how we plan to use our feet: the dinner at congregation mizpah


Torah Scrolls at Congregation Mizpah

i always hope i do not desecrate a holy place with my clumsy wonder.

we wander into the sanctuary, passing a statue of moses, a gift sculpted by an italian for this sanctuary. the horns, born of a mistranslation and mother of dangerous myth, are part of the casting, never to be shaven off. a wooden remembrance of the 6 Million lost is on the wall, outside the door. not quite cavalier and not quite mindful, we do not even lightly touch the pile of yarmulkes waiting for yet another nightfall.

advent has begun and the christians among us are bellyfull of dreams of light, so it is not unusual that we note the inscription above the torah scrolls.

let there be light.

the door is opened. the torah revealed in this bible-belt town. light for the gentiles among us.

it is not exactly a shared word we speak; we are horrible at ancient languages and only slightly better at nuance, but we are experts at our own metaphors.

except when we forget that they are metaphors.

We sit at a table.

over a dinner of sandwiches, the elder among us mentions the good work that we have all done together, and not just us. he mentions

the twelve who are not here tonight.

he means the others who had other engagements and commitments. but i hear him name elijah.

he throws out that number–twelve–loosely, i suppose, to name our present strength as a group. to point to our future.

but i hear him name disciples. and i suppose others hear him name tribes.

we share laughter and dream dreams. we remember forbears who “prayed with their feet.” we name the stories we share. some of us pick off the pickles from our sandwiches. we pass the cookie tray.

how we pray for peace. how we plan to use our feet.

we are not clumsy with one another.

gratitude, congratulations, and good wishes are shared at the end. more laughter. more hopes. a few questions. calendars and dates are passed around, more quickly than the cookies.

in the quiet of the parking lot, there is for me, one last word.

a benediction, a prayer, a hope, a breath, a memory, one clumsy stolen metaphor more, an echo, (elijah himself?), one last question–

tonight was different from the other nights.
what has made it so?


A Litany For All Saints

A Litany For All Saints, offered as part of communion at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Chattanooga, TN, on November 5, 2017, as our remembrance of the Saints of the Church.

For the best of who we are, the saints we remember.
For those who have followed a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
For those who have followed Jesus the Christ, whether in the first century or the 21st.

For men and women who taught us to value faith and reason, heart and intellect.
For men and women who tried and failed, but were faithful nonetheless.
For Perfect Examples who taught us that we could be better.
For Imperfect Saints who taught us to share grace rather than pursue perfection.

For Paul, the apostle with the thorn in his side and Peter, the rock of the church who sank in the sea.
For Junia, the woman who was “prominent among the apostles,” for Mary, Called Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, who provided for the the church out of their resources.

For Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, who called us to reform the church.
For Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, who called us to live fully into the name “Disciple.”
For Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and Dorothy Day, who taught us to reframe our own vision, so that we might see the poor.
For Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose prophetic words made them martyrs.

For those whose names we have not read today.
For those whose names are already forgotten.

For those who were not saints, but merely innocent, but who had no voice.
For those who were not so innocent, but had a voice, and spoke for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
For arbitrary saints, remembered for a season.

For the saints who built this congregation
Gone for many seasons.
And for those who have just lost
we remember them by name.

For this great cloud of witnesses, let us give thanks to God.

Let us join around this table: the table to which these saints invited us, offering the peace of Christ to one another, and may we offer a place at this table to anyone and everyone, joining in the words that we share as we come to this table:

And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
to receive.

And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
with bread.
And our sorrow
will be met
with wine.


FullSizeRender 22

I do not know how one became singed
Or how these two orphans decided
that they would be the ones to remain
out of a set of four place settings.

This remaining set reminds me of
an old apartment–my first–
and friends who gathered there
for meals poorly prepared.

The faux jade, scratched by years of
use, soy-stained, packed, stored,
re-packed, and trucked from home
to home, giving just enough to bend

like dual survivor trees from a twicetold
fable in which their meant-to-be matches
break. Pressure comes from all sides.
And it comes for us all.

The pop of a plastic lid; the click of
these two orphans working together
in irregular rhythm. Privilege and memory
and a tiny joy–dinner guests on a quiet night.

Seven Albums from 2017 That I Have Loved

There’s a lot going on that I’m avoiding writing about.  A lot about the world feels ugly and hard right now, and writing about it feels like rubbing against an already raw wound; I’m in between a sermon series on Sex/uality and the Bible and one tailored for our stewardship campaign, so I’m spending a lot of energy talking about two things no one wants to talk about in church:  their body and their pocketbook; and then, there’s all of the “What?” and “Why?” and “What if?” questions that are keeping me up at night.  For one, Frances McDormand’s dad was a Disciples minister and they lived in Chattanooga during her childhood (at least, according to the Lyin’ New York Times).  Why did I not know this?  And did they have any connection to my good little congregation?

But instead of writing about all of the things that are keeping me from writing more important things or are keeping me up, counting angels dancing on a pin, I thought I might add a post that is anything but heavy:  a list of my favorite albums from 2017.

It’s been a really productive year for a number of my favorite artists, and these are the albums that–in my car, at the gym, while I’m answering emails–have grabbed me, and that I can’t take off repeat.  The ranking is not etched in stone.  It’s likely to change based on which of these I’ve most recently listened to.

so.  here you go:

7.  Paramore. After Laughter. I’ll admit, I only listened to this because Jason Isbell (who appears further down on this list) tweeted that he loved the album.  They have an 80s-Pop influenced sound that evokes cheesy music videos from the early days of MTV, and despite the fact that that is not usually what I cue up when I’m listening to music, Hayley Williams’ songwriting is killer. “Fake Happy” may be the smartest pop song I’ve ever heard. For proof, check out their Tiny Desk Concert, complete with tiny synthesizer.

6.  Ryan Adams.  Prisoner. The master of sad songs writes his saddest to date.  This album, reflecting on Adams’ divorce from actress Mandy Moore, dives into his insecurities, depression, and regrets.  The most vulnerable moments allude to his infamous self-destructiveness and emotional fragility.  It’s not an album to turn to when you’re already sad, and though it’s not my favorite of his albums, the songwriting is strong.  However, one of the reasons I’m not ranking it higher is that while Adams is good at interior emotional exploration, his songwriting doesn’t really examine social realities outside of his own relationship and other struggles.  Maybe that’s not his thing, and that’s okay.  I have more of a need for a social conscience this year, though, and I’d be curious to see him do that.  He’s a gifted storyteller, so I’d be curious to see how he might utilize that gift to do more social critique.

5.  Josh Ritter, The Gathering.  A really lovely album.  I pre-ordered this, so I got to hear a couple of tracks as they were released early.  “Showboat” was the first to arrive, and it made me nervous–it’s a tongue-in-cheek song about missing an old love, a type of song that Ritter is good at writing, but because he has frequently written clever songs like this and this, using mummies and nuclear catastrophe to talk about breakups, and a whole album about his divorce, I cynically asked myself if he was going to become a version of Taylor Swift, and only write songs about his exes.  The Gathering, though, covers much more ground than that.  He collaborates with Bob Weir on the gospelish “When Will I Be Changed?” offers some playful rollickin’ country-fried tunes, and includes a couple of lovely instrumentals that evoke some of the best of American traditional music.

4.  Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway.  A classically trained singer and multi-instrumantalist who fronted the Carolina Chocolate Drops for a number of years, Giddens has carved out a reputation as someone who not only performs Americana music, but innovates, writing and interpreting the genre’s history and importance in this very divided United States of America.  Freedom Highway, as a collection, highlights the African-American experience from Slavery to the era of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.  She writes harrowing stories fearlessly–The title track, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” begins with a heart-like drum beat and hits the horrors of slavery straight on, and “Better Get it Right The First Time” takes on racial profiling and its often violent consequences.  Love songs and laments, and an instrumental remembrance of The Underground Railroad fill the rest of the album’s contents.  Not long after she was invited to join the likes of Elvis Costello in “The New Basement Tapes,” I heard an interview with Giddens where she referred to herself as a “baby songwriter.”  With Freedom Highway, Giddens can no longer get away with that humblebrag.

3.  The National, Sleep Well Beast. It’s hard to beat 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, but this is a great album.  Two Tracks, “Walk it Back,” and “The System Dreams in Total Darkness” became immediate favorites of mine and while I was initially lukewarm on the title track, I found myself putting on repeat when I ran errands one Sunday afternoon.  Anthemic, Melancholy Dad Rock works best for them, so I’m not as big on “Turtleneck” but the rest of the album serves to create the dark ambiance the title suggests.  And while, yes, the same critique I made of Ryan Adams could be made of the songwriting, their vulnerability and interiority doesn’t seem to hold them back, but propel The National forward.

2.  Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound.  It’s a short list of artists who crank out three albums of as high quality as Isbell’s Southeastern, Something More than Free, and The Nashville Sound.  The best storyteller on this list, Isbell crafts characters, autobiographical confessionals, and even finds a way to beautifully call his buddy Ryan Adams (I don’t mean to keep harping on Adams, but he makes it easy) to task in “Chaos and Clothes”.  “Last of My Kind” and “Something to Love” bookend this album nicely, “White Man’s World” deconstructs Dixie in a way only an Alabaman in diaspora can, and the gorgeous “If We Were Vampires” is a once-in-a-lifetime writing achievement about a once-in-a-lifetime love.  This is a great album, and in any other year, it’d be my number one.  But, by a hair, I have another favorite.

1. Hurray For the Riff Raff, The Navigator.  This Album, Guys.  THIS. ALBUM.  While I love the evocative introduction, and I think “Living in the City” is a great opening tune, the bass guitar echo that begins “Hungry Ghost” is where this album begins for me.  Alynda Segarra blends her punk roots with a vision of Americana that, like Giddens’, tells more immigration stories than just that of Western Expansion, and brings Nuyorican moxie and political struggle to the conversation.  “Fourteen Floors,” about her father’s experience   living in a high rise not long after arriving in New York is gorgeous, and “Pa’lante” (“Forward” or “Go For it”), which is a Call to Power that includes a recording of Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary,” will knock you over.  Segarra’s defiance is at the heart of this album, whether she’s singing a tender lament or throwing her fist in the air.

So far, a good year for music, y’all.  Let me know what you think–and let me know:  What did you love that I miss?  What did I love that you hated?  Did I get anything right?

Ironman Sunday

I like the moment
In the sanctuary
When it is first

When I am the last one

I run my hand along
the tops of the edge of the pews

I swear the marks look like
Masking tape was peeled off,
having once lined each one.

I scour the rows, humming to myself;
The hymnals lining them are blue–
Only mine is bound in red.

I could shout a lament or idolatrously
Shout my own name

But I only listen to the buzzing echo
of my humming:

A small stitch in the silence.

The stitch of red in the
dusk’s blue backdrop
catches my eye
while I grill pizzas
as the day nears its end.

I hum a joke from an HBO
comedy to myself

and I hear the voice of an announcer
echoing from downtown

Telling the world
who has finished this weekend’s

Contested History: A Parable

I am five years old, standing on the sidewalk at a Fourth of July parade with my mother, my aunt, and my sisters. Before the parade begins, a vendor comes by with a cart full of balloons and other kitschy souvenirs. We are each allowed one. There are the twisty-tie kind, contorted into animals. There are superheroes (my usual favorite), but something else catches my eye.

“It’s a Dukes of Hazard flag,” I yell.

My mom resists my request.

“But why?” I grow impatient. She had promised.

My mom relents.

With a toothy grin and the joy of getting my way, I wave the flag of my favorite TV show vigorously, even after the parade has passed.

I am 20 years old when my mother tells me a story about her father, the grandfather I never knew. The driveway that connected the house where I grew up ends at what used to be called Rural Route 3, a state roulade that continues on ttonthe Ohio River town of Maysville, KY (a place that boasts stops on the Underground Railroad). Whereas now rural mailboxes have a red flag which notifies mail carriers whether or not there was mail, they were once decorated with a metallic American flag.

Whether out of spite, with a devilish wink, or with a sense of mission, my grandfather replaced the American flag with a Confederate one.

‘That was just Daddy.’ My mom said with a sigh, empty of judgement. Probably just missing him.

I am 22 years old in Warren, OH, talking to a man named Bob Faulkner. We are both from Mount Sterling, KY. He is a graduate of Hiram College. I will graduate from there in a semester. I am in his office, in a small corporate office. We talk about many things–his career, his education, our shared hometown, our different experiences growing up there. He is a baby boomer, and black. I am an Xer and white.

Our conversation soon draws us to what brought us together–a poem by Winchester KY native and Vanderbilt Agrarian poet Alan Tate entitled “The Swimmers.”

It is set in our shared hometown, and it tells a story from Tate’s childhood, when he and his friends stumbled upon a lynching on their way to a swimming hole.

Neither of us had read this poem until we came to Hiram. No one we knew in Mt. Sterling knew about it. It was a memorial in ink for a nameless dead man who died a horrible death–a memorial no one in that town seemed to know existed.

The whole conversation reminds me of those famous words from another Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I am 25 years old in Pretoria, South Africa, part of a student delegation from Vanderbilt Divinity School. It is only a decade since Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, a few years since the end of Apartheid. We tour the Voortrekker monument, which commemorates Afrikaner settler expansion and defeat of a regiment of Zulu with whom the Afrikaners clashed. The monument tells the story of a covenant the Afrikaners made with God that they would be ever faithful if  God would grant them victory. 

The Zulu were defeated. The Voortrekkers became the true indigenous people of South Africa, thanks be to God, the story goes.

The portrayal of Zulu and Afrikaner is predictable: violent savage vs noble settler. 

Canaanite vs Israelite.

 Protestant vs Catholic or Catholic vs. Protestant, depending on who baptized you.

At a reception with faculty of the University of Pretoria, once the hotbed of pro-apartheid intellectual justification, where we are anticipating a conversation on reconciliation, history, and identity, a professor approaches me and greets me in Afrikaans. 

I look confused.

‘Oh,’ he says. ‘I thought you were one of us.’

On our way back to our hostel, our delegation has a contentious conversation. Several of us draw comparisons between the Voortrekker monument and the depiction of American settlers and Native Americans.

One of us does not agree.

‘But we have monuments just like this.’

‘We have nothing like this.

‘America is different.’

I am 34 years old, and I am reading the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for the first time since seminary. They tell fascinating stories about the aftermath of the Babylonian Exile, how the exiles return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, continuing the covenant with the God who blessed them in the first place, and (some would say) threw them to the Babylonians as a punishment before backing the Persians who freed them.

I bristle at the part where those who were not part of the exile, who remained in their homeland, are excoriated for marrying “foreign women,” and how they are commanded to abandon them. There is no room for them or their children.

They were Canaanites and Moabites. God has no use for them in this city. They were to be expelled.

As I read, I remember another book that tells the story of an ancestor of David, the most beloved king in the Hebrew Bible, whose son Solomon would build the first temple, the one destroyed by the Babylonians:

The book of Ruth, which celebrates the Moabite woman whose family line would begat Israel’s most beloved king.

I imagine a scene left out of Ezra and Nehemiah, where expelled women, sitting around a fire outside of the city they miss, hold their children close and tell them that while this new temple may not be built for them, they have always had a part in the story. And they tell them of Ruth and Naomi, and of Solomon, another king, who married women of different hues and tribes.

We are reticent to tell the whole history. We shouldn’t be.

I am 36 years old and I am at an unremarkable restaurant in a town not terribly far from an airport. I am talking with a man who attends a church where I have just spoken. I am not the pastor at his church. Perhaps that is why he feels able to speak freely.

‘One thing that bothers me about you young pastors is that you all say ‘Hebrew Bible’ instead of ‘Old Testament.’ There’s no need to be politically correct. Call it what it is.’

I tell him that that is exactly what I am trying to do–that while Christians claim the books in this canon as prelude to their New Testament, the Jewish faith claims them as something different, and draws different meaning from them, and both of our faiths, as practiced in the 21st century, would look very different from the first writers and collectors of these texts. They are written in Hebrew, and we consider them scripture. I tell him about Ezra and Ruth and contested readings of history, and how important it is to remember that while Christians primarily see the Bible as centering on Jesus, there is so much more there, and we forget it at our own peril. Therefore, for me, ‘Hebrew Bible’ is the most precise term I feel I can use without falling into the trap of supersessionism, or laziness.

‘Well,’ he tells me, ‘I just don’t think we should have to be so PC.’

It is not the first time I have had this conversation. It will not be the last.

I am 42 years old, walking across the college campus across the street from the church I serve. It’s also where the closest coffee shop is, and it’s Monday. On my way back to my office, i notice a sticker of A familiar classical statue on a signpost, with the slogan “Protect Your Heritage”.  “IDENTITY EVROPA,” follows at the bottom, which I recognize as the name of a white identity/supremacy group.I stop and stare at it for a moment. I am, at heart, a civil libertarian. I have long believed that the way you overcome hate speech is with more speech. I am appalled by the weaponized anachronism of ‘white, European’ identity (my art historian sister would later express equal dismay!) Though I do not know it at the time, Identity Evropa will be among the groups in Charlottesville doubling down on nostalgia and anachronism to further their White Supremacist agenda.

I consider the price of speech, and the price of when we don’t tell a whole story. I think of the Renaissance statue of David, The descendent of the Moabite woman, whose descendants would self-consciously tell their own stories of exile and exclusion.

I remember flags waved, less self-consciously, and histories we must still reckon with. Nostalgia is not history, especially the weaponized kind. 

We must tell the whole history. Otherwise, we are just lying.

I tear the picture of the statue down.

*one of the joys of this summer was reconnecting with Bob Faulkner, almost 20 years after I interviewed him. Since retiring from the corporate world, he is now serving as a minister of a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)–another thing we share.