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advent journal: carapace


I love learning new words, so today was a good day.

I began reading If You Should Fail: Why Success Eludes Us and Why It Doesn’t Matter by Joe Moran, who is one of my favorite writers. He also authored my favorite book on writing, First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing . . . and Life.

The book opens with a description of the “rough sleeper” who inhabits the doorway across the street from his university office. Moran notices, among other things, that the man reads even as he lives on the street, which gives him a sense of connection with this one experiencing homelessness, and makes him realize only a few circumstances separate one life situation from the other. Then, on Page 3, this sentence–and the new word:

Watching that rough sleeper, it struck me how flimsy the carapace of competence that makes us feel like paid-up members of the human race.

I have a habit of writing in the margins of books I read, so I was quick to underline and then rewrite “carapace of competence,” first because of the rhythm and alliteration when I both read them and then said them out loud. One of the reasons I love reading Moran is the musicality of his prose. He knows how to craft a melody with words. Actually, what I first wrote in the margin was “carapace of confidence,” but I’ll come back to that.

Our friend Mandy was visiting this weekend and she was sitting on the couch reading her own book. I read the sentences to her and we both admitted we didn’t know what a carapace was, so she looked it up.


noun: carapace; plural noun: carapaces

the hard upper shell of a turtle, crustacean, or arachnid.
“the study found oil in the carapace of twenty-nine sea turtles that returned to feed in the spill area”

something regarded as a protective or defensive covering.
“under her carapace of self-confidence she was very sensitive to criticism”

I listened to the definition and then went back to Moran to read the sentence again, which was when I realized I had read confidence instead of competence. What I heard in his use of the word was the shell we think will protect us is not quite as reliable as we think it is, which made me think that was true for both competence and confidence.

I have a document where I keep a list of phrases I have heard that are evocative, much like “carapace of competence.” One of them is “delusions of adequacy.” The two phrases make decent companions. For a good many of us, competence has a veneer-like quality. I don’t mean we aren’t skilled or that we aren’t telling the truth. I mean, like Moran, when it comes to seeing those whose shells have been stripped away, we must face the reality that both the competence and the confidence that keep us from sharing their plight are like a lobster shell and less like Batman’s shields.

What Moran is talking about is more layered than having a bed to sleep in and a door to lock. A couple of pages later he talks about the “human hunger for stories, the need to turn life into allegory,” and goes on to say, “Behind this fallacy . . . lies the illusion of control. We need to feel that we have some say over the unseeable course of our lives.”

The carapace of control is not all it’s cracked up to be either.

An allegory, as you know, is a story with a lesson, a moral–tortoise and hare kind of stuff. When the stories of our lives get distilled into such tales, we quit telling the truth. To look back and say, “If I had not persevered when that (bad) thing hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be in this (good) position today,” or, “I worked hard in the face of adversity and I was rewarded for my efforts,” doesn’t mean God or anyone else was rewarding our competence or confidence. We are not masters of our own destiny, we are people doing the best we can with what we have–or at least trying to do so.

Perhaps I am illustrating the point that the stories that make up our lives, both big and small, don’t necessarily come to a conclusion with a lesson to learn by getting to the end of this post and not having a strong finishing statement. What I mostly wanted to say was I learned a new word today and it made me think about life, stories, vocabulary, and all the things that draw us together and also tear us apart as I meandered through the details of my day wishing I could tell someone what I had learned.

Thanks for being here.


advent journal: shocking hope


For thirty years or so I have written every day during Advent (or tried to) as a way of focusing my heart and mind on the season. For the last fifteen or sixteen years, those musings have found their place here on the blog. This year marks my first Advent with the good people at Mount Carmel Congregational Church, so my first entry in my journal is my sermon for today, “Shocking Hope.”

In a way, the adjective is redundant. Hope is a shocking thing, a disruptive grace that peppers our lives with a sacred tenacity. I hope you find words here that speak to you. I look forward to the journey together.


Advent begins each year as we light the candle of hope.

Hope is a difficult word to define.

We live and speak like we know what it means—and in some sense we do—but an actual definition is not easy to give. We say things like, “I hope you win,” which sound like hoping and wishing are synonyms, but hope is stronger than that. Hope is also different than optimism; it’s more layered than simply trusting things will get better. One of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit, says hope thrives in uncertainty when anything can happen then, well, anything can happen; thus, we have reason to hope.

As Nancy said in the introduction to our reading, Isaiah’s words are part of a longer lament for the way life had become. A lament is more than simply decrying or complaining about the state of things. It is an expression of sorrow, of grief for the way things have gone, perhaps even an admission of fault, and it is a statement of hope that things will not always be the way they are—that the uncertainty created possibility.

Despair takes hold when we convince ourselves that nothing can change. Certainty and cynicism are cousins. Isaiah cried out for God not to give up on people, even when they couldn’t get out of their own way. He trusted that anything could happen even though things looked bleak and he felt deserted by God. Still, he prayed, “You are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

I got to be a potter once. Well, for a few minutes. Ginger and I were in Turkey as a part of a sabbatical grant she received, and we had toured a small pottery factory in Istanbul to see how they made the beautiful pieces they had in their shop. They asked if anyone wanted to try their hand at the potter’s wheel and, being the extrovert I am, I volunteered. They gave me this enormous pair of colorful balloon pants to put on over my trousers and a smock to go over my shirt and then seated me behind a big flat wheel with a foot pedal on one side. They put some clay in the middle and then gave me instructions on how to make the wheel turn so I could begin to fashion a bowl out of the figureless lump of clay in front of me.

There were so many things to keep in mind. I had to keep my hands wet and not let the wheel move too slowly or too quickly. I had to learn how much pressure to apply so the clay would begin to take shape. I managed to make a thing that looked something like a bowl; mostly I learned to appreciate the artistry and skill required to make some of our most basic things: plates, bowls, pitchers, cookware.

Other than becoming more motorized, the art of making pottery has not changed that much since Isaiah used the metaphor. To say God is the potter and we are the clay that gets shaped into meaning is, for one thing, to say that God keeps up with a lot of details—with all of the details—of creation. Just as the potter has to attend to the speed of the wheel and the consistency of the clay and the moisture that makes it pliable and the amount of pressure it takes to shape it into something, God sees all the variables at play in our lives.

That is not to say God controls them or dictates what happens; that’s one place the potter metaphor breaks down. In fact, at the heart of the metaphor is what can’t be controlled. No matter how artful the potter, how deft they are at shaping the clay, they are at the mercy of the ovens—the kiln.

The pottery has to be fired at two points in the process. First, it has to be dried after it is shaped to pull the moisture out and solidify the object. Second, it has to be fired after it has been painted or glazed to seal the clay so it can be used. Often times, at either stage, the pottery cracks in the kiln, often not because of anyone’s mistake, but because that’s how it goes sometimes.

Yes, we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved—we are God’s pottery—and sometimes we are broken and cracked by things we cannot control. And here’s the other place the metaphor breaks down.

In actual pottery-making, the pots that crack and break in the kiln are thrown away. The clay cannot be melted and reused. The cracks can never be adequately repaired. A broken pot is a useless one, regardless of how it gets broken.

God’s artistry tells a different story: anything can happen. Just as we can be wounded and broken by life, we can be reshaped and healed by grace. That was the hope that Isaiah expressed when he prayed, “Don’t give up on us.” He trusted God was still at work in the middle of all the broken pieces.

That same trust lies at the heart of the shocking hope of Advent. All is not lost. Even though life is difficult, it is not futile. All the crumbled bits of clay of our circumstances hold the possibility of new creation, of something unexpected—of hope, not because everything will work out in the end but because anything can happen; we can be shaped and restored by God’s love right here in the middle of the mess.

And so we circle around to tell that story during Advent every year to shape our faith once again, much like the potter spins the wheel to shape the pot. The quote at the end of the candle lighting says it well:

What good is it to us that Mary gave birth to the son of God two thousand years ago, and we do not also give birth to the Son of God in our time and in our culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.

I know I am mixing metaphors, switching from pottery to pregnancy, but both are talking about hope, about trusting what we don’t completely understand.

We’ve all heard the Christmas story. We know the characters. We have layers and layers of years and tradition that we have received and continue to pass down. Those are good things, and in this season we need to be about more than simply repeating ourselves if the story is going to shape us in fresh ways.

It takes both imagination and courage to choose hope as our way of looking at the world, to imagine ourselves as vessels shaped by God, or as those giving birth to God’s presence in our time. The truth is the world is a broken and beautiful, vicious and engaging, mutilated and loving, a terrible and wonderful place.

Having the courage and imagination—the hope—to hold both of those truths is what it means to hope. Hope knows things aren’t just going to work out. Hope understands that we don’t always know the consequences of our actions, though often we can make a pretty good guess. To live hopefully is to live as though every word and every action has an impact, a consequence, to live like we are all connected, to live as though love is what matters most, to live as though all of these motions we are going through, from lighting candles to singing hymns to sharing Communion are crucial acts of imagination and intention—of hope.

We can’t see what is coming, but we are here in these days to give birth to Christ in our time. We are here to see what God can shape out of the shards of our lives.

Leonard Cohen wrote,

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

We are here to foster hope in one another, no matter what happens. And we hope when we trust that anything can happen. God has not given up on us; let us live with hope and not give up on us either. Amen.


living tradition


I know. The picture with this post makes it looks as though it is going to include a recipe, but it is a story about a recipe. If you want the recipe, give me a call. When you read the sermon, you’ll understand.


One the times I miss my mother most is when I am cooking for Thanksgiving, and one of the reasons I miss her then is because of a tradition we shared that came about without much forethought.

When I worked as a youth and college minister in Fort Worth, Texas, I found out that several students didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving, so I decided to host them, which meant I didn’t go to my parents’ house in Houston. As I was preparing the meal, I called my mother to ask for her cornbread dressing recipe, which was the dish I liked the best. It’s not a complicated recipe, but it was the one I wanted.

My dinner for the students was a success, so I did it again the next year and the year after that. Each year, as I would realize I had not kept the dressing recipe, so I would call my mom and she would read it to me over the phone–along with side comments, because how it was written down was not exactly the way she made it.

I think it was after the third or fourth year she said, “Promise me you won’t ever write the recipe down so you have to call me every year. This has become one of my favorite things about Thanksgiving.”

I promised, and I called her every Thanksgiving until she died in January, 2015. And I also wrote it down.

When it came to that first Thanksgiving without her, I felt her absence in particular because I couldn’t call her. Then my phone rang and I heard the voice of my niece-in-law, Marissa, say, “Uncle Milton, I don’t have a good stuffing recipe. Do you have one you could share with me?”

She knew the story about my mother and me. I teared up and told her I did. I read her the recipe, told her how much the call meant to me, and then said, “Please don’t write this down and call me every year, “ which she does. She called on Thursday.

Because one of the traditions we choose is the liturgical calendar, today is the last Sunday of the church year. Advent begins a new year next Sunday. If you aren’t sure what the liturgical year—or the church year—is, it is a way of using the passing of time to tell the story of our faith. Its roots go back to the fourth century. Neither Jesus nor any of his followers knew anything about Advent or Lent or the Revised Common Lectionary.

Over centuries, as the world changed along with our theology and our circumstances, some of those traditions have continued, some have faded away, and others have been added. Some stay full of meaning and others become motions we go through because we have forgotten to tell the stories of why they matter. Others change—or need to—as our language or circumstances change.

As you can see on the cover of our order of service, this last Sunday of the church year is called “The Reign of Christ Sunday,” or “Christ the King Sunday” in its oldest forms, but it is not that old. Though it sounds like it goes back to early Christianity, Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925 because he thought the world was out of control: Stalin had taken over in Russia, Mussolini’s fascist government was ruling Italy where the pope was, and Hitler was on the rise in Germany. He was trying to do something to remind people that God was more powerful than all of those things.

His edict is new, by historical standards, but it just sounds old because the desire for Jesus to be a ruler who will finally take charge and make things go more smoothly—to make things feel like we are finally going to get to be on the winning team—is an old desire. But our scripture for this morning, which was written when Rome ruled the western world, has themes that run deeper than mere power.

Listen to our reading for this morning from Ephesians 1:15-23:

I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, this is the reason that I don’t stop giving thanks to God for you when I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength. God’s power was at work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and sat him at God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future. God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way.

We can hear that Paul is trying to comfort and encourage people in a dangerous world. He repeats words like power, authority, and strength and talks about God putting everything under Christ’s feet. Paul’s world was as overcome by oppressive governments as Pope Pius’, but though Paul used the ruling metaphor, he didn’t simply picture Christ as the Greatest Emperor of Them All. He saw Jesus as the one who could teach us how to love each other. That’s a different kind of power; it’s relational power—and it is a more lasting power. Which view we take—whether we expect Christ to be King or Connector—has a huge impact on what God can do in and through us, as well as what kind of people we choose to be in the world.

In his book How to Know a Person, which is a book about the power of relationships, David Brooks looks how we what we mean when we say a person had good character, and then he presents two contrasting traditions about how that character develops that helped me think about our passage today.

The first perspective he calls the warrior/statesman model, which he says has come down through centuries, where a person of character looks like the ancient heroes from history—kings and generals and political leaders. This model says we show moral character by our self-mastery, by the way we use our will power to control our passions, by the way we master our virtues: honesty, courage, determination, humility. It is also an individualistic model: we can build our character on our own.

The second perspective Brooks calls “the illuminator,” and it begins with the understanding that we, as people, need recognition from one another to survive. “People,” he says, long for someone to look into their eyes with loving acceptance. Therefore, morality is mostly about the small, daily acts of building connection—the gaze that says, ‘I respect you,’ the question that says, ‘I’m curious about you,’ the conversation that says, ‘We’re in this together.”

Character building happens as we get better the daily tasks of attending to one another. What matters most is not how strong our willpower is but how deeply invested we are in our relationships.

When I read Brooks’ words I thought, “That’s what Paul was saying!” It’s not about Christ being king—as in a king who is going to win all the battles, keep us safe, and put us in charge. It’s about the presence of Christ in our lives having the power to create unity and foster love where it might otherwise not seem possible.

Misguided power and oppression are not going to be overcome by larger shows of force. Violence is not a viable solution to violence, whether we are talking wars between nations or quarrels between ourselves. The real power is love—love that thrives in the details of our dealings with one another.

How do we recognize the gifts other people have to offer the world? How do we affirm and support them? How do we learn from them?

Our verses this morning came from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In Chapter Three he offers a prayer that illuminates what we are talking about. Listen:

When I think of the greatness of this great plan I fall on my knees before God (from whom every group of people, earthly or heavenly, derives its name), and I pray that out of the glorious richness of God’s resources God will enable you to know the strength of the spirit’s inner reinforcement—that Christ may actually live in your hearts by your faith. And I pray that you, firmly fixed in love yourselves, may be able to grasp (with all Christians) how wide and deep and long and high is the love of Christ—and to know for yourselves that love so far beyond our comprehension. May you be filled though all your being with God!

Paul’s image of Christ is not so much one who was in charge of the world as much as one who was in love with it. And that is our call as well—which takes me back to my mother’s dressing recipe.

Even though I copied down what she told me each year, I never made it exactly as she did. I use chicken stock where she used hot water. I leave the onions out because of Ginger’s allergy. I added bacon. After I read the recipe to Marissa, she sent a text to say she had a favorite cornbread mix she was going to use for the base of the recipe. I am not a fan of mixes, but that is not essential to the tradition. What matters are the relationships that have been nurtured and fed by our years of phone calls.

We come back to our traditions to remind ourselves what matters and to ask if those traditions still do that. Tradition is not just repeating ourselves. It is using words and actions that hold meaning to keep our faith alive, to remember what matters, and adapting our recipe to feed our moment in time.

What matters is that we are created to love one another. We are created to live together: to attend to one another, to love like it’s our job, to dig into the details of one another’s lives and share the load. We belong to a God who became human to show us what love looks like—to show us how to be human and to humanize one another. May we be among those who trust that God’s boundless love is worth our lives, and who find ways to show that love to all those around us in small and powerful ways. Amen.


jalapeño cranberry relish


Years ago, my mother sent me a recipe that I have since seen named “cry babies” or “candied jalapeños”–basically it involved adding crushed pineapple and sugar to a jar of pickled jalapeños and cooking them till they were happy together. It’s a good recipe. I’ve made it many times.

A few years later, I wondered what a Thanksgiving adaptation of that recipe might taste like, and by that I mean what would happen if I added cranberries to the mixture.

Short answer: it rocks.

I have since tried to come up with a cute name, but to no avail, so I’ll stick with a descriptive one.

jalapeño cranberry relish

1 16 oz. jar of pickled jalapeños
1/2 cup sugar
2 8.25 oz cans of crushed pineapple
1 dry quart fresh cranberries
1 cup water (or a liquid of your choosing)

Dump them all together in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until the cranberries burst and most of the liquid is absorbed. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon to crush the berries. Let the mixture cool and then put it mason jars to keep. The recipe makes enough to share.


refrigerator rolls


I know the world is covered up in recipe posts, but this is one of our holiday favorites. Like most of my Thanksgiving recipes, this is one I learned from my mother. Unlike most of the recipes I learned from her, this is one I bake pretty much the way she taught me. I make these rolls every year for Thanksgiving and then again for Christmas, and then, for the most part I don’t make them–not because they are difficult, but because our health would suffer. This is an insanely good seriously addictive, and extremely versatile recipe.

refrigerator rolls

I know this is an odd way to present a recipe, but it helps to see the sequence. Start with

1 quart milk, scalded and then poured over
1 cup sugar and
1 cup butter

I do this in the bowl of my stand mixer. I let the mixture sit for a minute and then mix using the dough hook.


2 packages yeast in
1/2 cup water

and add it to the milk mixture once the milk is below 115°. Then add

8 cups of flour, one cup at a time

and knead the final mixture for about five minutes. You can do this is your mixer is big enough. If not, pour the whole thing into a big bowl and give your arms some exercise.

Cover and let rise until doubled, then add

1 cup flour mixed with
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda

Cover and let double again.

Preheat the oven to 425°.

Pour a layer of olive oil in a flat dish. Pinch off small batches of the dough–enough to cover a floured cutting board when rolled out–and roll the dough to about 1/4 inch thickness. Take a biscuit cutter (2 or 3”) and cut out the circles. Drag the bottom through some olive oil and fold then in half. Place them on a rimmed baking sheet or in a baking dish and space them apart where they have room to rise. Bake for 11-13 minutes.

You can also cook the dough in loaves; it also makes great cinnamon rolls.

One last thing: the reason these are called refrigerator rolls is you don’t have to use all the dough at once. You can keep it in the refrigerator for up to a week. When you are ready to use it, roll it, cut it, let it sit for a bit to come to room temperature, and then bake.

These rolls make it feel like Thanksgiving for me.


we are saying thank you . . .


I veered away from the lectionary passage this week to talk about gratitude. My text was the story of Jesus healing the ten who had leprosy, yet only one returned to say thanks. The point of the story runs deeper than saying we all should write thank you notes.


We live in a world that is conscious, perhaps even hyper-conscious about borders. We fight wars and build walls to protect them. We worry about who crosses them. We have come up with all sorts of papers and procedures to make sure we know who is coming in and going out. Though the folks in Jesus’ time didn’t have to deal with some of the paperwork, they were conscious of borders as well—and one in particular: the border between Samaria and Galilee. Well, and the border between Samaria and Judea.

Samaria sat between the two Jewish regions, but the Samaritans were not Jewish. The religious differences caused misunderstandings and even prejudices between the two groups. The borders were not officially patrolled like ours are, so people went back and forth for a number of reasons. But if you were a Jewish person in Samaria, or a Samaritan person in Galilee, for whatever reason, you knew you didn’t belong.

So when Luke writes that Jesus crossed over the border from Galilee into Samaria, he was saying that a lot was already going on in the story before the people who had leprosy even showed up, which leads me to my next statement: we live in a world full of layers. Most everything—and everyone—has more going on than what we see on the surface.

Jesus was walking the border between Galilee and Samaria when he was approached by ten men who had leprosy—nine Jews and one Samaritan who had a skin condition that people thought was so contagious that they banished the victims from society regardless of which side of the border they were on, so these guys knew a thing or two about being outcast. They lived on the border. They didn’t belong with anyone other than those who were also outcast.

They saw Jesus walking in their world and cried out for mercy. Jesus didn’t make a scene, or big statement about healing; all he said was, “Go show yourselves to the priest.” His words would have made sense to the Jewish men because the next layer, according to Jewish law, was that the only way they could re-enter society was for a priest to declare them healed; then they could belong again. All ten of them left, and as they walked, Luke says, their leprosy disappeared. Nine of them continued on to find a priest—as Jesus had instructed.

One of them turned around and came back to thank Jesus. The Samaritan. The border of leprosy was not the only border he had trouble crossing. The next layer for him was the priest would not have declared him fit to join Jewish society no matter how clean his skin was. When they all had leprosy, the other nine had not minded hanging out with him. They were a community of misery. But now, when it came to belonging, he was still going to be without a lunch table in any Galilean high school, yet he was thankful to be healed, so he came back to tell Jesus since that would be a more meaningful exchange of words than he would be able to have with anyone at the synagogue.

Hear me clearly: none of the nine did anything wrong, nor did the priest that declared them healed. They followed the rules. They did as they were told. But the tenth man understood something the others missed, or perhaps he stumbled on it when he turned back to Jesus because no one expected him at the temple. Both disease and healing are layered.

In the same way his skin had flaked off in layers because of the leprosy, both his isolation and his healing were more than skin deep. Perhaps as he walked and saw the sores fall away he realized the other painful boundaries in his life that had been covered up by his leprosy. He had not had to think about being a Samaritan in a long time; now he did.

And he came back to say thank you, over and over.

Jesus said, “Your faith has healed you.” He, too, was talking about more than the leprosy.

As I thought about these verses this week, I was brainstorming about their meaning with a friend and came to a realization about why I was so moved by this idea of layers. In fall of 2000 I was diagnosed with sleep apnea. Well, first it was sleep deprivation because every time I sat down I dozed off. I had gone most of my life getting by on four or five hours sleep a night and then, in my early forties, I couldn’t stay awake.

I went to the sleep center and they told me I was sleeping in ninety second increments and gave me a CPAP machine. After my first night of using it, I told Ginger, “If this is what feeling rested feels like, I have never felt this way.” It was such a gift.

In the fall of 2001, as I told you, I was overcome by a profound depression—a condition, a struggle, a reality (it’s hard to know what to call it sometimes) that has not been so easy to shake. They don’t make a CPAP for it, but I have learned a lot about both myself and my depression that have made my life meaningful. When I look back, I can see I was depressed long before I knew it, but a big part of the problem was my lack of sleep covered it up. I had to be get well before I could feel the real sickness of my life.

I would wish depression on anyone, myself included, yet in the layers of it all, I find reasons to be grateful. Much like the one healed in the story, my faith has not solved the layers of my problems or erased all the borders, but it has given me reasons to be grateful, which is probably why the poem “Thanks” by W. S. Merwin is one of my favorites. He speaks to the gratitude I am describing.


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

Living in gratitude is hard work. That’s an odd thing to say, yet it is an important truth. To keep saying thank you is an act of faith. Even though all ten were healed, it didn’t mean life automatically got easier, it just meant one layer of pain had been lifted, and that was worth being thankful for. But gratitude is a choice, and often a courageous one, if we are up to it. Whatever is going on, it is our faith that heals us: our trust that love is stronger than any border, any difference, any condition, alive at every layer of life. May we be those who choose to keep saying thank you in the middle of it all. Amen.

caramel apple butter pie


The other name for Thanksgiving at our house is Pie-a-pa-looza. I love baking pies and sharing them. Starting Saturday or Sunday I’ll begin making crusts and then filling and baking them on Monday and Tuesday, before I am called to Thanksgiving Dinner duty, and then Ginger and I “Preacher’s Wife it,” as she likes to say–we spend an evening or two taking the pies from our house to other places.

It is my favorite part of the holidays.

Before the baking begins, I type something like “creative pie recipes thanksgiving ” and the year to see what new twists people have found, or what new pies (at least new to me) are out there. Pages of posts by people who did share their recipes come up and I get lost for an hour or two clicking and thinking. This year, one that popped up was “apple butter pie.”

Bishop’s Orchards here in Guilford makes their own apple butter, so I knew I was off to a good start.

The post talked about an alternative to pumpkin pie using apple butter, which was intriguing. I like my pumpkin pie recipe, but I mostly make it because I feel like I’m supposed to. If I am choosing pie I really want to eat, it is not at the top of the list. Several different sites offered similar recipes, so I printed out four or five of them and compared ingredients and procedures, along with the stories that accompany recipes on food blogs. One of them used sweetened condensed milk in the mixture. That caught my attention because it reminded me of something my mother used to do.

When she needed caramel for something, she would take the label off a can of sweetened condensed milk, put it in a pot big enough to cover the can with water, and then boil it for three hours and let it cool in the water. When she opened the can, it was a beautiful, dark caramel sauce. I always thought of it as a cool shortcut until I worked with a seriously trained pastry chef who did the exact same thing.

The memory of mom made me think of caramelizing the condensed milk before I put it in the pie, thus making a caramel apple butter pie. The challenge was that the name made big promises. Since I had not made the pie before, I did a practice one last night–and I took pictures just in case it worked.

And it worked. Ginger, who doesn’t particularly like apple butter or caramel, has had two pieces. Rachel keeps coming back for more. And I like it, too.

Obviously, this recipe takes a bit of planning because you have to make the caramel, but you can do two or three cans at once and they will keep until you are ready to open them. Who knows what you will come up with if you know you have a can of ready-to-go caramel in the pantry.

Here’s the recipe.

caramel apple butter pie

1 pie crust (smitten kitchen has the best pie crust recipe; it’s worth making)

1 cup unsweetened apple butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 dark chili powder
1 can sweetened condensed milk, caramelized

Roll out the pie crust and put it into a 10-inch pie pan. Crimp the edges and put it in the freezer for at least an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375°.

Take the crust out of freezer and line it with parchment paper or aluminum foil and fill it with pie weights. (I use dried beans.) Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and set the pie weights aside. Return the crust to the oven for another ten minutes, or until the bottom of the crust has browned a bit.

While the crust is cooking, mix together the apple butter, brown sugar, and eggs in a stand mixer. Add the vanilla and mix again. Add the flour and the dry spices and mix until combined. Finally, add the caramelized sweetened condensed milk and mix it well.

When the crust comes out of the oven for the second time, raise the heat in the oven to 400°. Place the pie pan on a baking sheet and then pour the filling into the crust. Put it in the oven and cook for ten minutes, then–without opening the door–lower the temperature to 350° and let it cook for 30-40 minutes, or until the center is not jiggly.

Let the pie cool on a rack on the counter. Once it is completely cooled, cover it and put it in the refrigerator–if it lasts that long. It does need to be fully cooled before you cut into it.

This is not a last minute pie, obviously, but it is worth every minute.



share the oil


The lectionary passage for this past Sunday was Matthew 25:1-13, which is one of Jesus’ more enigmatic parables, but, hey, I was up for the challenge—and my preparation took me in some interesting directions, which I think is what the parables were intended to do. Anyway, here’s the sermon . . .

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women only players,” is an often-quoted line from the beginning of a lengthy monologue about mortality by the character Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The line has held up for four hundred years because the metaphor of life being a play is a pretty good one–except that it can lead us to believe that life, therefore, has some sort of script that we can follow. When things happen that we don’t expect, or that are difficult or painful, we can easily wonder how they fit into the script, as though it might be comforting if we knew there was some kind of master plan.

We want the assurance of a life GPS that shows us where we are and tells us the best way to get where we want to go—and even points out the obstacles. Yet our reality is that life is made up, mostly, of things out of our direct control. We can prepare, but we don’t always know for what. Somewhere in my stacks of books and papers, I have a card with a quote that reads, “The story of my life has a wonderful cast of characters, I’m just not sure about the plot.” I find great comfort in those words.

In his song “Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon sings, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” which is another way to say that our lives are not scripted. Rather than a set drama, life is improvisational theater: we make it up as we live, which means it does matter that we try to prepare for things we can’t see coming—and, at the same time, we do well to remind one another that what matters most are everyone else with whom we share the scene.

Jesus walked the earth during a period of world-wide unrest. Even though the world as they knew it was much smaller than ours and they didn’t have to deal with a twenty-four-hour news cycle or social media, people were convinced they were living in apocalyptic times because of the Roman occupation. When Jesus came on the scene, his presence fanned the flames of interest around what the highly anticipated end of the world would be like. People wanted someone to tell them that life didn’t have to hurt so badly and that things would get better.

Right before Jesus told the parable we read this morning, he told people no one knew how things were going to roll out, but the best way to live was to be faithful to God and to one another. Then he told the parable about the ten young women, five of whom ran out of oil for their lamps because they didn’t expect the bride and groom to take so long. The ones who had oil wouldn’t share because they were afraid there wasn’t enough to go around, so they told the ones without oil to go to the store and they missed the wedding.

Then he told a parable about a rich man who was going on a long trip and gave three servants money to invest or use while he was gone. Two of the servants had ideas for what to do with the money–they were ready to say yes; the third was so frightened of his boss or of failing that he dug a hole and buried the money so he could return it intact when his boss came back. He didn’t lose the money, he played it safe. When the master returned, he chastised the man for being captured by his fears and had him thrown out.

Then Jesus told a third parable that was set at the final judgment when the nations will be divided into sheep and goats. The sheep are congratulated for responding to the needs around them: “I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me something to drink; lonely and you included me . . .” The goats are chastised for not doing those things. Both groups ask, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or lonely?”

Jesus answered, “When you met the need in the face in front of you, you met me.”

But here’s the thing that always gets me in this story: neither the sheep not the goats knew the impact of their behaviors. They all asked, “When did we see you?” They didn’t know. The difference between the two is the sheep had prepared to notice their fellow actors who were in need. They had prepared to be able to respond with food and drink, clothing, and companionship. They saw themselves as supporting actors. The goats didn’t. And those described as goats were also left out.

I know we have talked about this before, but I want to say it again: some of the parables of Jesus are difficult to comprehend. They are not allegories. They are not fables with an easily identifiable moral lesson we can all take in. In all three of these parables, well-intentioned people get left out for not being able to see what was coming. The bridesmaids were unprepared for the long wait, the servant was an overly cautious investor, and the ones labeled as goats couldn’t see beyond their own needs.

But there’s another progression in these stories that is worth noticing. In the first one, the bridesmaids with oil refused to share and sent the others shopping, which was why they missed the wedding. In the second one, the successful servants took care of themselves, but didn’t share their knowledge of investing. In the last story, those who were identified as sheep saw the people around them who were in need and shared what they had.

Perhaps when we focus on those who got it wrong—which is really easy to do—we are missing the heart of these parables. Again—these are not allegories or fables. I am not saying this is The Point of These Stories; I am saying here’s one of the layers of meaning that continues to speak across centuries, much like Shakespeare’s words.

It is starting the obvious to say we don’t know what lies ahead.

A year from today—and I mean the second Sunday in November of 2024—we will be worshipping for the first time following the next presidential election. Today we speak about the pandemic in the past sense, yet I would venture none of us has had a week go by in the last three and a half years without hearing about someone who has COVID. The war between Russia and Ukraine is almost two years old—so old, in fact, that it doesn’t make our headlines very often. The conflict in Israel and Palestine is both heartbreaking and ominous.

We all want to know what is going to happen. We would all like to know how to plan, just like those who asked Jesus how to prepare for the end of the world. Both directly and through his parables, Jesus said, “Be faithful,” another way of saying be true to yourself, to God, and to those around you.

Our call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God is not based on favorable circumstances. We are called to share our oil even if we aren’t sure there’s enough to go around. We are called to share our knowledge, even if that means we don’t come out on top. We are called to meet the needs in front of our faces because every last one of us is created in God’s image. God calls us to a difficult way of being in the world that chooses to be faithful in the face of our fears. When Jesus says, “Be awake because you don’t know the day or the hour,” perhaps it has more to do with being awake to how we can nourish and support one another rather than avoiding punishment.

In the parable, the five who didn’t have enough oil finally found some and got back to the wedding, it was in full swing, but no one would let them in. Doesn’t that feel a bit strange that the bridesmaids weren’t allowed into the wedding? Why would they have wanted a wedding without the bridesmaids? Why didn’t they throw the doors open and say, “Glad you made it”?

We all feel the pain and pressure of life. In one way or another, I think it’s fair to say we all live with some fear about how things will turn out and if we will have enough to do whatever it is we want to do. But let’s ask ourselves this: How can we grasp God’s beloved community unless we prepare to include everyone? Isn’t it better to share our oil so everyone gets to come to the party? No one dies of generosity; a lot of people die of loneliness. Let us keep awake to every chance we are given to share our oil, to share the love that gives us life, and gives us life together. Amen.

in a clearing


I have had the privilege of spending a few days doing nothing but practicing friendship with a group of men who care deeply for one another. This poem grew out of the observations of one of them as we sat on the porch together after dinner last night.

in a clearing

the room held silence
save the sound of men
clearing their throats
but I would be remiss
to say the silence

was broken by their
wordless utterances
nor was it interrupted
the sound accompanied
the silence as we sat
alongside one another

to clear is to free
from obstruction
which begs these

what lies behind the clearing?
what is struggling to surface?
what has been left unsaid?
what blockage keeps returning?
what wisdom yearns to awaken?
what lament? what joy?
what wants to be given?

we sat silently in a room
save the sound of us
clearing our throats
guttural gestures of grace
of solidarity and friendship

speak if you must
but for now
let us sit
silently together
in a clearing


sing a song of the saints . . .


Because I am going to be in Houston on All Saints Sunday, we celebrated a week early at my church. (Here’s hoping the Liturgical Police don’t catch wind of it.) The sermon includes a reference to a cookie recipe that I was commissioned to create which you can find here, and a poem that I wrote for the same event. The service was rich and meaningful, even if we were a little early.


I can remember the first time I heard—and sang—our last hymn.

I was a child sitting in the pews of the Argyle Road Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia. I even remember the pastor’s name: Basil Medgett. It was a congregation not much bigger than ours made up of mostly English people who had moved to Zambia for one reason or another. We were the only Americans, and we were welcomed there.

The line that got me from the very start was the one about meeting saints at tea, which seemed an odd place for a saint to be in my young mind. I had heard Bible stories, so I imagined saints as those who put their lives on the line—the ones in the first verse who were prophets and priests and killed by a fierce, wild beast—but what were saints doing in shops and at tea?

Didn’t they have more important things to do?

Perhaps that is why Lesbea Scott, the hymnwriter, wrote this song for her children. You may already know this story, but this hymn was a part of a collection she wrote called Everyday Hymns for Little Children that she composed to help her own kids understand more about faith. The sequence of the verses follows the way our understanding of the word “saint” has grown over time.

The oldest meaning is much like the first verse: saints are ones with devotion that goes beyond what seems normal, if you will. But as we mark All Saints’ Day, our understanding is much more like verse three: we are remembering those who ate with us, who talked with us, who loved us—and who are no longer physically with us. Saints are those who are loved, and that is every last one of us.

Celebrating All Saints’ Day is another way of reminding ourselves that we are not alone. We call the names, and we open the memories, we honor the grief of their loss, and in all of that we assure ourselves that the ties that bind cannot be broken by death, or anything else for that matter. We are not alone. We are together and they are still with us.

We sing our own song of the saints of God—the saints we knew, the saints we loved, the saints that sat around our breakfast tables, or worked alongside us, or went to school with us—and we remember that to be a saint is not to be perfect but to be present.

To become a saint, officially, among those denominations that grant sainthood is an arduous and lengthy process that always happens after the person has died. Their words and deeds are examined, and those examiners have to prove that the life of the would-be saint was not just your average life.

That’s exactly why I love this little hymn—because the road to sainthood is wider and filled with fellow travelers and not just those who have gone before. Sainthood is present tense rather than posthumous. The hymn begs us to write our own verses:

they lived not only in ages past
they are walking through Hamden still
our streets are filled with joyous saints
who all love to do God’s will,
you can meet them for donuts, apizza, or wine
at tai chi, the tag sale, the grocery line
for the saints of God are around all the time
and I want to be one too

We don’t become saints; we are saints, which is another way of saying we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved, and also capable of great love delivered in daily doses.

Journalist David Brooks has a new book called How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. I started reading it this week, alongside of preparing today’s sermon, and the timing was perfect because his ideas about how we invest in one another’s lives—how we really see each other—go right along with how we live into our calling as the saints of God.

One of the things he talks about is how much of life is about accompanying one another. He says,

Ninety percent of life is just going about your business. It’s a meeting at work, a trip to the supermarket, or small talk with another person dropping off the kids at school. And usually there are other people around. In the normal moments or life, you’re not staring deeply into one another’s eyes or unveiling profound intimacies. You’re just doing stuff together—not face-to-face but side-by-side. You’re accompanying each other.

He says accompanying one another requires four things: patience, playfulness, other-centeredness, and presence. It is less about grand gestures and more about showing up and paying attention, about singing harmony to someone else’s melody, about letting life be about something other than our agenda.

The other phrase he uses is that it is about bearing witness. And he quotes the poet David Whyte who said the ultimate touchstone of relationship “is not improvement, neither of the other or of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another’s, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, some-times just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”

We named those this morning to whom we bore witness as they lived with us and loved us, and as we loved them. We named them because they bore witness to our lives, which is part of why we grieve; they don’t do that any more. One of the profound gifts we give each other as we gather together is attending to the daily details of life. The small conversations—the small acts of witness—create the space for deeper expressions of love when the time comes.

It is this wonderful mixture of accompaniment that fills our life together with love—I started to say with the flavors of love because of the story I want to tell.

I brought cookies for coffee hour this morning. They are a recipe I created for an event at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, where I will be next weekend. They commissioned me to create a cookie for All Saints’ Day. Since the church is in Houston, I started thinking about Texas flavors. Pecans are the state nut (well, one of them), and the prevalence of Mexican food led me to add some corn meal. The other big culinary influence in Houston is from Vietnamese residents, so I also added crystallized ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon. Then, because of its mystical qualities and because I always wanted to put it in a cookie, I added fresh sage. It’s a big mess of ingredients that turned into a really great cookie—and that is the review from Ginger (who doesn’t like nuts or the spice, ginger) and Rachel, my mother-in-law. Rachel, in fact, called them “Amazing Delights.”

When I sent a text to Sid Davis, the Minister of Music at the church in Houston who commissioned the cookie to tell him what she said, he wrote back, “They are both amazing and delightful.”

I answered, “As are we, my friend, as are we.”

That is true of not just Sid and me, but of every last one of us. We are amazing delights. We enrich and flavor each other’s lives—that’s why it hurts when one of us dies. The love continues, but their absence is profound. And so we accompany one another—with singing, with stories, with quiet presence, with meals, with laughter, with tears, with uncertainty, with hope—all in Christ’s name, not to replace loved ones, or to explain away the sadness, but to remind ourselves we are not alone. Love is stronger than death. And we are really, really loved.

And it is that love that brings us to the Table this morning . . .