Saturday, February 27, 2010

Lenten Hymn

Is this the fast I choose for thee
Of ashes, tears and empty misery?
Or rather this: To share abundant bread
That all my children will be loved and fed.

Why do you fast, yet still not see
Your sisters suffering in poverty?
Their children cry, and still you do not hear;
Their fathers bowed and broken by their fear.

This is the fast I choose for thee
Of justice, peace and human liberty
Not forty days, but all your yearning years
My love will wipe away all human tears.

Break, bless and eat; then drink this wine
The fast I choose makes ev’ry midnight shine
You shall be called restorers of the streets.
Arise, now shine! And make your fast complete.

TUNE: Truro (Live Into Hope!; Christ is Alive!; Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Sometime a Day Off Happens

Trying to do anything beyond bodily necessities for 40 consecutive days is tough. Writing is not a bodily necessity, and it does take time no matter how much or little one does.
I've been on the road all day. Though I enjoy it, driving is rather mind numbing and it's tough to write with a numb mind! I'm sure I've written at least parts of sermons -- if not the whole of some -- in that condition.
So when a day off happens I'll just take it and not try to wake up the brain this evening. Instead, I'll enjoy watching Olympic athletes who have undoubtedly practiced when their bodies and brains were numb.
I make no claims for being a medal-winning writer.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Time Is But a Stream ...

"Paternity is a relationship to a future that is not your own." So said the great Emmanuel Levinas in an essay that I was working over as I drafted my doctoral dissertation 19 years ago.
Oh, and 19 years ago, today, our first child was born. (Happy birthday, Bud!)
As our first son grows into adulthood I gain more personal understanding of Levinas' insight.
My mother has often said to me that she has no trouble imagining the past that came before her birth but that she has a hard time imagining the world going on without her. She tells me that imagining a future that is not her own is difficult to do.
Parents can dream their children's futures, but those are not the dreams of our children. We may receive the dreams from our fathers, to borrow the title of President Obama's book, but they are not our dreams. Our children may receive our dreams for them, but they are not our children's dreams.
The relationship that we have to the future that is not ours is tenuous, but it is also inescapable and it places the primary ethical burden of history squarely on our shoulders. We are responsible to that relationship and to that future which we will not experience.
Each generation is given the opportunity and the responsibility to create the future that its children will inhabit. That's why we keep on doing the often difficult and exhausting work of trying to make peace in a world addicted to violence, and to do justice in a world of structured injustice.
That's why the work on health care reform is so important. One way or another we are going to decide what kind of system our children will inherit, what kind of costs they will face, what burdens of ours they will carry.
Oh, and it's why I'm watching the stupid summit thing today when I could be getting more productive work done!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bread and Stories

I noted over the weekend that National Capital Presbytery on Saturday endorsed three overtures that originated with Clarendon's session. (A friend in Minnesota says that must be a record for one session for a single General Assembly. To which I could only say, "who keeps such records?") In any case, I did not note that the meeting Saturday was remarkably grace-filled and much less antagonistic than most meetings where the church gathers to debate sexuality-related issues.
Some of the lack of rancor may have to do with debate fatigue and the clear sense that in National Capital Presbytery the issues are settled. Some of it last weekend may have been the relatively low attendance, due to the hastily rescheduled Saturday meeting. (The last time we voted on ordination issues there were more than 300 votes cast. Saturday it was about 135 or so.)
But I think two larger reasons for the comity prevailed.
The meeting ran from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and there was no provision made for lunch beyond, bring something to tide you over. When we learned of that, the board of the Presbytery's More Light chapter decided that we would bring food for everyone. So we organized sandwiches and snacks and gave them away to everyone.
Followers of Jesus know how important breaking bread is to our tradition. It is the way that we build relationships, and the sharing of bread may have helped some who disagree with us to see us as more than shrill opponents of the status quo.
While some may raise a question about the meeting organizers' lack of a lunch plan, no one should question their plans for the meeting itself. Framed entirely within a worshipful context, the gathering consisted largely of story telling around tables of six.
We were asked, initially, to share briefly a story that illuminated one of the proposed overtures. (There were five proposals to be voted on, two of which related to GLBT concerns, one on nonviolence, one on the Charter of Compassion, and one on Middle East affairs. All but the last were approved.)
I told the story of my friend, Joe. Most folks have a "first gay friend," and Joe is mine. At least he was the first out gay friend. One of my friends from kindergarten is gay and two of my hallmates from college are gay -- and have been together for more than 20 years.
But Joe was the first man who was out within our circle of friends in our Chicago days. He is a big, boisterous man -- a bit like a Labrador Retriever crossed with a Saint Bernard. He is a dangerous man to sit next to during while watching the Bears on TV -- especially in that Super Bowl year.
Joe attended an evangelical church in Chicago, and regularly told us, sometimes close to tears, about how his church condemned homosexuals. He was deep in the closet in that congregation, of course, but he loved its worship and his friends from the choir and he simply could not imagine that there might be a church that would welcome him fully so he continued to go, try to worship and come home feeling beaten up. This was at the height of the AIDS crisis, and the gay community as a whole was under assault from so many corners. As I recall those days and Joe's Sundays in them, I know that our repentance is long overdue.
Telling his story is far short of that, but it's what I could offer Saturday morning.
Others around the table shared their own stories. Our table reflected the voting pattern of the Presbytery as a whole on these issues over the past several year. Four of us were on the liberal side and two on the conservative side. The liberals' stories were about gay friends, neighbors or family members and about the experience of feeling excluded. The conservative stories were about struggles to remain faithful to strictly interpreted Biblical standards of behavior.
There was passion aplenty in the stories, but more importantly, there was an equal dose of compassion in the listening.
I am convinced, and the past 30 years of American experience seems to bear this out, that when the stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons are told with honesty and heard with empathy that people are moved and positions changed. As Harvey Milk put it, "when they know that they know one of us then they vote with us."
That is not one hundred percent accurate, to be sure, but it is the truth nonetheless.
How can something that is not one hundred percent accurate still be the truth? I suppose that is part of the point. Stories can be true without being told with complete accuracy or perfect fidelity to whatever passes for the accepted history.
In the end, all we really have is the stories that tell us who we are and allow us to share that with others.
As Norman MacLean wrote in Young Men and Fire, his beautiful story of the tragic Mann Gulch fire of 1949, "If there is a story in Mann Gulch, it will take something of a storyteller at this date to find it, and it is not easy to imagine what impulses would lead him to search for it. He probably should be an old storyteller, at least old enough to know that the problem of identity is always a problem, not just a problem of youth, and even old enough to know that the nearest anyone can come at any give stage to finding himself is to find a story that somehow tells him about himself."
The problem of identity is always a problem. We find ourselves in the stories that tell us who we are. If we are honest with ourselves we will also confess that we are often too busy constructive our own stories to listen carefully to the stories others tell of themselves (much less the ones they tell of us). Moreover, because our identities themselves are at stake in the telling of stories, we most often find it far easier and more comfortable to exchange arguments and propositions and talking points.
So we remain divided and alone staring across vast chasms of disagreement or simply of lonely ignorance yearning for someone to ask us, "tell me your story."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Remember sniglets? Those made-up words that are so descriptive of everyday situations?
One of my favorites is "buckstacy" which is defined as the experience of finding money in your pocket when you didn't know any was there -- especially when putting on a coat for the first time as the weather gets colder.
I experienced frozen buckstacy today when I found a dollar where snow had melted away.
I thought immediately of the story of the old native American wisdom teacher who came to New York City for the first time to speak at a conference. One of the organizers met him in the morning to walk with him to the conference center. As they walked along the crowded sidewalks amidst the cacophony of the morning rush the old man stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and said, "hm, a cricket."
"What?" asked the organizer.
"A cricket. Don't you hear it?"
"Cricket? How can you hear a cricket with all this noise?"
The old man didn't say a thing. Instead, he simply reached into his pocket and took out some coins. He tossed them on the sidewalk and immediately dozens of people stopped still in their tracks.
"It all depends," the old man said, "on what you're listening for."
So we're talking in church this Lent about listening for God.
I've used that old tale before, but this afternoon after I picked up my buckstacy dollar it occurred to me that you have to know what a dollar looks like -- or what a coin sounds like -- before you attend to it on the street.
So, what does God sound like ... to you?

Monday, February 22, 2010

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?

I was reminded again this afternoon that you are what you practice. It's been almost three weeks since I've braved running the streets of Arlington. More accurately, there has been nowhere other than snow-narrowed streets to run until the past couple of days when sidewalks and bike paths began to reappear.
If you practice couch potatoing you become a couch potato, and couch potatoes find that first running a bit more painful than runners do. On the other hand, having been in the practice of running it was easier to start up again than it would have been had I not been running all winter.
The season of Lent invites us to take on a practice -- a spiritual discipline, if you will. Running has been part of that for me off and on for many years. I've never found that I love it, but I have found that I need it, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually as well.
We do become what we practice, and thus I have become a runner. Putting it that way, however, raises performance expectations that are ingrained in us in this culture from childhood. To be a runner -- or an athlete in general -- carries for many of us the implicit framework of winning and losing, and because I have neither the innate giftedness nor the drive and dedication to be competitive I will never win any races nor turn in any sterling times.
I'm just happy to get to the beer and pizza after the run! Nevertheless, I am a runner.
In the same way, as David LaMotte once told me, if you make music you are a musician. It doesn't matter whether or not you make great music for others to enjoy or simply sing a lot in the shower, if you make music you are a musician. You are what you practice.
The great thing about practices, from that point of view, is that it is never too late to become something new. You can take up painting and become a painter, or writing and become a writer, or cycling and become a cyclist.
The point is not to become the best in the world, but to take the gifts you have been given, even the ones you do not discover until late in life, and make the best out of them.
So it goes with my Lenten discipline this year: to write at least a little bit every day. Not with the expectation of becoming another Hemingway or Halberstam, but with the knowledge that I am a writer because I practice writing.
Practice does not make perfect, no matter what they say, because it is not about arriving at some point and crossing some arbitrary marker that makes one a writer or runner or whatever. Practice simply makes you what you are, and that will never be perfect or complete until the journey ends.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Lent One

Tis the first Sunday of Lent. We seem to give up singing good songs for Lent in the church, making this the 40 days of dirges. I don't think this was the fast that God would choose. Indeed, Isaiah seemed to have something to say about that, but it's the end of a long Sunday and I'm much more interested in a glass of wine than the 58th chapter of Isaiah. So here are a few last shots of the snow as the great meltdown continues all around us.