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lenten journal: samosas and significance


I woke up this morning thinking about how the circumstances of life alter our fields of vision. I got a packet of information in the mail from Global Exchange yesterday. They are a wonderful organization deeply committed to social justice on many fronts and have been one of the primary sources of information for me as I have sought to learn more about the issues related to child slavery and cocoa production. I brought the packet with me as I came to write today because I wanted to widen my focus. My life has felt very local lately – and by local I mean mostly consumed with going to work and doing stuff around the house. It’s been about me. I need it to be more than just that.

Part of my morning ritual is to check and see if anyone commented on my blog posts from previous days, and to check in with a few of the blogs I read regularly to see what they have to say. One person with whom I have found a particular affinity is Laurie, who writes a blog called Africakid and the World. She wrote about an autobiographical poetry exercise she picked up at Blogging in Paris, who got the idea (I found out) from Fragments From Floyd, In a couple of clicks, I went from Marshfield to Germany to Paris to “a quiet place in Floyd County, Virginia.” Talk about a change in focus.

Here’s the poetry exercise, called, “Where I’m From”:

I am from (specific ordinary item), from (product name) and ______.

I am from the (home description… adjective, adjective, sensory detail).

I am from the (plant, flower, natural item), the (plant, flower, natural detail)

I am from (family tradition) and (family trait), from (name of family member) and (another family name) and (family name).

I am from the (description of family tendency) and (another one).

From (something you were told as a child) and (another).

I am from (representation of religion, or lack of it) — further description.

I’m from (place of birth & family ancestry), (two food items representing your family).

From the (specific family story about a specific person and detail), the (another detail, and the (another detail about another family member).

I am from (location of family pictures, mementos, archives and several more lines indicating their worth).

Though the exercise looks like fun (and is something I will do later), what sent me on my journey today was the way Laurie began her poem: “I’m from deep fried samosas.”

Me, too.

One of my enduring memories of living in Nairobi is the samosas: wonderful deep-fried triangles of beef and peas and spices. Just hearing the words brings back images of the street vendors that sold them, of being downtown with my high school friends, of Iqbal’s café (chapati and keema), of playing guitar for hours, and of laughing uncontrollably after seeing Start the Revolution Without Me. All that from the mention of those tasty morels. Thanks to a wonderful cookbook my friend Cherry gave me for Christmas, Extending the Table, I found a recipe to help me remember them even more. Tonight may be samosa night at the Brasher-Cunninghams. I posted the recipe here.

On the page adjacent to the recipe in the cookbook is a Swahili proverb: “A hasty person misses the sweet things.”

Two days ago, Ginger asked me if I was doing all right. I said I was and asked why. She said I just seemed down. The pattern of my depression has been that she can see it coming before I can – there’s usually about a three day delay between what see feels intuitively and when I fall through the hole in the floor. I’ve been watching my steps ever since.

Charles and Jennifer, who are the parents of my godson, Samuel, have the same kind of foresight when they see their son going into a funk.

“Don’t go in the hole,” they say to him.

Ginger said the same thing to me on Tuesday. So far, so good, though I do feel somewhat of a gathering gloom. Maybe that’s why I’m looking to find a focus larger than myself. Depression is not only a downward spiral, but an inward one. When I am in the hole I can’t see much of anything but my misery, which is not a perspective that offers much hope for healing.

I’m not looking for an escape from the pain as much as a reminder of the context. I’m not the only one in pain, and I’m certainly not the one whose suffering is greatest. I have a home, a job (hell – I have two!), and I am married to an amazing woman. I live with depression and I have some significant life choices to make in the days ahead; on the scale of struggle, I register about as much as my blog makes a blip on the World Wide Web. What I’m doing is important, and I do well to approach it all with a sense of appropriate insignificance.

Parker Palmer unintentionally gave me a smile the other day. He wrote:

“Rather than speak of contemplation and action, we might speak of contemplation-and-action, letting the hyphens suggest what our language obscures: that one cannot exist without the other” (15)

Though the welding of contemplation-and-action speaks to me in the moment, it’s what he said about hyphens that made me smile: the hyphen suggests one cannot exist without the other.

I live with such a hyphen: Brasher-Cunningham.

When Ginger and I married and we both took each other’s names, that’s we meant when we bound our names together with the unobtrusive little piece of punctuation. The hyphen said what our culture obscures, what computer fields can’t translate, and some of our family had a hard time understanding. I feel the power of the bond when she sees the gathering gloom before I do, when she encourages me to fight quixotically against the windmills of globalization, when she listens to me talk about how much joy I find in making soup or samosas even though the passion is not her own.

I don’t know how to read the forecast of my life. I don’t know if I will simply brush up against my depression, or will have to saddle up and ride the monster deep into the darkness. I don’t know how to titrate my life to have time to work, to write, to respond to the opportunities to do something about the fair trade stuff, and to be present in my marriage and my friendships.

Whatever happens, I do know I’m called to remember I’m only one thread in the tapestry – an essential one, but still only one.


lenten journal: you are my family


My nephew, Ben, turns twenty today.

On the wall next to the staircase in our house is our “Wall of Fame,” filled with pictures of friends and family, each photograph holding a different story. One of my favorites is now about ten years old. Ben, his brother Tim (sometimes called Scott), and I are all standing together in roller blades about to take off down the skating trail in San Diego. I’ve got another of just Ben and me that’s now nineteen years old. I went to visit Ben and his family in Akron, Ohio and they took me to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I’m holding Ben and he’s wearing his Cleveland Browns jersey. He has very little hair on his wonderfully round head (wait – that’s how I look now) and his eyes are wide with wonder and expectation.

The way life has rolled out, Ben and I have not had a lot of time together in the course of our lives. We have stayed connected, but have not known much about the details of one another’s existence until the last couple of years. So, even though I don’t have any good recent photographs of the two of us together, I feel closer to him than I ever have and that is thanks, largely, to the common love we have for good music.

Whenever Ben, Tim, and I have occasion to send a gift to one another, we send CDs. For a couple of Christmases we even gave each other the same records without knowing it ahead of time. This past Christmas, I tore off the wrapping paper to find a cigar box. Inside the box was this note:

“Uncle Milton, our gift to you this Christmas may be a very dangerous one! These four albums have the biggest affect on us in almost all our music, all done by the same guy – Mark Kozelek. We know you’ll love them! It may take some time (although we know it won’t), but give them a good chance because he’s the man. We love you so much Uncle Milton! We wish that we could walk to the beach with you and hang out.
Love, Tim and Ben”

How often do you get dangerous gifts for Christmas that aren’t a Red Ryder BB gun? (And Mark Kozelek is the man.)

I called Ben yesterday to wish him a happy birthday and we had a great, long talk. I was trying to make sure he didn’t have the CDs Ginger and I wanted to send, so I asked if he had any Patty Griffin.

“Scott and I just found her;” he said; “she’s amazing.”

Our conversation turned to her lyrics and her ability to infuse simple words with profound truth and emotion. Here, for example, is the opening verse of “The Rowing Song”:

as I row, row, row
going so slow, slow, slow
just down below me is the old sea
just down below me is the old sea

The melody is haunting, and she’s crafting a picture with words not so different from “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Then comes the next line:

the further I go,
more letters from home
never arrive

She breaks your heart never using more than two syllables. Ben and I talked about the power in her songwriting. I went on to mention my favorite Patty Griffin lyric, in a song called “It Don’t Come Easy.”

I began the line, “If you break down, I’ll drive out and find you.”
He finished it: “If you forget my love, I’m there to remind you.”

And we were both quiet for a moment.

We sent him two CDs by Pierce Pettis, another amazing singer-songwriter, Making Light of It and Everything Matters. I sent the second record because of one song in particular, “God Believes in You.”

When you start to doubt that you exist, God believes in you
Confounded by the evidence, God believes in you
When your light burns so dim, when your chances seem so slim
And you swear you don’t believe in him, God believes in you

When you rise up just to fall again, God believes in you
Deserted by your closest friends, God believes in you
When you’re betrayed with a kiss, you turn your cheek to another fist
It dose not have to end like this, God believes in you

Oh everything matters if anything matters at all
Everything matters no matter how big, no matter how small
Oh God believes in you, God believes in you

When you’re so ashamed that you could die, God believes in you
And you can’t do right even though you try, God believes in you
Blessed are the ones who grieve, the ones who mourn, the ones who bleed
In sorrow you sow but in joy you reap, God believes in you

Ben is no longer hairless or round-headed (as I am), yet he still has a heart full of wonder and expectation. I look forward to seeing how the story of his life continues to unfold, and am excited that I get to contribute to the soundtrack, among other things.

When I was his age, my connection to family was kept alive, mostly, by my aunt, Pegi, who would not let me go. At a time when I could only push away, she kept reminding me I could not afford to break the bonds that created me. She was right. Family ties are better these days and I’m caught in the wonderful irony that now my nephews are key players in feeding my sense of belonging in my family of origin and contributing to my soundtrack as well. It’s just like Pierce says:

let your love cover me
like a pair of angel wings
you are my family
you are my family

I wish I’d known Ben better when he was four, or nine, or thirteen; I didn’t. But we know each other now and I look forward to the days to come when we will put on some good music, tell each other what we missed, and dream about what has yet to be.

Happy birthday, Ben.

(Uncle) Milton

lenten journal: goodbye, my friend


I started my morning, as I often do, listening to The Writer’s Almanac by Garrrison Keillor. Though it plays on WGBH, one of our local NPR stations, I listen to it from the website because I can do that on my own schedule. Along with a poem, Keillor gives a quick rundown of some of the happenings on this particular day, Here’s one of the things he said:

“On this day in 1923, Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ was published in the New Republic magazine. It was Frost’s favorite of his own poems, and he called it, ‘My best bid for remembrance.’

“Though it’s a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. The night before he had stayed up working at his kitchen table on a long, difficult poem called ‘New Hampshire’ (1923). He finally finished it, and then looked up and saw that it was morning. He’d never worked all night on a poem before. Feeling relieved at the work he’d finished, he went outside and watched the sunrise.

But while he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page.”

He went on to recite the poem, which I print here because it’s one of my favorites.

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

One of the reasons the poem sticks with me is it was the subject of my first big research paper in college, and my first real venture into analyzing a poem. I look back on that experience as the place where I became infected by poetry; I’ve never recovered.

My hours in the library reading commentaries on Frost’s work led me to people who saw in these words traces of solstice, suicide, and Santa Claus. I don’t remember what I ended up saying about the poem. I do remember working hard to learn it by heart (I still have most of it) and I know I keep coming back to it and finding different things: sometimes I’m struck by the beauty of the moonless night; sometimes, that the owner of the land is not the one appreciating it; sometimes,, the curiosity of the horse; sometimes the impending pressure of promises still unfulfilled.

I did not know Frost had written it so quickly until today.

In June of 1990, nearly seventy years after Frost wrote at his breakfast table, I was packing up to drive to Fort Worth after spending a couple of days writing with my friend Billy. We were working on songs for youth camp with my kids. We all knew this was going to be my last camp because Ginger and I were headed to Boston. While Billy was in the shower, I wrote these words in about the time it took Frost to paint his snowy picture:

If there was a place that felt like home, would you go there?
If there was a chance that you could know love, would you try?
It there was a dream that would come true, would you fall asleep?
If there was someone to dry your tears, would you cry?

Come and see, come and see
Take and eat, come and see

If there was a voice that would call your name, would you answer?
If there was a friend who would never leave, would you stay?
If there was a heart that would break for you, would you fall in love?
If there was someone who was listening, would you pray?

Come and see, come and see
Take and eat, come and see

I handed him the lyric when he got out of the shower and while I was cleaning up he wrote the melody. Eventually, it even made it on one of Billy’s records. Some of the stuff we wrote feels like history to me; this one has stayed alive.

Yesterday afternoon late, our friend Janet called asking if she, her daughter, their two dogs, and pet mouse could spend the night. They are moving to San Francisco this week. Everything was loaded into the Family Truckster and they needed to feel as if their journey had begun, rather than spending another night in the old house. Yes is always the answer to anyone who wants to crash here, so we had a slumber party last night with our little menagerie. As I’m writing, they have just shuffled off to Buffalo, the next stop on their journey west.

Over coffee this morning, Janet and I talked about new beginnings. For the first time in twenty years ministry is not her job. No one in San Francisco knows her; she is going with a clean slate: miles to go, but few promises to keep. She and Christine are on a road trip without reservations, knowing only the address they are driving toward. That’s enough to start a new life.

I watched them drive off and am left with memories and empty spaces. At least once every year in the ten years of Janet’s pastorate, I filled the pulpit as a guest preacher. When we were all together at the church in Winchester, Dan, her son, and I were the cooks for the annual Easter Pancake Breakfast. Fajitas and Ritas in Quincy will notice a drop in sales because Janet and Ginger won’t be making their regular visits.

Goodbye, my friend. Go, in peace.

I’ve always been puzzled, haunted, and somehow comforted by one of the lines in “Come and See.” On the cusp of one of the biggest goodbyes of my life, I wrote, “If there was a friend who would never leave, would you stay?” My life is. in some sense, a chain of goodbyes, an ongoing sequence of separation from those I most dearly love. Geography, however, is not the final word. I have left friends and they have left me, yet – thank God – we have still found ways to stay with each other in most cases. We have kept our promises even across the miles and it sucks not to be closer.

The promises we keep to one another as friends are not about obligation or duty. They are the essence of what holds us together against the centrifugal force of existence that scatters us every which way. Here in the dark, we can still find each other across the miles. Come and see.


lenten journal: no day like today


Packing up the youth group to go skiing is easier here in New England than it was in Texas. For one thing, Maine is a hell of a lot closer to Marshfield than Colorado was to Fort Worth; for another, the vans come equipped with DVD players these days.

We weren’t even through the city before the movie was on and I could hear the simple piano intro that captures me every time I hear it. Then the voices joined:

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

I was driving the van with the musical-theater kids who are getting ready for their Spring Show, Randumb Axe 5 (that’s Random Acts to you and me) and a couple of the RENT songs are in the show. But their connection with the movie runs deeper than that; they have been captured by the film since it came out at Christmas. Jane – the same girl who broke her arm on the trip – has been completely captured by the musical. And I can see why. It moves me, too. I’m sure I’m not alone as one who has found a way to work the lyric to “Seasons of Love” into a sermon (picking up where we left off):

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?
How about love? How about love?
How about love? Measure in love

The way a car DVD player works is the sound fills up the car, but the images can only be seen by those in the back seat. I could only hear the music and the audible responses of my passengers, all but one of them seniors. This was the third trip to Maine I’d taken with most of the kids. We’ve skied the same mountain and stayed at the same place, the Sunday River Inn, which is run by Steve and Peggy Wight. The inn is a step back in time. In an area fast filling up with condos and luxury hotels, theirs is a family style lodge, with some private rooms upstairs, dorm rooms downstairs, and a dining room and common room – with giant fireplace – on the main floor. Everyone is expected to be together. We all brought out books into the common room to read by the fire and ended up in unexpected conversations with the other guests.

There was one big change this year: the Wights are selling the inn and retiring from their career of hospitality. They are ready to measure their lives in other ways besides meals, towels, logs on the fire, and inches of snow on the mountain. It will require a change for anyone who is used to going to the inn because the person who buys it at today’s prices will probably not be able to run the same kind of show. The seasons are changing, just as they are with our youth group.

The recurring musical connector in the movie is a chorus that says:

There’s only us; there’s only this
Forget regret or life is yours to miss
No other road, no other way
No day but today

The words and music filled the car like pure oxygen. When we stopped for dinner they were energized by the sense of urgency and community the movie so beautifully conveyed. They were lifelong friends watching a movie about friends at the end of life all coming to the same conclusion:

There’s only now; there’s only here
Give in to love or live in fear
No other path, no other way
No day but today

Ginger and I saw RENT when the first road company – which was the original cast who are also in the movie – came to Boston. Our friend Patty took us as a Christmas present. The things I felt that night came back as I listened to the movie as we made our way up I-95. I was once more taken by such a story of hope told in the midst of such seeming hopelessness. The eight friends clung to each other in the present tense because what they had done in the past had cut their futures short. Yet, they were not hanging on in desperation; they were relishing the moment. “No day but today” was not a statement of resignation, but of gratitude.

Yes, the characters were full of contradictions and made choices I wished they could have done differently, and I loved their spirit: give into love or live in fear.

Both churches that Ginger and I are involved in are in the process of “visioning.” (I have to say here how much I hate turning nouns into verbs.) We started with the US Congregational Life Survey, a nationally used instrument to give us some data about how we view ourselves. At my church, we are now in the middle of muddling through the stack of statistics we were sent by the survey folks. The graphs and charts are helpful to a point, but they feel without context to me because there are no stories attached. We are all sitting in a circle, looking at photocopied pages, waiting for them to tell us where to go next when what we need most to do is put down the papers and ask and answer the question ourselves.

There’s only now, there’s only this; no day but today.

It’s Parker Palmer’s theme as well. We have come up with all sorts of ways to quantify success, to show what we are achieving and what we think we are making, but we are losing our sense of context: our connection to creation and to community. We are so frightened of failure that we have lost sight of ourselves for fear we don’t measure up.

Give in to love or live in fear; no day but today.

We don’t measure up and we don’t have to because success is not the measure, neither is wealth, or perfection, or effort or ability. “You are loved, you are loved, you are really loved,” as Victoria Williams sings to a different melody than the cast of RENT, neither one of whom is singing an original song. It’s as old as creation and as fresh as the sparkle in the eyes of my seniors. Like the man said,

“Consider the lilies. . ..”


lenten journal: riding the monsters


Sunday night is fading fast and I have promises to keep.

I got home from the ski trip a few hours ago and have spent a good deal of time making sure Ginger, Gracie, and Lola all know how much I missed them. The ski trip was a great time. We took fourteen kids and three adults (me, my main high school sponsor, and his wife) in three vans (with DVD players) and spent two great days at Sunday River, Maine. The kids skied; I read, along with getting the lift tickets, making sure people got the rentals they needed, and taking care of the one kid who broke her arm. (She’s OK.)

Parker Palmer spoke loudest to me from the mountain, with the help of a few words of Annie Dillard he quoted:

In the deep are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters deeper down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power for evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for one another, and for our life together here. This is given. It is not learned. (30)

Palmer keeps going:

We must abandon the commonsense notion that the monsters we meet within ourselves are enemies to be destroyed. Instead, we must cultivate the hope that they can become companions to be embraced, guides to be followed, albeit with caution and respect. for only our monsters know the way down to that inner place of unity and wholeness; only these creatures of the night know how to travel where there is no light. (31)

I had to read the chapter two or three times – at different times – because as soon as I read, “ride these monsters,” it was as if my mind jumped in the saddle and took off. I absolutely love the image; I also wish I knew how to draw so you could see what’s in my head. The best I can do is tell you to go find your copy of Where the Wild Things Are.

The one that grabbed me first was big and furry like a bear — a cartoon bear; he was really fluffy with punk-rock-purple highlights to his hair and a big belly. I said saddle before, but it wasn’t that. He had a pouch on his belly (he stood on his back legs) – a turquoise pouch. Once he stuffed me in, I was just tall enough to see over the top if I stood on tiptoes. When he leapt into the darkness, he landed on some sort of stepping stone I could not see but he could find and we bounced down, down, down. Just before it got pitch black, I saw him put on his sunglasses.

I don’t know what it means; I’m just saying where the words took me.

Riding the monsters. Might as well. They’re the ones who know their way around in the dark. When we dive into the deep, deep end, Palmer says, “we draw close to the source that empowers all else, and in that power there is not only grace but danger, not only healing but wounding, not only life but death” (30)

I’m accustomed to people listing those in reverse order when they speak of redemption: danger THEN grace, wounding THEN healing, death THEN life, but the monsters know differently. The angel came to Mary and said, “Hail, O Blessed One, the Lord is with you,” and told her she would bear a child who would be the Savior of the World. After that blessing, she watched her son grow to the point that she no longer understood him, and then watched him be crucified.

Grace THEN danger, healing THEN wounding, life THEN death.

A couple of years ago, our Vacation Bible School theme was SCUBA (sorry, I forget what the acronym meant), so we played up the skin diving idea. I’m the song leader at VBS each summer. That year I was the monster offering the ride, complete with snorkel mask and flippers, and we sang, “I’m going deeper with God . . ..”

Interesting choice of words.

Going deeper means finding more meaning AND sinking too far. The language of mystery and depression are similar not by accident, if Dillard and Palmer are right. And they are right. As long as I saw my depression as something to be fought, as if I were the knight who had been picked to go slay the dragon, I couldn’t find a way out. I could only picture myself like the headless carcasses of the men in the Great Hall in Beowulf, after the dragon had feasted on them despite their best efforts to protect themselves. I couldn’t fight the monster.

But to ride the monster — to come to terms with the depression being part of me, rather than an unbeatable foe and let it take me down, to submerge me until I could learn how to breathe and see and hear in the dark — offers a ray of hope. At the deepest, darkest places I find I do bump into both grace and danger, healing and wounding, life and death, not as polarities, but as creative tensions that offer me the chance to grow and learn and thrive: to begin to feel whole.

All of a sudden, my monster is joined by a heavenly host of sorts (I guess), telling me I’ve heard this song before: Labyrinth and Monsters, Inc., Bruno Bettelheim, Harry Potter, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Shel Silverstein. My list is by no means exhaustive. But I need them to take me out for a ride regularly so I don’t forget, as Annie Dillard also says, if I want to see the stars I have to go sit in the dark.


lenten journal: making history


What makes a day significant?

Yesterday was John Irving’s birthday, Texas Independence Day, and my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. It was also the day my mother traveled to MD Anderson Hospital for her check-up to hear she is cancer free and discharged back to her primary doctor for future follow up. Yesterday was also the day David Letterman said, “Bush is in India. He keeps asking when they’re going to that “new deli” he’s heard so much about.”

March Second was an important day.

Today, March Third, is Alexander Graham Bell’s birthday. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t be able to receive all the calls I’m going to get from frantic teenagers asking last minute questions before we leave on our church ski weekend this evening. It’s also Ira Glass’ birthday. He’s the host of This American Life on NPR, a wonderful radio magazine that simply lets people tell their stories and finds the connections between them. Talking about everything from death to donuts, he has a marvelous way of showing how the major themes of life play out in our daily existence. (I know all these birthdays because I read The Writer’s Almanac website, by the way.)

In the Brasher-Cunningham household, March Third is The Day of Gifts For No Reason. I love this day. Going back to the early days of our relationship and the first March Third we knew each other, I gave Ginger a theology book, a CD, and flowers because I had never dated anyone to whom I could give all three. She was the whole package. Still is. I’ve continued the tradition every year (except for the one year I forgot – that still hurts me) and today remains a significant day not because we were told it was, but because we have infused it with meaning.

This year, the book was The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, the CD was Putamayo’s Brazilian Lounge, and the flowers were a mix of yellow tulips and purple and yellow irises. All three represent things that both feed Ginger and express who she is. All three represent how much she matters to me.

March Third is a significant day.

Days that matter don’t stand alone; you have to get ready for them. When our friend Jay started working for the American Heart Association here in Boston as the Gala Coordinator, I thought a gala was a one night deal where you invited a bunch of rich people, told them to stuff their pockets with money, and then showed them a good time so they’d give all that money to heart research. I was wrong. Jay spent all year creating his significant day. Rather than being one day out of the ordinary, the Gala became The Day: an emblem of all the ordinary days that had led up to it. The fundraising and research went on everyday; the Gala was when it was celebrated.

In church life, the two Sundays with the biggest crowds are the Sunday before Christmas and Easter Day. You can count on the church being packed with folks you haven’t seen since that last Big Day. In ministerial jargon, they’re known as the “C & E Crowd.” I’m glad when anyone shows up at church for whatever reason and I’m sad for them because I think they can only glimpse the significance of the day – and the church – by being there only for the culmination of all the ordinary days that led up to that moment.

Some days we see coming; some days are anniversaries of things yet to come. In John Irving’s wonderful novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen spends much of the book practicing for a moment he believes is coming, though he doesn’t really know what or when it will be. He just knows to live everyday as if it were going to be The Day. In one of my favorite poems, W. S. Merwin writes about an ultimate anniversary:

For the Anniversary of My Death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

I am intrigued by the idea of what today might become. When I look back on today, a year or a lifetime from now, what will I remember? Will this be the day that one of the kids on the ski trip comes to a deeper understanding of her faith? Will this be the day I begin to get a clearer view of what the next chapter of my life is going to look like?

What will today become? How will it be remembered?

Most significant anniversaries point to joy, accomplishment, or tragedy: July 4, December 25, September 11. When histories are written, time is too often marked by wars and the lives of the leaders who caused them. I remember sitting in history classes wondering what everyday people were doing while their kings and presidents were spanning the globe, living out the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Most people were living their lives, working, cooking, loving, and marking their days with things that would not be remembered much beyond their circle of friends and family.

Bush is in Pakistan today. All the news outlets are making a big deal out of his trip, but a year from now – hell, a week from now – no one will remember today as the day he went to Islamabad. A year from now — and a lifetime from now, I will remember today as the day I gave Ginger a book, a CD, and a vase full of tulips and irises for no other reason than I love her with all of my heart. She will remember as well.

That, my friends, is history in the making.


NOTE: I’m skiing with the kids until Sunday; I won’t write tomorrow, but you will hear from me for the rest of the Lenten season.

lenten journal: don’t be afraid


Last Saturday, while I was slicing mushrooms (which is a daily preparatory task at the restaurant), I clipped the end of the index finger on my left hand, just to the right of the fingernail. I was trying to work too fast and not paying attention to the moment. The cut was not severe, just painful. I took a little sliver, a little deeper than the thickness of my skin. Last night, while slicing mushrooms, I did it again – in the same place and for the same reason. At this rate, give me four or five years and my index and little fingers will be a matched set. Two things have to happen when I go back tomorrow: I have to pay attention and I can’t flinch. I have to trust that I can handle the knife. If I get scared, I’ll chop off my whole hand.

We had a lot of prep work to do, which is usually the case on Wednesdays, since the restaurant is a bit slower we can get ready for the weekend. I was working down my usual checklist when Robert asked me if I wanted to start making the demi-glace and the chicken stock, which are our two base stocks. I was excited because his question meant he trusted me enough to do it.

The entire process takes a couple of days. I started by putting the veal bones on baking sheets, and the chicken bones on other sheets, and roasting them until they were dark and much of the fat had cooked out, which took about an hour. From there, the chicken went into the giant stockpot, but there was more to do with the veal bones. I put the baking sheet on top of the stove, turned on the burners, and then poured red wine over the top of the bones to free the bones from the pan and to flavor them. When the wine had reduced, they went in another stockpot. While the bones were in the oven, I spent the hour preparing the mirepoix, a mixture of rough chopped celery, carrots, and onions, along with a bunch of garlic and fresh herbs, which was added to each pot and then both were filled with water and set to simmer. They cooked all night last night and on through the day, by which time about half of the liquid will have evaporated. This afternoon, Robert will drain off the liquid, discard the bones, put the stocks back in the pots and let them reduce again until a rich, concentrated stock is produced – which is about one-eighth in volume of what we had at the start of the process — and becomes the base for our sauces and soups.

Both stocks are time consuming and we make them both about once a week. When it comes down to it, at least half of the time we spend in the kitchen is preparing to cook the meals. We have things to slice, dressings and sauces to make, meat to trim, bread to bake. If we don’t prepare well, we don’t perform well when it comes time to serve the meals. Preparation is more than a matter of filling pans and slicing vegetables. It is also a reminder of the basics of what we do, the foundational acts that make for good food. I’ve come to find the prep work to be intensely satisfying and meaningful. There’s almost a Zen-like quality to it, offering me the chance to be present in the moment where there is nothing but me and the quality and intentionality of my actions.

I got up this morning and began to do the prep work for writing today by opening a couple of the books I mentioned yesterday. I got caught up in the moment there as well, and used up my morning time, so I’m just now getting to the journal. I started with Parker J. Palmer, who was questioning the perceived polarity between an active life and a contemplative life. For those of us who are more activist than meditative, “we need a spirituality which affirms and guides our efforts to act in ways that resonate with our innermost being and reality, ways that embody the vitalities God gave us at birth, ways that serve the great works of justice, peace, and love.” (9)

“The core message of all the great spiritual traditions,” he says in another place, “is, ‘Do not be afraid.’ Rather be confident that life is good and trustworthy” (8).

“Do not be afraid,” were the angel’s words to Mary when he came to inform her of the part she would play in the Incarnational Drama.

Mary is the metaphor for Madeleine L’Engle as she talks about art as incarnational activity.

“As for Mary, she was little more than a child when the angel came to her; she had not lost her child’s creative acceptance of the realities moving on the other side of the everyday world. We lose our ability to see angels as we grow older, and that is a tragic loss. . . . In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.” (18-19)

I’m an activist at heart. Though I understand the need for me to live in the creative tension between the poles of action and contemplation, my faith is most alive when justice rolls down like water, rather than waiting for the Still, Small Voice. I can spend all day chopping lettuce and stuffing pot stickers because I know I’m getting ready, that I am alive in the moment. Put me in a committee meeting like the one I sat through Tuesday night where we hashed over some relational issues in our church – again – and left without doing much more than deciding to talk some more, and I go crazy. Enough talk. Act. Be not afraid. Faith in action gives me hope and courage because it is incarnational: God’s love has skin on once again.

My last reading of the morning, was one of Nathan Brown’s poems. I was drawn to it by the title.

Makes No Sense

Even with the invisible anvils time
has tied to my neck and shoulders,
I smile more that I used to, raise
my head skyward and laugh with God.

Even with all the pennies lost
down the drain, the occasional
minor fortunes washed away
in a flood of bad decisions,
I am more grateful than I used to be.
I cherish each minute awarded
like a quarter’s-worth of time
on the mechanical horse in front
of the old grocery store.

Even though people are worse
than I had initially suspected
as a young man — full of crap
beyond imagination — I love them
more than ever, want to play
in their lives like a pony in the edges
of a pond, occasionally stopping
to take a long deep drink.

As I read the poem, I could see Nathan sitting in the coffee shop in Norman, Oklahoma where he writes everyday, doing the creative cutting and chopping it takes to make such a beautiful offering. I thought about the beautiful plates we sent out to those who ate in our restaurant last night because we were well prepared. Every move matters. Every action holds the possibility of incarnation, no matter how apparently insignificant.

Don’t be afraid.


PS — Again, you can get Nathan’s book, Suffer the Little Voices, by contacting him at nub@ou.edu.

lenten journal: how do I get there from here?


Ash Wednesday

I didn’t grow up knowing much about Lent, much less observing it. The word sounded oddly like the stuff that collects in your belly button when you wear a fuzzy sweatshirt. My first real encounter with the power of the season was through an Episcopal colleague in Fort Worth. She was the youth minister at the Episcopal church near the Baptist church I was serving and she invited me to the Ash Wednesday service and shared with me her own sense of power and meaning in both the service and the season. I started sneaking into the back of other Anglican services and found great meaning in the ritual of the service and the contour of the ecclesiastical year.

About the same time, I wrote a letter to Madeleine L’Engle, who was a lifelong friend –even though she didn’t know me – because of her wonderful book, A Wrinkle in Time, which Ms. Reedy, my fourth grade teacher in Lusaka, Zambia read to us at the end of each day. Madeleine wrote me back and we corresponded briefly, until I got a form letter from her after the death of her husband.

“He became sick at Epiphany,” she wrote, “ and he died just after Pentecost.”

I was struck by the way she marked time, with the difference in her words and saying he got sick in January and died in May. Her book, That Irrational Season, is a collection of linked essays that follow the church year expanding on the power marking time in a more sacred sense. True, the calendar is contrived somewhat, in the sense that Jesus’ life did not happen in such a particular order, yet that’s not the whole picture.

“Teach us to number our days,” the psalmist says. Moving from Advent to Lent to Pentecost to Ordinary Time (I love that name) is living out that prayer.

For me, the pilgrimage is one of reading, writing, and connecting. I have, over the last several years, developed a ritual of my own, which involves writing a thousand words a day about what I have found in that day. I’ve also learned to carry the words of others with me as I go. Here are my companions for this season:

The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring by Parker J. Palmer
Suffer the Little Voices, poems by Nathan Brown
Talking the Walk: Letting Christian Language Live Again by Marva Dawn
Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle
Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories by Daniel Taylor
Life Work by Donald Hall
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller (still haven’t finished it!)

Some of the books are well worn and marked up from reading and re-reading, some are new adventures for me; all seem to be good bread for the journey.

Frederick Buechner says, “Faith is a journey without maps.” Lent, for me, is a journey within the Journey, a living metaphor for all of my life, an intentional time of focus and reflection to remember, as the old saying goes, who I am and whose I am.

I’m starting the journey already tired. I have a sense, somehow, that life may look very different on the other side of Easter than it does right now. Part of that sense is I need it to look different. I’m moving at a pace right now that I can’t maintain. I’m also trying to discern how best to live my life so that I’m feeding and expressing the deepest passions of my heart. Over the past four of five years, much of my Lenten journey has had to do with coming to terms with my depression. This winter has given me a bit of a respite from that, for whatever reason, so I’m charting some different territory, for which I’m grateful. Though I’m tired, I’m not without some energy.

And so I wonder, “How do I get there from here?”

The question sounds as if I know where I’m going. I don’t, other than to say I know this is a journey through the Cross to the Resurrection. Part of any journey is knowing what to hang on to and what to let go. Along with my faith, I know to hang on to Ginger; other than her (and, of course, the schnauzers), the rest is up for grabs. I’m looking for a conversion experience, a transformation, a deep encounter with my God.

My new blog-friend, Beth, wrote this week about living in the context of “never getting over what Jesus has done for us.” Yes. I want to live like I will never get over Love.

We mark Ash Wednesday at our church with a bread and soup fellowship supper and then a service. Ashes are not necessarily a part of Congregational tradition, so we use other symbols of commitment and contrition. Tonight, however, I have to miss the service because this is one of my days at the restaurant, where it is just plain Wednesday. Some of the folks who will come into the pub and the restaurant tonight may be coming from church, but most will not. What focus I find to begin my journey will be in how I choose to frame the evening. So, tonight I’m going to consider each meal I make an offering. Though I won’t see the faces of those whose food I’m preparing, I’m going to imagine that we are all at a big table – with the folks from church, those of you who are reading here, my friends and family in faraway places – and I am helping to prepare the meal that calls us all together.

What makes work sacred is not the work, but the heart of the worker.

I’m headed to work expecting today to not be just another Wednesday; I’m beginning my Lenten Journey expecting it to not be just another forty days. I want my eyes, ears, and heart to be open to all there is to find in burning bushes, pregnant silences, deep ritual, and daily work. I want to be changed.

Hear my prayer, O Lord: how do I get there from here?


the bridge is love


Monday mornings are down time for me.

After two full days at the restaurant and one at church, I lay pretty low here at the house. Ginger was gone on a clergy retreat, so I stopped at Blockbuster on my way home from youth group to pick up a movie for breakfast. The one that caught my eye was The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I love the novel both for the quality of the story and because I feel a strong connection to Thornton Wilder. The movie was watchable because the story is so incredible; the casting choices make the film fall short of what it might have been.

Ten years ago, I enrolled in the summer workshop of the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. I came to a place in my life where I decided it was time to quit talking about wanting to write and do some damn writing. At the workshop, I had a chance to work with Timothy Findley, a wonderful Canadian writer. The workshop led me to sign up for the year-long correspondence course, and Findley mentored me as I wrote a novel in the year that followed. As he shared his insights on writing, he also shared his story. Tiff, as his friends called him, started out as an actor. He was working with Wilder and Ruth Gordon in a production when he wrote his first short story; they both encouraged him to write, thank God, just as Tiff encouraged me. He died in his sleep in 2002.

The ways in which the circumstances of life connected me to these amazing people is not unlike the idea behind the story. Five people were crossing the Bridge of San Luis Rey when it gave way and they fell to their deaths in the ravine below. A priest who was about to cross saw the event as a chance to ask one of the ultimate questions: “Do we live by plan and die by plan or do we live by accident and die by accident?”

Separate of the story, Wilder said, “Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”

The novel is a beautiful tapestry showing both the individual lives and the ways in which they were woven together and connected with the lives around them. The one person who knew all five who died was a nun. She closes the story with these words: “There is a land between the living and the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival. The only meaning.”

The bridge is love — the one bridge, ultimately, that doesn’t give way.

One of those who commented on my “open and affirming” post did so with a great deal of vitriol and violence. His language spoke of God striking me down, of my words bringing God’s judgment such that God would kill “children, mothers’ and grandmothers” because I was willing to participate in equal marriage. As people tried to respond to him, the volume of hatred only ratcheted up.

When the disciples saw a blind man, they asked Jesus, “Whose sin made this guy blind?”

“Nobody’s sin,” Jesus answered. “Look at it a different way: what can the love of God accomplish in this circumstance?” And he healed him.

When judgment is the paradigm, we all end up dead in the ravine.

The bridge is Love. The only survival. The only meaning.


PS — Starting tomorrow, this blog will take a bit of a different shape. About fifteen years ago I began, as my Lenten practice, writing everyday. Before email, I picked one friend and wrote a journal the them. Over the years, my daily entry has been to a growing email list; this year it will happen here. My commitment is to write a thousand words a night chronicling my journey through the Lenten season. This year, our youth ski trip falls such that I will miss writing this Saturday, but other than that there will be an entry everyday. Peace — MB-C

hey to barney


Don Knotts died last Friday.

I heard about it on my way to work at the restaurant on Saturday morning and I began to chuckle and feel sad at the same time. Barney Fife (whose middle name was Milton) is one of the TV characters who has left a deep impression on me. I’m grateful for the life of Don Knotts.

Since I grew up in Africa, I first saw The Andy Griffith Show in reruns, particularly in college. One of the stations played several episodes in a row every afternoon and there were a bunch of us who would watch together almost everyday. We memorized most of the dialogue and it became our way of communicating much of the time. I still carry some of the lines in my muscle memory that talk about sin, heartache, physical ability, and, of course, nippin’ it in the bud.

Marrying into a family from Birmingham, Alabama meant moving to Mayberry in some ways. My mother-in-law is the champion of Andy Griffith trivia, bar none. She could of easily been one of the characters on the show just by being herself: honest, welcoming, hopeful, and hilarious. I’m not sure many days go by without Ginger and I making some sort of Barney reference. The relationship in my life most marked by Barney is my friendship with Burt, who now pastors a church in Waco, Texas.

Burt and I met in the fall of 1976, when he started to Baylor. We have remained fast friends since, and were roommates in seminary. He does the best Barney impersonation I’ve ever seen. On more than one occasion, we’ve gotten on to elevators in office buildings and each moved to a different corner. When the car filled up, we began to sing the Mayberry Union High Fight Song (watch Part One to hear the song), or hum “The Church in the Wildwood” in harmony the way Andy and Barney did sitting on Andy’s front porch in the cool of the evening. No one else really understood, but we cracked ourselves up.

Burt was the first person I heard draw the parallel between Andy and Barney’s friendship and that between Jesus and Peter. Peter, he would say, was the Barney Fife of the gospels: quick to speak, slow to think, running into any situation with his one bullet in his pocket believing he could take care of things, and always getting in over his head. Jesus responded with grace and forgiveness, over and over – as did Andy – sometimes chiding, but never humiliating or belittling his friend. Though Burt does a hell of a Barney impersonation, he has been an Andy kind of friend to me, for I’ve had my share of Barney moments.

Thanks to reruns and DVDs (and even a site that lets you watch online), Barney will live on for a long time, despite Don Knott’s passing. He left a wonderful legacy. I heard an interview clip where Knotts talked about the danger of playing one character too long was you became typecast. You couldn’t get other parts because directors believed the audience could never see you as someone other than that character. Knotts went on to say, even if that were somewhat true, he was glad to be remembered as Barney Fife.

Would we could all find the grace to be such a character: unabashedly ourselves, and full of confidence and hope because we trusted the companionship of a true friend.

Here’s to you, Barn. Give us one last word.

Peace, Milton