong men weep, and little ones play at its feet
the deaf can hear and the blind can see that kind of love

Most all of these songs talk about what love looks like, or what it takes to love. Any Gullahorn titled his song, “If You Want to Love Someone” and he says,

in every heart there is a hollow
locked against the pain
if there’s a key the key is sorrow
only a trusted hand can hold

if you wanna love someone
search their soul for where it’s broken
find the cracks and pour your heart in
if you wanna love someone

Ilse DeLange is a new name to me. She puts hands and feet to love in “I’ll Hold On,” her way of saying what love looks like.

on and on, I go
down the beaten path
with all the things I know
and all the things I have

I’m walking, always walking
back to you, my friend
with a song inside and them tears to hide
I’m on my way again
I’ll hold on
I’ll hold on

Glen Hansard has a habit of intertwining hope and heartache in his songs. “Cold Comfort” is a wonderful example; it also supplied the title for this collection.

the streets are quiet but for
the sound of birdsong
there’s no rush upon us now
well, it’s slow going
and it’s slower still here
but we’ll get through if we pull together now

and it’s little comfort, I know
but it’s raining down on everybody now
and the worst is over
and it’s little comfort, I know
but it’s raining all over the world right now
and it’s little comfort, I know
but the worst will soon be over

Tyrone Wells is going to close out the post with his song “And the Birds Sing,” a song that will worm its way into your heart and your ear, reminding you that love lifts us all.

the poor man and the millionaire
both sharing the oak tree shade
not stressing over money made

the preacher and the atheist
both jumping in the ocean waves
today they both feel saved

say what you gonna do when the clouds come
you gonna hold your head high
say what you gonna do when the storms come
keep your eyes to the sky, and I’ll tell you why

cause one day…
the sunshine will shine again
shine all over the world
on every man, woman, boy and girl

These days are still growing shorter and colder, but listen for the birds and remember we’ll get through if we pull together.

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: rifts and faults

2

For about twenty-five Advent seasons, I opened the services at our church (whichever church that was) with “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell. That tradition didn’t make the move to Guilford, but the song is tattooed on my heart. The scripture passage for my sermon today alludes to Isaiah’s words, and it connected me with my youth in Kenya. (And yes, the video of the song is at the end of the sermon.)

______________________________

As I told you last week, I grew up in Africa. Part of that time, I lived in Nairobi, Kenya. I think about living there often, for different reasons. This week my memories were sparked by Luke quoting Isaiah’s words about mountains being leveled and valleys being filled in because one of the great geological sights in Kenya is the Great Rift Valley. Actually, it runs from the Red Sea down into Malawi.

The sides of the valley are steep because it was caused by a fault, so it looks like the whole middle section just dropped hundreds of feet. As I read more about it, I learned the term Great Rift Valley is used to refer to a series of contiguous rifts that connect from Lebanon to Mozambique, one of which includes the Jordan River, which means the valley I saw in Africa was connected to the valley where Isaiah and John the Baptist both stood.

Listen to our passage from Luke 3:1-6.

In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, Philip his brother tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene. In those days, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the Word of God came to John, ben-Zechariah, in the desert. John went through the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as is written in the words of Isaiah, the prophet:

“A herald’s voice in the desert, crying,
‘Make ready the way of our God;
clear a straight path.
Every valley will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be leveled.
The twisted paths will be made straight,
and the rough road smooth—
and all humankind will see the salvation of God.’”

We read this passage during Advent because it talks about John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus. If you know the musical Godspell, you know the musical opens with John the Baptist singing, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” For many years in the churches where my wife served, I sang that song to open our Advent services. But John never says or sings that. In fact, if we look closely at the passage, all Luke says about John is that he was preaching a gospel of repentance and forgiveness. The rest of the verses talk about who was in power at the time and then he quotes Isaiah—well, sort of quotes him.

I spent some time thinking about road work this week and then it struck me that Luke starts off by listing all the people in power, both politically and religiously and ends up focusing on a prophet ranting in the wilderness–a voice on the margins calling people to repentance and forgiveness. He says that John’s presence reminded people of a passage from Isaiah that people were used to hearing at the synagogue.

If we go back to the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah calls people to make a highway for God. The image is one of serious road construction, which often means the topography has to be changed to make the road viable.

One time Ginger and I were in the car together and we survived the slow snake of trafficcaused by highway construction. When we saw the “End Road Work” sign that set us free I remarked, “I think that ought to be a protest sign.”

We all want better highways and bridges, but if you have ever been stuck on I-95 because they are working on it, you know that any improvements in our infrastructure will come at a cost. Building and rebuilding are time consuming and inconvenient. Often to build means first something has to be torn down or torn out to prepare for what is to come, and then, as I said, it takes time to build the new thing.

The visual Isaiah created makes it sound like the world God wants looks a lot like West Texas, which is not appealing to me. West Texas looks like land that inspired people to build things like tables and countertops. It is flat and flat and endless and flat. The stars at night look big and bright because there is nothing else to see. Can you tell it’s not my favorite place.

But Luke isn’t just quoting Isaiah, he is paraphrasing him. Where the ancient prophet talked about a highway, Luke talked about a path when he said John was embodying Isaiah’s words. But I don’t think Luke intended for his readers to get caught up in trying to picture the epic landscaping project Isaiah proclaims. John wasn’t quoting Isaiah either. Isaiah is mentioned because Luke wanted us to get a picture of what it felt like when people living in Palestine under the mountain of oppression brought on by the names listed wandered to the outskirts of town and found John the Baptist in all his strangeness.

Luke says, when they saw John they thought, “Hey, this is like that verse about a voice crying in the wilderness.” They heard the passage often in the synagogue, but they had not imagined the live action version of it–except John wasn’t saying anything about mountains or valleys. He was preaching was repentance and forgiveness. If what prophets were supposed to talk about was the mountains coming down and the valleys being filled in, John was calling people to do it with a shovel, not large earth moving equipment.

Hold that thought and let’s go back to the Great Rift Valley because sometimes words build bridges that help us get from one place to another. As I was reading about it, I came across this sentence:

“While the name continues in some usages, it is rarely used in geology as it is considered an imprecise merging of separate though related rift and fault systems.”

Rifts and faults—words we use to talk about broken relationships. And the brought me back to the one sentence Luke says about John:

John went through the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins . . .

In a world where those in power used their privilege to oppress others, in a world where prophets had been crying out for centuries for people to trust that God could change the landscape if they would listen, in a world where people were just trying to figure out how to get through a day, John wandered the country preaching about repentance and forgiveness.

The word we translate as repentance has a stronger meaning, more along the lines of conversion–a turning, a new direction. It is deeper than changing our minds or feeling regret over something we have done. It is choosing to go in a new direction, to do things differently, to tear down what is there and build something new.

The Greek word we translate as forgiveness can also mean being freed from bondage, which is interesting to me when I think about the power of both asking for and offering forgiveness.

Both words call us to profound change. Perhaps knocking down a mountain is not a bad metaphor, and it’s an even better when we are willing to consider the rifts and faults in our own hearts. We can profoundly alter the landscape of our lives if we are willing to risk repentance and forgiveness. The straightest path from one heart to another, from one person to another, is the most direct one.

When we choose to trust one another with difficult conversations rather than gossip or talk around one another, we prepare the way of the Lord. When we choose to assume positive intent when someone does something that angers or hurts us rather than reacting without offering room for conversation, we prepare the way of the Lord. When we choose to forgive rather than allow resentment to build a mountain in our hearts, we prepare the way of the Lord.

Isaiah had been dead a long time when John showed up. His transformative words had become familiar things that you heard in synagogue. John the Baptist has been dead a long time, too, and we mostly think about him during Advent as we talk about preparing for the birth of Jesus. Their words, however, are more than decorations. They show us how to love one another.

Prepare the way of the Lord. John may not have ever said those words, but it is exactly what he called us to do. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: worn and wounded

1

worn and wounded

in my notes
I found this phrase

what is worn is not always wounded

I’ve been staring at it
for some time now
trying to decide
if I agree

(and I think I wrote it)

I think I was thinking
about library lions
whose tails are worn
by the affectionate
of book lovers
and small children

then a question came
from a friend

I’m tired
when can I quit

and I thought
we are always wounded
what’s worn
what’s not worn
what’s worn out

how I wish I were
close enough to put
my arms around them
but I am far away

I can only send words
well-worn words
I love you my friend

tonight
worn and wounded
feel the same

Peace,
Milton

sustenance and sondheim

3

Stephen Sondheim died last week, as you probably know.

His death last week affected me in several ways, not the least of which was taking me back to an afternoon in the Spring of 1988 when my friend Billy Crockett and I wandered up to the TKTS booth in Times Square and scored two half-price tickets to Into the Woods. I will confess I knew very little about Sondheim and nothing about that particular show. Billy was the one who suggested it. I can out of the theater changed by that one evening. From there, I began to learn more about Sondheim and his amazing body of work.

What I learned this morning, thanks to this article in the New York Times, was that for all of his composing and lyric writing, he spent a great deal of time encouraging: showing up for other people’s shows, and then writing notes of support afterwards. Laura Collins-Hughes writes,

To a legion of fans Sondheim was and is the be-all and end-all. But his own horizons as a theatergoer were significantly broader than that. In an art form that is so much about being present for the unrepeatable moment, he not only showed up, but he also often did so to experience work that was offbeat and obscure, challenging conventions just as his own work did.

The phrase in the middle of the paragraph is what caught my eye:

In an art form that is so much about being present for the unrepeatable moment . . .

She was talking about theater, but I read her words and thought, “That’s life: being present for the unrepeatable moment,” because we live days filled with them, rolling by one after another. Much like an actor who must inhabit a character to be convincing, we are called to be awake and aware in our existence because so much of it is made up of you-had-to-be-there moments. Even the things we repeat day after day are not the same from one day to the next. Perhaps the biggest difference between a life and a theatrical production is that life offers no chance to rehearse. We can remember, regret, redo, or even repent, but there is no practice life; this is it.

If we are not intentional, all that I just said can lead us to think the point is our performance. We are better at life when we remember that’s not the only point. Back to Sondheim:

It was part of Sondheim’s gift to understand not only the encompassing job description of great artist but also his singular effect on his colleagues—how even a few words of appreciation, or moments of attention, could prove enduring sustenance over the long slog of a career in an often pitiless field.

It was unglamorous work, and Sondheim did it exquisitely.

My father carried a story with him from his days as president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. After one of the conventions, he received a letter from a young pastor who said he had tried to engage Dad after one of the sessions and really needed to talk to him, but just as he got my father’s attention someone Dad knew better came up and my father turned away and never turned back to the man. “I needed your help that day,” the man wrote, “and you turned away because someone you knew better or who mattered more got your attention. I am writing in hopes that my letter will help you do differently next time.”

What the young pastor didn’t know about my father was that they shared an inferiority complex. For all of the things my father did, he never felt worthy. He thought he had to prove himself everyday–mostly to himself. The letter stung him. He didn’t forget. I can’t say he never was distracted by attention again, but the story stayed fresh, and he encouraged a lot of people.

Beyond the importance of backing one another up, as I wrote last night, and being aware of unexpected opportunities to affirm one another, as my father learned, what I see in Sondheim is someone who intentionally inserted himself to put himself in a position to encourage and affirm. He didn’t wait for people to come to him.

One of the people Sondheim touched with his encouragement was Jonathan Larson, the man who created RENT. The new Netflix movie Tic Tic Boom tells the story of Larson finding his way in New York, and Sondheim plays a critical role, simply because he reaches out and offers support.

One of my favorite poems, Zen of Tipping by Jan Beatty comes to mind:

My friend Lou
used to walk up to strangers
and tip them—no, really—
he’d cruise the South Side,
pick out the businessman on his way
to lunch, the slacker hanging
by the Beehive, the young girl
walking her dog, and he’d go up,
pull out a dollar and say,
Here’s a tip for you.
I think you’re doing a really
good job today. Then Lou would
walk away as the tipee stood
in mystified silence. Sometimes
he would cut it short with,
Keep up the fine work.
People thought Lou was weird,
but he wasn’t. He didn’t have much,
worked as a waiter. I don’t know
why he did it. But I know it wasn’t
about the magnanimous gesture,
an easy way to feel important,
it wasn’t interrupting the impenetrable
edge of the individual—you’d
have to ask Lou—maybe it was
about being awake, hand-to-hand
sweetness, a chain of kindnesses,
or fun—the tenderness
we forget in each other.

Because I love to cook and I’m pretty good at it, people are sometimes afraid to cook for me, as though I will come to the table as a critic rather than a guest. But eating other people’s food is also one of my favorite things. I know what it takes to prepare a meal, I am happy to honor the offering. I also know what it feels like to have people love your food; I am happy to share that feeling as well.

Life may be a team sport, but it is not a competition. No one wins when we get our affirmation at the expense of someone else. Life is hard. May we remember what Sondheim knew well–that a few words of appreciation or moments of attention can be enduring sustenance to those around us.

We will all be remembered more for our affections and affirmations than our accomplishments.

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: where are my background singers?

8

I can tell by watching the clip that it happened a long time ago–1996 to be exact–but I saw it for the first time this week: Patti LaBelle singing “This Christmas” at the National Christmas Tree Lighting and getting to the part where the background singers are supposed to sing, “This Christmas,” but nobody sings. She looks around and then says, “Where are my background singers?”

She has to ask the question several times, along with imploring the cue card person to keep up. Don’t take my word for it. Watch.

Most of us haven’t stood on a national stage, but I’m pretty sure we all have had moments that give us a glimpse of what she was feeling. We know what it’s like to wonder what happened to our backup.

Because we only get to see the world through our eyes, our overarching perspective is that we are the lead singer, if you will; we are singing our song. However, if we all look at life that way, or if that is the only way we look at life, we miss the best part of the song.

One of my favorite documentaries is Twenty Feet from Stardom, which tells the story of the background singers who were responsible for the Motown sound and a lot of the memorable moments in the rock and roll I grew up with. For the most part, they never stepped up to the front mic. A couple of them made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the names of most of them live on in liner notes (remember those?) and their voices are indelibly imprinted in our hearts.

Even though we can only see the world through our eyes, we can choose to be a background singer in someone else’s band. In fact, I think that is what most of life is about: answering someone else’s call for backup, for harmony, for support. Maybe the better question is, “Who needs a background singer?”

Back in the days of television variety shows, I remember seeing one where the Pips performed–without Gladys Knight–and all the did was sing the harmony parts and the choreography. Picture “Midnight Train to Georgia,” but with only the, “leavin’ on the midnight train . . . woo woo” and no melody. No Gladys. I knew every word because the background makes the song.(And thanks to my friend Paul, I found the clip from the Richard Pryor Show.)

The world is full of melodies, full of people stepping up for their moment, from baristas to barristers, politicians to public school teachers, trash collectors, postal workers, cooks and cabinet makers. And most of them are wondering, “Where are my background singers?”

Look for them. Listen for them. And step up. Sing along.

One of the comments on the YouTube page go the Patti LaBelle video is, “She sang the hell out of that tragedy.” Isn’t that what we are all trying to do in some sense? We all need background singers. Perhaps the secret is to look for ways to be one, rather than wondering what happened to ours.

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: sundowning

3

sundowning

some twenty winters ago
I learned to leave the house
before sundown so I
do not go down with it

outside the darkness
feels expansive
the house feels
like a tomb

the darkness
is not the problem
my depression
pulls the house down

wait–say that again

the darkness
is not the problem
my depression
pulls the house down

“when i gaze into the night sky”
the psalmist says in awe
they know there is nothing
wrong with the dark

still something in
the sundown sinks me
from the inside
I dim with the day

when I go outside
I am a part of what is
opening up as night
unfolds into mystery

i join the constellation
of all creation
dancing in the dark
a connection I carry

back to the house
back inside
as day is done and
I rest in the dark

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: leaf lessons

2

On this last day of November, the only leaves on the trees belong to the evergreens. A post about what I learned from the autumn leaves is woefully late, especially in a culture that puts out Halloween calendar in mid-August, but such is the nature of my life in these days.

One of those who wrote with the season was Maria Popova on her wonderful site, The Marginalian, where she wrote about the magic of cholophyll:

But autumn is also the season of revelation, for the seeming loss unveils a larger reality: Chlorophyll is a life-force but it is also a cloak, and when trees shed it from their leaves, nature’s true colors are revealed.

Photosynthesis is nature’s way of making life from light. Chlorophyll allows a tree to capture photons, extracting a portion of their energy to make the sugars that make it a tree — the raw material for leaves and bark and roots and branches — then releasing the photons at lower wavelengths back into the atmosphere. A tree is a light-catcher that grows life from air.

Joseph Bienaimé Caventou and Pierre Joseph Pelletier were the two men who identified chlorophyll in 1817. I say identified rather than discovered because that was the way they talked about what they had found.

We have no right to name a substance long-known, and to the story of which we have added only a few facts; however, we will propose, without granting it any importance, the name chlorophyll, from chloros, color, and φυλλον, leaf: a name that would indicate the role it plays in nature.

The described what they saw rather than try to take credit for it. Chlorophyll: the color of leaves. In the last hundred years, we have learned that more is going on in the leaves of autumn.

But chlorophyll, which is yet to be fully understood, is not the only pigment in trees. Throughout a leaf’s life, four primary pigments course through its cells: the green of chlorophyll, but also the yellow of xanthophyll, the orange of carotenoids, and the reds and purples of anthocyanins.

In spring and summer, when the days grow long and bright, chlorophyll saturates leaves as the tree busies itself converting photons into the sweetness of new growth.

As daylight begins fading in autumn and the air cools, deciduous trees prepare for wintering and stop making food — an energy expenditure too metabolically expensive in the dearth of sunlight. Enzymes begin breaking down the decommissioned chlorophyll, allowing the other pigments that had been there invisibly all along to come aflame. And because we humans so readily see in trees metaphors for our emotional lives, how can this not be a living reminder that every loss reveals what we are made of — an affirmation of the value of a breakdown?

I will go ahead and say right now that a post on “the value of a breakdown” is in my future, but what caught me in Popova’s words was “every loss reveals what we are made of.” Cue Cyndi Lauper:

I see your true colors shining through
I see your true colors and that’s why I love you
so don’t be afraid to let them show
your true colors are beautiful like the rainbow

Richard Rohr has also been my autumn companion, alongside Caventou and Pelletier and Popova. I am learning from him as well.

Only the human species absents itself from the agreed-on pattern [in nature] and the general dance of life and death. . . . Necessary suffering goes on every day, seemingly without question. . . . Most of nature seems to totally accept major loss, gross inefficiency, mass extinctions, and sort life spans as the price of it all. Feeling that sadness, even its full absurdity, ironically puts us into the general dance, the unified field, an ironic and deep gratitude for what is given–with no necessity and so gratuitously. All beauty is gratuitous. So whom can we blame when it seems to be taken away? Grace seems to be at the foundation of everything.

There is no good reason for beauty, just as, I suppose we could say there is no good reason for suffering. It’s all grace and gravity, or, perhaps, grace and gratitude.

When I worked as a hospital chaplain, I read an article that talked about helping people move from asking, “Why is this happening to me?” (a question with no good answers) to “What does this mean for my life?” The difference between the two questions has been helpful over the years in looking at ways to make meaning out of what happens to us. Rohr gave me a deeper insight into the second question in my reading this morning.

For postmodern people, the universe is not inherently enchanted, as it was for the ancients. We have to do all the “enchanting” ourselves. This leaves us alone, confused, and doubtful. There is no meaning already in place for our discovery and enjoyment. We have to create all meaning by ourselves in such an inert and empty world, and most of us do not seem to succeed very well. This is the burden of living in our heady and lonely time, when we think it is all up to us.

But there’s more to the story, he says.

The gift of living in our time, however, is that we are more and more discovering that the sciences, particularly physics, astrophysics, anthropology, and biology, are confirming many of the deep intuitions of religion, and at a rather quick pace in recent years. The universe really is “inspired matter,” we now know, and is not merely inert. . . . God seems to have created things that continue to create and recreate themselves from the inside out.

That last sentence includes us as well. We continue to create and recreate ourselves, or at least that is the invitation from the leaves and most everything else around us.

If I were to go back through my photos, I could probably find a dozen pictures like the one at the top of this post. Though they would all look alike, they each mark a moment when I was not who I am and where I am right now. To borrow from Stanley Kunitz, “I am not yet done with my changes.” I feel like the leaves I watched all fall, finding new colors, new beauty, even as I struggle with life on a day to day basis. In the middle of it all, ironically, I am grateful. Morning by morning, new mercies I see.

So, I’m late with my autumn reflection. I’m talking about leaves and the trees have turned to sleeping stick figures. That doesn’t mean I can’t still see their colors, or that it is too late for me to learn and grow about what fills them and you and me.

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: leftover life

2

Stephen Sondheim died last week.

He had Thanksgiving dinner with friends and died on Friday, unexpectedly it seems.

Looking back through my texts, I heard about his death around six on Friday, because that is when I wrote a friend with whom I share a love of Sondheim and his songs. I was in the kitchen making a Thanksgiving Leftover Pie, something new to me, but now something that will become a part of all our Thanksgivings going forward. (My version is at the end of this post.)

This morning, I read the tribute to Sondheim in The Atlantic and I was caught by two paragraphs in particular:

I’m sure Sondheim knew better, though. He never believed in simple happy endings, but he knew exactly how to take advantage of his audience’s yearning for them. In Into the Woods, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, the characters end Act I singing the jaunty “Ever After,” blissfully unsuspecting of the complications that await them in the second act.

and

Before Company, Sondheim said in the 2004 documentary, musicals “would always lead to the so-called happy ending. We were saying something ambiguous, which is ‘Actually, there are no endings’; it keeps going on is what, really, Company’s about.”

Even though neither Sondheim nor the writer of the piece used the word, I thought, “They’re talking about leftovers.”

Leftovers are the things you make into a meal after the meal. They are what you do after the happy ending, if you will. After the big gathering around the table we have all anticipated, after we have stuffed ourselves and then had pie, after we have napped and walked and talked, we come back to the fridge and pull out the leftovers to see what we can make of them, whether it’s a sandwich, a soup, or a pie.

Leftovers make pretty good metaphors as well. If Sondheim is right–and I think he is–life gets lived in the ever afters, in the stuff that happens after the endings. In the leftovers. The longer we live, the more bits and pieces we are left with to see what we can make of them. Wounds can become weapons or windows. Memories season our days in ways both sweet and savory, I suppose, though some we have to choose to no longer digest. The tables to which we return, whether the annual gatherings for holidays or the daily seats we take for breakfast and dinner, are never completely absent of what has been shared there already.

Life offers none of us a clean slate. We’re all dealing with leftover lives.

That’s good news, I think. At least that’s what I learned (again) from the Thanksgiving Pie. After we cut it open and ate it, I said, “I think I would make the whole meal again just so I could wait a day and make this.” Everything in the pie had already been on the table. All of the dishes are things i have made over and over. There were no surprises. And yet, when I layered them inside the pastry and baked them into a loaf pie that looked worthy of being cut open on The Great British Baking Show, it felt (and tasted) like I had done a new thing. And I had–with the leftovers.

One of the ways I am approaching Advent this year is thinking about it as a leftover story, not only as I read the story again in scripture, but also as I think about how we retell it in our time. Jesus was born in the middle of a colonized nation, as a part of an oppressed people, and to a family that was confused and frightened by much of what happened. No one was expecting an ever after, much less a happy one. And Jesus’ birth did not bring one. Nothing was solved in Bethlehem. The angels may have sung, but it was not a big finale. Love came down at Christmas and God has been making stuff out of the leftovers ever since.

Enjoy the recipe. Fill it with whatever you have.

Peace,
Milton

Thanksgiving Leftover Pie

Ingredients

For the hot water pastry:
4 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
8 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 stick) or lard

For the filling:
dressing or stuffing
turkey, diced
vegetables
gravy
sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes

For the egg wash:
1 large egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water

For the pastry:
Whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the center.
Bring the water and fat to a boil in a large saucepan; stir as you go to melt the fat.
Pour the liquid into the well in the flour mixture and stir it until everything is evenly moistened and cool enough to handle comfortably. Once the liquid is incorporated, I use my hands to mix the dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it a few times. Cut off a third of the dough for the top and set it aside to keep warm. (I wrap mine in a towel.)
Roll the remaining dough into a 16” long and 12” wide rectangle. Press it into a 9” x 5” loaf pan so the edges hang over the sides about a half an inch. Press the bottom down a bit to make sure it fits.

To assemble the pie:
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Spread all the filling ingredients (except the cranberry sauce) on top of one another in even layers. Each layer will be about 1/2 inch thick. I put the dressing on the bottom almost like a bed for the other stuff. I also finished with the sweet potatoes to create a kind of lid. Fill the pan full, so it even domes a little.
Roll the remaining dough into rectangle that fits the loaf pan. Place on top and then fold the overhanging edges of the bottom crust over and crimp the dough to seal it. Cut several slits in the top to vent it.

Brush the top of the pie with the egg wash. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until you see liquid bubbling through the vents and the top crust is golden brown. Remove the pie from the oven and let it rest for at least fifteen minutes before slicing. It tastes good hot, at room temperature, and cold from the fridge.