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lenten journal: life goes on


My sermon this week is about the resurrection of Lazarus and wondering about what he might have felt about coming back to life, among other things.


It is hard to turn a life into a coherent story–or, maybe the better way to say that is it is hard to turn a life into a single story. In this memoir-laden age, people try to do that all the time, but the reality of life is that it doesn’t conform that easily. Some things have to be left out, some things perhaps ignored or untold to keep the theme going, some things get forgotten.

At different points, the gospel writers drop hints that they knew they were not able to paint the whole picture of Jesus’ time on earth. John, whose gospel we have followed through much of Lent, said that if all the stories about Jesus were written down, the world wouldn’t have libraries enough to store all the volumes of information. So John chose the moments that help him paint the picture of Jesus he wanted most to be remembered, as did Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

That doesn’t mean they were being dishonest or careless, they were doing what it took to make a coherent story out of a human life. John, the more poetic of the quartet of gospel writers, built his biography around what biblical scholars call the seven “I am” statements of Jesus

I am the bread of life (6:35)
I am the light of the world (8:12)
I am the door (10:7)
I am the good shepherd (10:11, 14)
I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)
I am the way the truth and the life (14:6)
I am the true vine (15:1)

as a way to convey Jesus’ world-changing presence as the embodiment of God in the world, which is not an easy thing to do. Neither is preaching on this passage.

We talked last week about Jesus’ miracles being “parables of event,” meaning there is more to them than just a spectacular healing or a spontaneous banquet. John calls them signs, rather than miracles, as a way to highlight that point. After Jesus healed the blind man, he said, “I am the light of the world.”

Get it?

John may be a poet, but he is not particularly subtle.

In our story for today, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life” before he calls Lazarus back to breathing. But if we reduce the blind man and Lazarus to object lessons or props for a point Jesus wanted to make, the accounts don’t match with Jesus’ consistent commitment to humanizing–to noticing and caring for–the people around him.

After the formerly blind man caused all sorts of commotion with his vision, Jesus and the disciples went back out into the wilderness–back to where he was baptized, which was also near where he fasted and was tempted with all the ways he could use his power for his benefit. You may remember: turn the stones to bread so you can eat; throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you; sell your soul to gain political power. The baptism site was also where he heard the voice say, “This is my beloved Son in whom I delight.”

While they were out there, Lazarus became deathly ill. His sisters sent word to Jesus asking him to come, but he waited two days before they started walking back to Bethany. No one knows why he waited. When he gets there and both sisters lament that he waited too long, and as he is surrounded by those grieving Lazarus’ death, he got angry. Our translation says, “troubled and disturbed,” but the word means agitated or indignant, so much so that his anger brought him to tears.

Jesus wept–and then he called Lazarus out of the tomb, even though his body had begun to decay and he was rather odiferous; even though he was wrapped up in grave clothes. We have no record of him saying anything, or Jesus speaking to him. After Jesus tells the people to unbind him, John’s story takes a different turn and focuses on some of those who wanted to kill Jesus.

I said earlier that this is a hard passage to preach about. The main reason is I keep wondering how Lazarus felt when he came stumbling out of the tomb after four days of death. I wonder if he was glad to be alive, or if he thought about having to die again, or if he was angry also. One ancient tradition says that the bits of decay that had begun on his body never healed after his resurrection, and he lived with the scars until he died again. There’s not really anything in the story that supports that, but it does seem like Lazarus would have lived with some trauma after they unwrapped him. After all, he had no say in what happened; life just went on.

There is not a cohesive explanation of this story that ties everything up in a nice bow–perhaps made from the cloth that ensconced Lazarus–and leaves us all feeling good like we do at the end of a hopeful novel or movie. This is not that kind of tale. It’s another messy miracle like the one we read last week, because life is messy. Mary and Martha both said, “If you had only been here, this wouldn’t have happened.” Our lives are full of contingencies like that. We are a part of circumstances beyond our control most every day. We share in the grief that Jesus, Mary, and Martha knew; we understand Jesus’ agitation when we face circumstances that leave us feeling cornered; we may even identify with Lazarus as one who needs someone to say, “Unbind them and let them go.”

And life goes on.

The hope of our faith is not that life–any life–leads to a happy ending, but that in the middle of the mess God is with us. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life”–whatever lies beyond death, life is happening right now, and Christ is present in our contingencies.

We are two Sundays away from celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, an event that is central to our faith, that gives us hope that love is stronger than death, and, even so, people have died every day since Mary first found the empty tomb. And in all of it, God is with us.

In times of peace, in times of trauma—God is with us.
In times of heartache and times of hope—God is with us.
In times of confusion and times of exhaustion—God is with us.
In times of laughter and in times of grief—God is with us.

Whatever the circumstance, life goes on and God is with us. Amen.

lenten journal: daffodil



the first daffodils opened
this week as if they had
marked their calendar
for the start of spring

in years past they have
not been so punctual
which is not entirely
their fault I should say

the lows at night still
dance close to freezing
and most of the garden
is still in hibernation

but there’s a dammit
to these daffodils a
determination to not
wait on the weather

or let the grey clouds
set the color scheme
it’s time to bloom now
even for a short time

by the time spring has
spring in New England
these yellow harbingers
will have fallen away

pouring their energy
back into the bulbs
to wait for next year
when winter ends again

we don’t move in a line
life goes in a circle
time to bloom time to
die time to daffodil



lenten journal: window seat


On Tuesdays and Thursdays I go to the office at my church in Hamden. Today was special because our office manager, who is of Italian descent, told me he was bringing Zeppole to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, one of the traditional foods made for the celebration in Italy and Sicily.

I didn’t know what a Zeppole was, but I wasn’t going to miss it since it involved the words Italian and pastry. I learned there are several variations, but the kind he brought we sort of like profiteroles (except bigger–think donut-sized); the pastry was cut in half and filled with a custard reminiscent of a Boston Cream Pie (my favorite). He stopped at a bakery on Wooster Street in New Haven, the heart of the Italian neighborhood there, and bought the bundles of deliciousness we all shared together. They were the real deal.

When we first moved to Boston in 1990, the only viable Protestant congregation was the Episcopal church in our Charlestown neighborhood, so that’s where we went. We had moved there as church planters and had yet to grow any gathering. (We were spectacular failures at church planting, but that’s a story for another time.) The priest in charge there, Franklin, knew everything about Episcopalianism–every knot in his garments, everything on the altar, and most everything about church history. From him we learned that the feast days (like the Feast of St. Joseph, which is March 19 and always falls in Lent) served as “windows in Lent,” which was a way of making room not only to venerate the saints but also to have weddings should the need arise, since weddings were not allowed during the season. If someone (say an unmarried person of noble descent) were to show up pregnant during Lent, to have to wait until after Easter for the wedding might make things awkward if not difficult.

So they opened a window . . .

There is some theological irony, I suppose, that Joseph’s day would be one that might provide cover for someone who was unexpectedly pregnant, but the whole point of the celebration is not quite that cynical. The Feast of St. Joseph dates back to the eleventh century when Sicily experienced a major drought. The people prayed for rain, promising to honor Joseph with a feast if the rain came to save their crops, one of which was fava beans. The rains came, and so did the feast (meatless, because it’s Lent). How the Zeppole became part of the meal I don’t know, but I think he would have liked them.

It was starting to rain today as the five of us who gathered to share in the Zeppole Fest. I was the new one in the group; the others came with knowing anticipation. We sat and talked and ate and wiped custard off our chins as we told stories about foods that mattered and meals we loved. Someone asked everyone’s favorite pastry and it took fifteen minutes for everyone to answer because of the additional responses each time someone named a favorite.

On this next to Last Thursday in Lent, no one spoke of what they had given up, and no one confessed any guilt in eating the Zeppole. Instead, our faces dripped with gratitude for our office manager’s willingness to share the view from his window–to gather us together, to tell stories, and to serve really good pastry.

We use the word Lent sometimes as though it were some kind of sentence for bad behavior. The root of the word means “to lengthen,” and is more about the ways the days grow longer than it is about doing without. The season does carry a long tradition of spiritual focus and discipline, but it, like Spring, has layers of life and death, of mud and sunshine. Spring is when we can begin to sleep with our windows open, at least for some of the nights–unless it’s pollen season, of course.

Joseph has always been one for whom I have felt a great deal of compassion. When the angel finally came to him, Joseph was confused and troubled, but he was still present. Name the child Emmanuel, the messenger said–God with Us. Though I have no basis from which to draw this conclusion other than our coffee break today, I think Zeppole might translate the same way.

After all, what better way to lean into that name than to share good food together.


lenten journal: train of thought


train of thought

she saw me first
as we stood in
among the apples
though I wasn’t
the one she was
looking for or at

her eyes went
over my head to
catch the train
that chugs around
Bishop’s Orchards
she squealed like

she knew everyone
on board or like
she was a passenger
on the adventure
of her young life
she squealed again

when the train blew
through the breads
and also at the register
standing in her cart
waving at the wells fargo
wagon comin’ down

I’m in that store
three times a week
I mostly miss the train
though it’s always
circling the ceiling
but the little conductor

called me out
had a ticket to ride
if I were willing
to jump on board
maybe next time
I won’t miss it


lenten journal: handscape



I’ve been staring at my palms
like they were a writing prompt
or a collection of coded runes

the deep rutted roads that run
like poorly planned highways
across an aging desert of skin

ancient river beds now run dry
from days when dreams roamed
these valleys like dinosaurs

I’ve stared long enough to get
lost in metaphors de manos
and the epidermal esoterica

of a little cellular cosmos
little lines marking mystery
whole worlds in my hands

weathered not wrinkled
fingerprints and fault lines
all they’ve held and let go

I’ve been staring at my palms
and rubbing one on the other
now I will let them rest


lenten journal: slow art


Because I went to the gym this morning, I saw the message on my dashboard that my car was due for servicing and I remembered to make an appointment when I got home. The Honda dealership had an opening this afternoon, as did I, so I told them I would be there around 2 o’clock. When I told Ginger my plan for the day, she said, “Eli’s is across the street. I’ll go with you and we can have lunch.”

And so we did.

Eli’s on the Hill is one of six restaurants with the same name dotted across southeastern Connecticut. It’s good food in a comfortable atmosphere. The bar at the restaurant in Branford is large and U-shaped. It was not crowded when we got there, so we sat at one bend in the U and ate and talked until the car was ready. The scene, for us, was familiar. We spend a lot of time eating and talking together, in a variety of settings.

At one point, Ginger asked, “What are your favorite things to do with me?”

I thought for a moment, and I answered something I don’t remember now because it wasn’t the best answer. Then I said, “This. Sitting and talking with you when we hadn’t planned for it.”

She agreed it’s one of our best things.

As I sat down to write this evening, I came across an article at 3 Quarks Daily titled “Patience With What Is Strange: In Praise Of Slow Art” by Chris Horner, which talks about the power of taking our time to ingest or digest things that seem strange, and it was that word–strange–that took me back to our lunch at Eli’s because, years ago, we found one of the Story People that said:

“You’re the strangest person I ever met,” she said
& I said, “You are too”
and we decided we’d know each other a long time

The article is full of good things not the least of which is the closing paragraph, which includes an incredible

Slow art has layers. And this is why it requires time and effort. We should see this as a good and necessary thing. If this is a kind of obstacle in the way of easy assimilation then it is an obstacle that is integral to the value of the thing itself. The mind is calmed, or disturbed, or made exultant by the art that rewards us for our goodwill and our capacity to take our time.

Then he closes with an incredible Nietzsche quote:

One must learn to love.— This is what happens to us in music: first one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life; then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity:—finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing: and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.— But that is what happens to us not only in music: that is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fair mindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty:—that is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way: for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned.

We don’t always have the luxury of taking the afternoon to hang out, but one of the things I have learned about love is to take any opportunity that presents itself, or better yet, make space where there doesn’t seem to be any. We have been intentional about learning that “we should miss it if it were missing.” And Nietzsche is right: it does continue to enchant us relentlessly.

The chorus of the first song I ever wrote with Billy Crockett says,

it’s an open heart
it’s a work of art
it’s the basic stuff
that makes another
picture of love

Thirty-four years on, I’m still finding layers and I am still enchanted by the slow art of love.


lenten journal: taking time


It’s been a little over five weeks since Loretta came to live with us.

Tomorrow (Monday, that is) will only be six weeks since Lila died, and we are still grieving Ella who died in late October. Even with the presence of both absences, Loretta is making room for herself with unabashed energy and affection.

We know so little about her. She was found on the streets of Waterbury, Connecticut and ended up in a shelter in East Hartford, where we got her because, well, she couldn’t get back to where she once belonged. We think she is around two (or that’s what we were told), so we made March 13 her birthday. We can tell by looking at her that she is part Schnauzer–and her behavior confirms that–but the rest is still up for discovery. We know nothing of her history other than where she was rescued. She knows some commands, though I hope I can teach her that “Get back, Loretta” means stay. She also lives with a pretty high base line of fear, particularly when people come to the house. Stranger Danger.

A dog trainer came by the house to give us some advice and talked about the “two days, two weeks, two months” phenomenon: a dog’s behavior will change at those markers as they get used to their surroundings. Unlike the movie title, everything everywhere can’t happen all at once. She showed us how to get our guests to offer treats by throwing them at a bit of a distance first and then dropping them closer. We have also had folks meet us on the Green so Loretta is not as protective of her home. It is still a work in progress.

The Atlantic has an article whose title is incredibly straightforward–“A Cognitive Revolution in Animal Research”–that helped me understand a bit more about what our sweet pup is going through, as well as a bit about myself as well.

Christian Ruiz studies New Caledonian crows. In one experiment, he gave them a log with drilled holes that had food hidden in them. For the crows to get the food out, they had to bend a plant stem and use it as a tool. When they first did the experiment, they gave the birds ninety minutes to figure things out; if they didn’t the birds weren’t included in the study. The article continues:

But, Rutz says, he soon began to realize that he was not, in fact, studying the skills of New Caledonian crows. He was studying the skills of a subset of New Caledonian crows that quickly approached a weird log they’d never seen before—maybe because they were especially brave or reckless.

The team changed their protocol: They gave the more hesitant birds an extra day or two to get used to their surroundings, then tried the puzzle again. “It turns out that many of these retested birds suddenly start engaging,” Rutz says. “They just needed a little bit of extra time.”

For the first couple of weeks, Loretta’s nub of a tail stayed down. She would come to us, but then cower a bit when we got close. She was more comfortable if I was sitting down. We try to walk her and Lizzy! on the Green daily and we have seen both Loretta’s confidence and tail rise on our trips. But yesterday Ginger took her down streets she did not know and she was wary once again.

She just needs a little bit of extra time. Maybe a lot it.

Much of that time needs to come from Ginger and me in the form of patience and compassion as we work to move beyond her fear to find the affection that other people want to offer her. That doesn’t sound hard to do until she starts barking when someone comes over as though they were sent by Vladimir Putin. But five weeks on, she knows her name, she knows we are her people, she knows how to use the doggy door, and she knows when it’s time to eat.

It’s just going to take a while for her to begin to recognize all the love she cannot see.

She’s not the only one. At sixty-six, I am also one who has needed extra time to learn, sometimes because I had to get used to my surroundings, but mostly because I had to come to terms with myself. Regardless of the backdrop, I have been pretty good at getting in my own way. But when I read about New Caledonian crows needing time to settle in and I watch Loretta as she makes her way in her new world, I am grateful for the grace of time that makes room to figure out that we belong.

Loretta is teaching me as well.


lenten journal: beyond blame


The passage for my sermon this week is John 9:1-11, which is part of the story of Jesus healing a blind man. There are a lot of sermons to be found in this passage, but I got caught by the question the disciples asked: “Who sinned that this man should be born blind?” I hope it speaks to you.


Our passage this morning is a great example of the adage, the answers we get are often only as good as our questions. The best example I know is from what is now a really old movie–The Pink Panther Strikes Again. The bumbling Inspector Clousseau is checking into a hotel and sees a little dog sitting next to the reception desk.

Clouseau: Does your dog bite?
Hotel Clerk: No.
Clouseau: [bowing down to pet the dog] Nice doggie.
[Dog barks and bites Clouseau in the hand]
Clouseau: I thought you said your dog did not bite!
Hotel Clerk: That is not my dog.

Had he asked a better question, he might have avoided a puncture wound.

One morning, my mother-in-law, Rachel, came into the kitchen and asked me, “Are you making cinnamon toast today?” (She loves cinnamon toast.)

“Not today,” I responded; then, as she just stood there looking rather forlorn, I realized what she asked was not her true inquiry.

“Would you like some cinnamon toast?” I asked.

“Yes, please,” she said–and then we had a discussion about asking for what she wanted. And we laughed.

The question the disciples asked as they passed a blind man says a lot about the way they thought about the world and how God works in it: “Whose sin caused this man’s blindness–his or his parents?”

In a way, it’s a question that presupposes an answer–the man’s blindness was someone’s fault; they just wanted to know who to blame. And, though it is not an uncommon question, it is a damaging one. The man was born blind, which was no one’s fault–but that is not what they asked.

Across the centuries, the way Jesus’ answer has been translated has created some issues as well. Look back at our reading this morning:

Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of the one who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

It comes close to sounding as though his blindness was a setup for Jesus to show up, as though our difficulties have to have a purpose. The Greek manuscripts had no punctuation; sometimes, they didn’t even separate the words well, which means translators had to decide how to divide sentences and create phrases. Listen how different it sounds with a repunctuation:

Neither he nor his parents. So that God’s mighty works might be displayed, we must do the works of God who sent me.

The Message translation communicates it even more effectively:

Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world’s Light.”

The miracle that followed is interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that the blind man didn’t ask for anything. He is silent in the story until after he can see. The second is it’s messy. Jesus spits in some dirt and makes mud, smears it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash it off. The man finds his way to the water, washes his face, and can see–all without ever seeing Jesus.

Had Jesus been willing to let the disciples’ question direct the conversation, the man would have stayed blind, because the disciples weren’t thinking about how they could help, only who they could blame.

It’s a posture that is far too easy to take, particularly when the problem we see feels too big to change.

Not everything happens for a reason.

Let me say that again: not everything happens for a reason.

Life is not as simple as an equation of cause and effect where everything balances out, or a ledger that records assets and debts, or a scorecard that keeps track of who’s winning and who’s losing. My depression is not a sin. If you see someone in a wheelchair, that doesn’t mean they are responsible for their condition–whatever it is–anymore than it means God is going to use them to make a point.

Who can we blame for this? is never a good question because it doesn’t create room for healing. It’s a dead end.

I don’t mean that we have no responsibility in life, or that there are not situations when the consequences of our choices or words or actions do damage that we need to shoulder. If I back into your car in the parking lot—like the time I backed into the storage Pod in our driveway (but that’s a story for another time)—I’m responsible for the bent fender. But bearing responsibility and placing blame aren’t the same thing.

For me to place blame is a way for me to make sure I had nothing to do with it. If we can blame racism on people in the South, then we don’t have to take responsibility to make changes right here in our town. If we can blame poor people for making choices that brought their circumstances on themselves, then we can avoid facing our privilege. If we can phrase our questions so that the answers we get make us feel as though the needs around us are not our problem, then we don’t have to live compassionately.

I don’t know why the disciples asked about whose sin caused the man’s blindness, but the question was a dead end, as I said earlier. They were not asking because they were concerned with the man; they were dealing with an issue. They wanted to place blame, which would have done nothing more than satisfy their curiosity.

Jesus stopped and made it about the person. He moved beyond blame. He created a relationship. The man became the center of attention, which created space to see what God could do–with everyone involved.

When we think about our lives, or about our life together as a congregation, what are our questions? Are we asking things that die with one word answers, or open-ended queries that create possibility? Do we trust that God could do something with us in this place in these days?

Our answers are only as good as our questions. Amen.


lenten journal: tortilla sunset


tortilla sunset

when I walked into the supermarket
my dinner menu was still up in the air
everything depended on whether or
not they had Sweet Hawaiian tortillas

I picked up two ripe avocados in an
act of faith a couple of jalapeños too
pushed the cart past the deli counter
and turned towards the tortilla stand

street taco size is what they call them
circles of goodness made to be held
in one hand and eaten in three bites
I grabbed two packs and headed home

to pull the pineapple and chicken
out of the fridge and the mocajete
from the cabinet to smash avocados
and turned groceries into dinner

had there been no tortillas dinner
the chicken and pineapple might
have wokked with rice and cashews
or perhaps a piccata and potatoes

but the Sweet Hawaiian hand-helds
folded the day into a simple joy
as we ate and told our stories and
the pups waited for a taste of tortilla



lenten journal: specifics



the way you call to check on me
the text that asks how are you

the time you left a note
the month you paid my bill

when you emptied the trash
while I was out of town

the day you came to see me
the night you drove me home

when you picked up the phone
long after your bedtime

when you stood with me
at the funerals

when you listened
when you called me out

the time you said you loved me
and the time after that

the time you sat with me
and said nothing

the gift in the mailbox
the food in the fridge

when you laughed at my jokes
when I cried and you did too

when I forgot what mattered
and you forgave me

the night you called
and said you needed help

your fingerprints on my heart
indelible evidence of love