30 December 2011

MMXI in Review/Best of List

With one more full day of MMX I find it appropriate to offer my annual assessment of the year that passed.

2011 fraught with travail and anxiety but also provided the crucible for growth and re-appreciation of life and vocation.

Here we go:

1. Best sermon - by far the one I preached just a little over a fortnight ago. Why? Because it was the first sermon preached in a good spell; it felt terrific to be back in the pulpit. No tears while preaching, they waited till I sat down afterwards. Most favorite line was one where I playfully described John the Baptizer containing an alliteration I spent way too much time on, "aggravating attire, bug breath, and honey hands." Honorable Mention: Singing Our Lives: From Mass in B Minor to Prayer in Open D. I had great fun writing and reflecting on the importance of music in worship and spirituality.

2. Best work of fiction: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. How eloquent she described my vocation from afar.

3. Best work of non-fiction: The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate, a biography of Harry Ward Beecher.

4. Most enjoyable culinary experience: Father's day - popeye's fried chicken, cheap american beer, iced tea, mashed potatoes, and biscuits picnic with the kids and wife at City Park. Afterwards we went to the Great Lawn for games and tom foolery.

5. Most Moving Moment - the weekend I traveled to RI to deliver an eulogy for Raymond Houghton. It was my first trip back to RI since we moved to NOLA. I was moved with waves of emotions that began reminding me of my calling to pastoral ministry. I spent an afternoon with Joe Taylor, a few minutes with Michael, went to Dohtery's with Darin, said hello to old neighbors, stayed with Mike and Jenny, spent time with friends, and remembered a wonderful human being.

6. Time I sat in awe of my wife: The Recycled Fashion Show. I have always thought of my wife as an artist: the way she loves and nurtures the children, the care she takes cooking, the manner with which she conducts herself but that night I saw her as an artist in her own right, it was an exhilarating moment.

7. What I Didn't See Coming - I could write a few 1000 words on this one. But instead I will simply say I didn't see how healing and re-creative therapy could be. A trusted colleague recommended that I use my "fictive sabbatical" to plunge the depths of my existence. THe trusted colleague recommended a therapist and man am I thankful. I have referred others to therapy but never thought it would benefit me as much. Naive sure.

8. Best pictures of the year:

Little Man on the Florida Coast

The Greatest Wife in the World at Jazz Fest

The Daughter playing at Morning Meeting. Without any prompting or instruction she displayed the disinterested rock star look. I am still flabbergasted by this.

Little Buddy trying to look like a viscous pirate-ninja.

9. Best CD: American Legacies: The Del McCoury Band and Preservation Hall.

10. Best Children's Author Discovery: Daniel Pinkwater. We have read his works to the kids before but not like we did this year. The man is hilarious.

11. In Memoriam: Joe Taylor, Dorothy & Raymond Houghton, Peter Gomes, and Hazel Dickens.

12. Most Surprising Author find: Frederick Buechner.

13. Best Moment at a Sporting Event: Zephyr's game. I sat in the outfield on the levee with the kids. I told the kids to wait till the outfielder caught the ball (the pitcher's curveballs were hanging) then wave like mad and you'll get the ball. Sure enough with two outs the batter ripped a line drive to the center fielder, the kids waved like mad and the ball came right to us.

14. Most Amazing Donut Experience: The Maple Glazed Bacon donut at Blue Dot, that thing is plain evil.

15. Year in Numbers.
# of times I saw someone go the wrong way on the one way street I live on: 14.
# of times I went to Stein's Deli for a bagel: 10
# of times the properitor seemed interested in my being there: 0.
# of times we went to one of the new chic hamburger joints in town: 2.
# of times I thought the new chic hamburger joints were just overpriced Bud's Broilers: 2.
# of times my wife and I attempted to watch The King's Speech before returning it to Netflix: 5.
# of baseball games I coached: 19.
# of times I taught violin class by myself: 6
# of times I taught violin class by myself and resorted to telling stories to gain the attention of the kids: 6.
# of times I saw Michael Tisserand after I sent him a facebook friend request before he approved it: 4.

16. Best Culinary Invention. The other day we had a bottle of champagne and a bag of cranberries. I knew there was a cocktail in there somewhere. I put the cranberries in a pot with some sugar, heated till the berries broke down and a syrup formed. I watered the syrup a bit then scooped a generous tablespoon into glasses, then poured some bubbly over it and stirred. I know this is not my invention but I like to think it is.

17. Significant moments in my life as a father. A. showed #1 my favorite 80s movie: Better Off Dead. B. while passing ball with #2 he threw one so hard it stung my hand for a good five minutes. C. watched #3 go off to kindergarten.

28 December 2011

A Fictive Sabbatical

As some of you may or may not know I resigned from my position as Senior Pastor back in August. Since then I have been engaged in an inward search: evaluating my call to ministry (I love it now more than ever), enjoying fatherhood (as I write this post at the dinner table I am surrounded by my progeny: #1 is working on her Student of the Year application, #2 is practicing cursive, and #3 is using Ed Wemberley to help him draw animals), finding the depth of friendship (more on this later), and found the simple pleasure of reading fiction. Come to think of it, each of the aforementioned inward insights will receive a separate post in the near future.

I told friends when I first resigned that I was on a sort of sabbatical - sort of because most people when they take a sabbatical have a job waiting for them when the sabbatical is over. I feel my sabbatical has been/is a resting, re-creative, and rejuvenating experience. Nevertheless I couldn't help but "pun" around with my sabbatical terminology so I came up with a fictive, for indeed my sabbatical is fictive (in the professional sense of the word sabbatical), sabbatical because all I have read, by no grand design, has been works of fiction.

For years I have dabbled with fiction reading a novel here or there, I even created a sermon series based on the works of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, but my dabbles were always - always - outweighed by a heavy dose of non-fiction: historical, theological, and practical titles.

So what has happened during my fictive sabbatical? I have developed a greater appreciation of dialogue, especially in the gospels. Also, I have developed a greater appreciation for the daily ins and outs of ministry. I believe fiction writers have more faith in pastoral ministry than most pastors do! How can I say that? They pay more attention to life, to light and darkness, to emotions, to how the past influences the future, how dreams create realities, how rituals transform (or tear down) individuals/families, & etc. I think pastors have and make these insights just as much as any fiction writer but we need to be reminded/nudged of them.

I will soon post a New York Review of Books type of review on Gilead & Home by Marilynne Robison and Father Melancholy's Daughter by Gail Godwin and how they both represent (maybe even redeem) the pastor as a character in fiction and remind pastors (all members of the clergy, not just Christian ministers) of their importance in human life.

12 December 2011

An Honest to Goodness Sermon

It has been awhile, how long...long enough. This past Sunday I preached a sermon, oh brother did it feel good.

Enough is Enough
Third Sunday of Advent – Year B – 11.Dec.2011
I Thessalonians 5:16-24; Isaiah 60:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
text: “Do not despise the words of the prophets” I Thess. 5:20
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

-Sometimes you don’t know how good something is until it is gone: a relationship that no longer is, the voice of the deceased, the playfulness of a puppy, or an old broken in chair.
-Sometimes you take things for granted and it takes someone from the outside to remind you of how great or interesting you have it: when they remark how big your kitchen is or when a friend comes over and says over and over again how much fun your slicky-slide is or when a dinner guests wont stop complimenting your biscuits.

-And sometimes life becomes so difficult, even painful, that you think there is no other way, that the way life is now will always be the way it is. In situations like these we need a beacon (either a poet, an author, a songwriter, an artist, a playwright, a filmmaker, a choreographer, a choir, a field of lilies) to take us to another place and show us that life is not fixed, that the pain we feel is finite, that the difficulties we face are not forever.

So it was in the first century of Palestine an expectant and pregnant time – life without pleasure, splendor or beauty.

Edward Gibbon labeled the period of the first century as the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome. Perhaps it was “peaceful” if you were a ruling elite with a villa on the banks of the Tiber, but if you were a peasant in first century Palestine life was anything but peaceful. Pax Romana it was not; Infernos Romae, the Hell of Rome, it was.

And so it was that one day a poet, John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, finally said enough is enough. The madness has to stop. We are more than cogs in the Roman wheel, we are children of the Living God. And so it went, he left home and went to the wilderness, that unguarded place by the Roman military-economic machine, that largely forgotten place of legend and lore, of promise and new life. Under cold star lit skies and blazing hot days, by the muddy Jordan, and just on the other side, just out of the reach of madness a man and his poetry went to find life anew.

And it came to pass that this man and his strange ways re-awakened the slumbering souls of Zion. I am sure the oligarchs and plutocrats in Jerusalem, more or less, the mass of humanity even knew about this lone wild bird in the desert. Who had time to listen to poetry? Records show life under Roman occupation changed and altered traditional patterns of life so much that people barely had a moment to lift their head to acknowledge the day more or less hear words of entertainment. Hear the allusions to the parables: Roman economic policies caused younger sons to leave home and go off to foreign lands to find work, caused youth to assemble in the city and hope someone would hire them at the nine o’clock, at noon, at three o’clock and for one hour of work at five o’clock, caused farmers to lose sleep over the price of seed so fearful that one wayward mustard seed would fall in their field and ruin their crop, and turned hospitality inside out so that villagers, rather than open their doors with bread and wine, they were scared to answer the door at night when a stranger entered lest they be killed. Into this time John offered his art as a generative and transforming possibility.

It sounded preposterous, almost comical, but the Gospel record reveals that the people of Israel were not laughing, they were praising God – finally someone had a word of the Lord. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to the wilderness to be baptized, to be cleansed, to be made whole by a poet. He was a prophet of yore with aggravating attire, bug breath and honey hands. The poet/prophet who through his poetry took his people where they could not go by themselves, he reminded them of their heritage with his poetry, he reawakened their slumbering souls with ancient songs of Zion, and shocked them out of their Roman induced numbness with his dramatic ways.

Then one day the minders thought they ought to find out what was going on, so they sent some representatives, some Levites and some priests. The encounter is quite amusing:

Who are you?
I am not the Messiah.
What then? Are you Elijah?
I am not.
Are you the prophet?
Who are you? What do you say for yourself?

a collective calm,
a meditative moment,
a pregnant pause.

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.

Depending on your familiarity with the gospel of John you may or may not have recognized what just happened. The gospel writer framed John the Baptizer as more than a poet, as more than a prophet, the author framed John as a creative and generative force. I am the voice in the wilderness… Later on the author of the will put that phrase, I am, on the lips of Jesus seven times to define our Lord, I am the way the true and the life, I am the vine, I am the good shepherd, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, and I am the resurrection and the life. And when the authorities go to arrest Jesus, our Lord says I am and they all fall down. I am the voice crying out in the wilderness…

Those who went to question the Baptizer had no idea what he was talking about. Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet? But enough people got what John was up to. How many, well enough. How much is enough, enough to frighten the kings and rulers of Jerusalem.

John did what John was supposed to do. He wasn’t supposed to teach people how to pray, to show people how to forgive, heal, love, bless, or reveal the meaning of disinterested love, non-violent revolution, justice, peace, or life everlasting – that was Jesus’ job. John was the poet/prophet/generative force who took a plough and sliced the earth of calloused souls, he was the one who grabbed folk by the scruff of the collar and said this is not all there is, enough is enough, change, turn, and live life anew.

You and I need third parties to enter our lives and remind us of our calling and lives as followers of the Christ. We need a John the Baptist to lift us up to heaven’s gates to reawaken our slumbering souls in the bleak midwinter.

On September 17 a Canadian activist group Adbusters and other U.S. groups called for a mass protest in New York City. They envisioned and hoped for 20,000 to attend, barely 2,000 showed up. Their actions did not illicit much attention from any of the news outlets. But over the next week the country watched the execution of Troy Davis which served as a wake up call for people of conscience. Then came the first mass march on Union Square in NYC, 87 people were arrested and suddenly what we now know as Occupy Wall Street became a news item. Since then we have watched this odd voluntary gathering of people in large and small towns in this nation and around the world. We have watched them evicted peacefully and with force. We have watched while others have belittled their effort. We may have even chuckle while those seeking the presidency said I’ll talk to them when they take a bath and get a job.

I confess I wrote them off at first. Sure we all are against corporate greed. Sure we are all fed up with the unjust and in many ways evil economic system we all participate in. But what is living in a park in New York City and in other public places around the world going to do to end it. Wouldn’t it be better if you took your frustration and drafted alternative economic policies? And so I largely ignored their stories. But over the course of days I kept hearing statistics over and over and over again about income inequality. I kept hearing the language expressed in interviews until one day one word struck a nerve. I realized that the Occupy Wall Street folk were singing my song. They were singing our song, the old time gospel hour song of a liberating word, a time of jubilee, of a new world, the world we are working for and waiting to come. They are functioning as our John the Baptist as that outside third party recalling our mission to heal, mend, and love creation.

I’m not asking you to go downtown and join the occupiers. But I am asking for us to see the Occupy Wall Street movement as a witness, as a call for us to remember who we are children of the Living God, as disciples of the Christ, as ambassadors of reconciliation. We have something to say about this unjust situation, economic inequality, ecological deprivation, and presence of war. We have a good word to offer this world and a redemptive song to sing. The way the world is, is not the only way, there are other alternatives. We can have profits and justice, we can have good jobs and a clean and life-giving environment, we can protect our citizenry without spending billions on foreign and domestic wars. For God is not finished with you and me and this world.

This Advent may we hear the call of the Baptizer in the witness of the protesters in our land. May we join with them in metaphorical and in physical fashions to say Enough is Enough. This Advent let us join the Baptizer by saying enough is enough:

To the powers of death,
enough is enough
To the powers of war,
enough is enough
To the powers of economic exploitation,
enough is enough
To the powers of injustice,
enough is enough
To the powers of ecological degradation,
enough is enough
To the powers of racial discrimination,
enough is enough
To the powers of homophobia,
enough is enough
To the powers of xenophobia,
enough is enough

You have had our ears and been at the microphone too long, it is time for us to hear and to sing a different song, an ancient song of Zion.

This morning may we hear the different song as a blessing, may we make ourselves vulnerable enough to hear the poem John alluded to as our song, as our blessing, as our charge:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon you; because the LORD hath anointed you to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent you to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
To appoint unto them that mourn in this world, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.
And you shall build the old wastes, you shall raise up the former desolations, and you shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations. For the LORD you serve loves justice, hates robbery for burnt offering; and will direct their work in truth, and will make an everlasting covenant with them.
And your seed shall be known among the nations, and your offspring among the people: all that see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the LORD hath blessed.
You will greatly rejoice in the LORD, your soul shall be joyful in your God; for he hath clothed you with the garments of salvation, he hath covered you with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.
For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.

Amen and Amen.

02 December 2011

Gift Buying Guide for Your Pastor

The holiday season is upon us and many parishioners are curious as to what they should get their pastor or religious leader as a gift. Allow me to assuage your anxiety by providing a list that is both practical and whimsical (I'll leave it up to you to discern which is which).

First let us purge bad holiday gifts.

1. A book of sermons by a famous preacher. Although many pastors do read sermons of famous dead and living preachers it is not the kind of book preachers like parishioners purchasing for them, it can send the wrong message.

2. Something that they must hang in their house (especially if they live in a parsonage). I realize that someone may have put a lot of time and effort into the gift, but what if it is not the kind of thing the pastor or his/her family wants to display? Although it is a heartfelt gift it may put unnecessary pressure on the pastor and his/her family to display the gift or feel guilty if he/she does not and then one day the gifter enters the house and does not see the gift on display.  You can see where this is going...

Now let us move onto the gift buying guide. Reader, know that this list was composed with financially struggling congregations and houses of worship in mind.

10. A Title. That's is right a title: like pound for pound the best preacher they have heard in a while, or dean of the sanctuary, or bishop of the boulevard. Trust me I have yet to meet a pastor who does not want or one who does not secretly covet a formal, especially some obscure English, title.

9. An Alternative Title. Something like writer-in-residence. Why? Well imagine you are a person of the cloth on an airplane and you do not want to talk "shop" with the person next to you. If you are feeling disposed to share your vocation then by all means share it, but if you are not and the passenger next to you asks, "and what do you do?" You can faithfully (and truthfully) answer I am a writer-in-residence. 2012 updated alt. title: Life Coach.

8. A Stack of I've Had it Cards. I would say at least five of these. Most congregations grant generous vacation and continuing education time off for their pastors but there are times when pastors give and give and give till they are spent. So rather than have your pastor just check out one day, reward him/her with an "I've Had it Day" card. An unquestioned, last minute, taking the day off to sleep in, go shopping, eat an ice cream sundae for breakfast, play golf, card for that kind of day.

7. A Night Out. Although cash is a great gift for pastors there is a great temptation to spend it on necessary and workaday stuff. Therefore, volunteer to be the person to coordinate a church wide gift for the pastor. After sufficient cash is obtained purchase gift cards to the nicest restaurant in town, then tickets to a show, and arrange for a trusted member(s) to watch the pastor's kids (if they have them) or pets, or the house while they are away.

6. Promise to say thank you over the course of the year. Even over the most minute or mundane acts promise to say thanks to your pastor. Write a note to say how much you enjoyed the sermon. Write a note to say how much his/her prayer meant to you. Do not let the work go unnoticed or unacknowledged.

5. Promise never to criticize a sermon on a Sunday morning while you exit a service. The act of preaching is a dangerous and courageous act; one of the most vulnerable acts a person can do. Pastors reveal their most cherished and deepest thoughts; their hopes, dreams, and relationship with the Holy. After a service they are famished and extremely vulnerable, it is not the time for criticism. If you do not like the sermon then simply say I love you or I hope you have a good afternoon. Criticism can wait till Monday morning.

4. An understanding that pastoral work is artistry. Sure managerial, fundraising, interpersonal, supervisory, strategic planning, and visionary skills are needed for effective and meaningful ministry but transcending all of that is an art form of taking ideas and incarnating them, of healing and mending, of crying with and for, of tearing down and building up. Perhaps you could change the designation pastor's office to pastoral studio.

3. A good stiff drink. No, I am not condoning an unhealthy addiction to alcohol. Nor, am I encouraging that the pastor drink his/her problems away with alcohol. I am advocating for a nice expensive bottle of wine or scotch to be purchased for a celebratory meal or moment in the course of a year. If you suspect a drinking problem then I would suggest a weekly subscription to the NY Times. Make this one a both/and if you do not suspect an unhealthy approach to distilled spirits.

2. A sidekick. Yes, a sidekick. This is not a paid position or a volunteer staff position this is more of a Sunday morning worship sidekick. You will be the (insert day and time of your worshipping community here) version of Andy Richter. You will be the first person to stand to sing, and you will sing the loudest, you will have the most sincere face while the pastor prays, if the pastor pulls at your heart strings during the sermon you will have a handkerchief ready to wipe away your tears, during the sermon you will have the most concentrated face, and if the pastor tells a joke or tells a funny story you will guffaw and hold your sides like it is nobody's business.

Drum Roll...

1. Finally, you will love your pastor with as much love as you can. Through bad times and good times you will love her/him.

All of these gifts are mutually beneficial gifts. You will deepen your relationship with your pastor and he/she will deepen his/her relation with you. You will be enlightened by deeper sermons while your pastor will push himself/herself through a wider reading program and discover a new artistic expression.

If you must purchase something not listed here let me offer these then:

Subscription to The New Yorker - if for nothing more than the cartoons and to have it in the office (I mean studio) to impress future members.
Gift card to a local bookstore - no pastor or religious leader can have enough books.
Tickets to JazzFest (even if your pastor lives nowhere near New Orleans, he/she will never be the same...)

I hope this helps. Happy Holidays.

01 December 2011

The Word Escaped Me

After only a few weeks on the job at the church in NOLA I lost my bible. I had it one evening at a bible study then couldn't find it the day after. Either I misplaced it somewhere or someone thought for sure they would obtain instant salvation and restitution with it in their possession...i dunno.

I loved that bible, an NRSV Oxford Annotated Study Bible (2nd Edition) with the Apocrypha. The margins were full of seminary notes, interesting and key passages were underline, and sections were given personal titles. I could find passages just by looking at the page - not the title, chapter or verse. It was broken in, had duct tape on the spine (visual proof that I, a liberal Protestant, actually read the thing). This loss was (and still is) devastating.

My first attempt at replacement was to purchase a brand new study bible of a different brand - the Abingdon NRSV Study Bible - the notes were fantastic but the paper was too thin. Then I tried going back to an old and well worn RSV Oxford Study Bible but despite my love for this accurate translation it is a bit wooden and the notes were a bit dated. I then said the heck with a study bible, I'll just use a good slim NRSV (more a dagger than a sword). It took about three tries before I found one I liked, The Green Bible. It serves as a good pulpit bible (for I do have dreams of one day holding a liberal version of a revival and a preacher needs a good pulpit bible for that kind of thing). But I still longed for my study bible, one that I did not care to mark in and mangle. Then I remembered that a few years back I purchased the 3rd edition of the NRSV Oxford Study Bible. But one look at the cover and I knew this would not work - mustard yellow? Are you kidding me? Who wants a mustard colored bible? Not me.

Then I went nostalgic - what if I bought a used copy of my lost bible? So I did, for $3.00 from abebooks. I even had a small glimmer of hope that my lost bible would have been found by someone who sold it to the book merchant whom I bought the copy from. I know, I know - like there is a whole underground black market for used study bibles from the late 1990s! The new/old bible arrived but it wasn't the same - no notes! I almost hoped shirtless bible salesmen would come to the door with some edition I had never heard of, but they never did.

Realizing that I would have to pick a bible and start breaking it in I purchased yet another bible. Are you ready...The Fully Revised (4th Edition) of the Oxford Annotated Study Bible, ecumenical edition, no Apocrypha. It is white, the pages are heft, and cover is slick. It aint perfect but it'll do. If you ever stumble upon a red bible with gray duct tape on the spine and lots of interesting notes in the margins please let me know. I'll trade you my collection of bibles and will provide a feast of the finest meats and cheeses in the land. If I never see it again, I only hope it has a good home. I hope the owner appreciates the work I did on Romans a few years ago, or finds some solace in my underlining of the Psalms, and sees my love for Jeremiah. If someone did take it I hope they love it. I dont feel as these monks did when someone stole their bible.

30 November 2011

Follow Up Post on Sub Cultures

I suppose I should fully explain yesterday's post on "subcultures." Within the great American culture are numerous, at least 1.56 million subcultures. I am apart of many: the liberal Protestant subculture, which can be even sub divided into the liberal-evangelical social gospel variety. Then there is the whole Baptist - a rather large and sometime ubiquitous subculture. Then there are the following: the Appalachian subculture, the foodie subculture, the loves baseball but never really pays attention to September subculture, the wishes NFL offenses were not so predictable subculture, the prefers playing on Sunday afternoons rather than watching football subculture, the typewriter subculture, the cannot stop reading Roald Dahl books subculture, and so on and so on.

I have participated in each of these subcultures (still do actually) but never gave much thought about how miniscule they are in relation to the larger American culture. Then one winter night I attended my first beekeeping class in Rhode Island. There I was confronted with a whole new subculture that I never knew existed and that I could never have imagined. Beekeepers who would have thunk it.

So what was so different about the beekeepers in RI? For the record the following explanation is totally conjecture and speculation on my part, I have no physical proof to substantiate this offering. I found a group of people who were lonely & bored who found in beekeeping a supportive group of people and a hobby to devote countless hours and dollars. Spread out through southern New England you would never notice this quiet and non-threatening subculture but grouped together in a class one could not mistake them. I kid you not - Black and Gold minivans, esoteric and over the top corny beekeeping bumper stickers, black and gold flannel shirts, beekeeping t-shirts that had to be printed in small batches of no more than 15, dreams of sweet pepper bush blooming in the Spring.

My next introduction into a subculture took place a couple of years ago when I took the kids on a steam train tour. The kids loved the train, they climbed all over the outside, they pulled the chain to let the whistle blow, the ran from car to car, and rang the bell. I, however, was more interested in the conversations going on by members of the Steam Train Association. I heard one man telling onlookers about a bridge over the Mississippi with such detail and passion that I can only surmise that this man waits with great expectation every year for this one day when he has the opportunity to share his knowledge and love.

Thomas Merton, in reflecting about his vocation of prayer as a monk, once remarked that the perhaps the prayers of the monks at Gethesemani were the only act keeping the world from spinning off into madness. Now I do not think the existence of subcultures have the same impact but I do think the pleasure, sense of worth, education and relationships they build do keep the madness, somewhat, at bay. Can I get an Amen from the other 6 adult learners of the violin from RI and MA?

27 November 2011

introduction to another sub culture

Roughly two weeks ago my household added a new addition: a dog, a Dalmatianish mutt to be as specific as I can. We have talked about a obtaining a dog for quite a spell but never acted on our impulses. Then we received word of a litter of pups who needed homes. It was time.

blogosphere allow me to introduce you to Louie:
The criteria for the name.
1. It had to have a New Orleans connection. Name most considered by us: Napoleon but what if someone concluded that we named a dog after the former French dictator instead of the street where we celebrate carnival season.
2. Easily pronounced. Name most considered by us: Thibodaux - probably my favorite Louisiana town to pronounce. But imagine the scenario where Louis escapes and someone new finds him and then they try to pronounce Thibodaux on the dog collar.
3. Had to fit on a name tag. Name most considered by us: Tchoupitoulas. I love that name but cannot imagine a dog collar large enough to handle 13 letters.

Having a dog, thus far, has been fantastic but difficult. Many thanks to Jon Katz's book Katz on Dogs for help and assistance. Having a dog has also introduced us to the sub (rather large indeed) culture of dog ownership.

We have lived here in NOLA for almost 2.5 years. I have been able to meet the acquaintance of a number of people. But I cannot believe how many now say hello to me that I have a dog. When I go take the pup for a walk people that have never in the past even made eye contact now stop to chat. I should interject here that people are not necessarily saying hello to me as much as they are to the dog.

Just yesterday myself and a neighbor were standing out in front of the house talking about dogs. As we were chatting another neighbor came out. She said hello to the neighbor by stating hello then his name, then she looked at me - she does not know my name - so with an uncomfortable chagrined look she said hello, then she looked down and with a huge smile said and there's Louie! You see what I am talking about reader!

Perhaps Steve Martin's experience with a cute dog can best explain the phenomena of neighbors/strangers liking your dog more than you -- from the 1984 movie, A Lonely Guy:

01 November 2011

The White Suit on All Hallow's Eve

Last year Lori and I had wonderful 2011 Halloween costume ideas - so wonderful reader that I am keeping mum on them in hopes of making them for 2012 - but, things happened and we found ourselves the week of Halloween trying to conjure up some last minute ideas for ourselves.

Lori used the world wide web to find inspiration - she went as Mother Earth: she squirted a ton of hair spray on her head so her hair would stand straight up and then spray painted it green: thus grass. Then she put snakes, spiders and other critters in her hair and on her face. She accompanied this with brown make up and a brown top and pants. She looked pretty cool and a little spooky at the same time.

The progeny went as Rosie the Riveter, A Ninja, and a Vampire:

I took a different angle. I started thinking about wearing my white suit. I mean why should I let the fashion police tell me that I cannot wear it after Labor Day? First thought: Mark Twain, but too much hair. Second thought: Tom Wolfe, but too esoteric. How many kids would know that Tom Wolfe wears all white all the time? Then like a shooting star dashing across the heavens it came to me: The Colonel. That's right, the one and only Colonel Saunders!

The outfit was quite easy: a white suit, a black ribbon for a tie, some scraps of black fabric for a pocket square, some kind of puffy white pipe cleaner that I used for facial hair (which needed trimming) - eyelash paint to glue them onto my face, a pair of 3d glasses you get from the movies (just punch the "glass" out), a large KFC bucket (yes, they just gave it to me), and viola:

Reaction: as I walked around uptown trick or treating with the kids and families I noticed that my outfit brought many smiles and conjured a deep nostalgia from the other adults., i.e. lots of, "Hey its the Colonel."

If I had it to do all over again. 1. I would have painted my hair and eyebrows snow white. 2. I would have passed out chicken legs rather than biscuits (I made a pan of 'em and passed 'em out to the kids as we traversed the streets). 3. I would have driven to KFC with the outfit on and asked for the bucket rather than go in civilian clothes. 4. I would have worked for weeks on one liners. After I dropped the family off and searched for a parking space a gentleman on a bicycle rode past and asked, "Hey Colonel, what's in those 11 herbs and spices?" Man I wish I had spent some time prepping for that! Next year...

23 September 2011

Sabbatical adventures II: Resume Building

One of the tasks I have been engaged in lately, on my sort of sabbatical, is editing my resume. You reader, can even have a look-see yourself if you are so inclined; I have posted it here as a google doc.

Today I added an experience that I am not quite sure, yet, how to place on my resume: substitute beginning violin teacher. I was asked last week if I would do a huge favor for one of the music teachers at the school my children attend. Without any hesitation and before even knowing what the request would be I said yes. I love the school, the teachers, and the staff. Anything for the school I would happily do. Then the teacher informed me that the school needed an emergency orchestra teacher for this week, to teach beginning violin for second graders. I hem-hawed around for a few minutes explaining my lack of ability and such until the teacher told me the kids are not even up to using a bow. My heart rate and blood pressure eased and I said sure. After all these are second graders, how hard could it be.

Today was my first day. I prepped by chaperoning for a field trip with 125 third graders on a swamp tour. Did I mention I signed up to ride on the school bus? Did I mention this same bus did not have air conditioning? Did I mention it was 90 degrees this morning? And did I forget to mention the bus ride was about 45 minutes? What a preparation!

Fast forward to 3:15, when the bell rings and school is dismissed. I went to round up my class of second graders. There along the fence were 15-16, maybe 17 second graders, who had no idea who I was or that I was their teacher for the day. To my surprise there was no protest.

We made it to our designated temporary spot (kids without instruments had to obtain loaners and sign them out). Then we hiked up to our designated classroom spot. But our first choice was already occupied, so was the second choice. So we hiked back down to our temporary spot and were assigned...the balcony. Did I mention the balcony (really a porch) is outside? Did I mention that I did not have a blackboard to write any music notation down? Did I mention how humidity and heat stretch violin strings?

I got all of the kids in some form of a line, took attendance, and then attempted my lesson for the day: explaining the different parts of the violin. I asked the students to get out their violins, only their violins - no bows. But the kids wanted to get their bows out. And I told them to put their bows back. Okay, now back to the parts of a violin. I was able to communicate about the neck and then, and then I lost them...one person was playing their violin like it was a guitar, one was swatting at a spider with their violin, and one somehow managed to get their bow back out and was playing like crazy.

I adjusted the lesson and began to pluck, or pizzicato lessons with them. Just follow me kids: D D rest rest, D D rest rest, D D rest rest; and the like. This went well until they spotted a wasp nest and a real live wasp. The "real live wasp" by the way was on the other side of the glass wall - thus, inside the building. I was able to calm them down a bit, we plucked some more, but then the wasp moved and that got the kids all in a tizzy. When I calmed them all down I noticed one little girl had tears streaming down her face. I was not prepared for this. I wasnt going to go Jimmy Dugan on her so I simply asked what was wrong? Another kid had told the crying kid that she was not allowed to name her violin, Viola. (I had instructed the kids earlier to name their instruments). I told the kid she could name the instrument whatever she wanted to, if tomorrow she woke up and wanted to name it saxophone or chocolate chip cookie it did not matter. We all had a good laugh and were able to pluck some more, A rest A rest; A rest A rest... Then the wasp moved again and a parent was spotted inside the building, the very building where the rabid wasp ruled, in the very hallway where the wasp caused bedlam and fear. The kids had no choice, they had to warn the unsuspecting parent of the assured lurking danger (because everyone knows in situations like the one I am describing the wasp would not only sting the parent just because but also sting the parent until he/she was motionless and in a coma). To make matters worse the parent, recognizing the melancholy of modern day American and a world starving for comedy, decided to act like he could not hear the dire warning from the kids. While this exchange was taking place rock star violinist, bowing like mad, and the swatter were back at it in full force. I looked at my watch: 4:21. I said pack it up kids, that's it for the day.

But what to do about the wasp...inside the building...in the hallway...the very hallway that held their backpacks which the students had to retrieve before going home? Piece of cake. Kids we are spies, if we tip toe and don't say a word the wasp will never even know we were there. By a miracle of the Holy the wasp paid no attention to us and not a child was stung or slipped into a coma.

If only all of this could be intimated in "substitute orchestra teacher" under work experience on my resume...

21 September 2011

Revives My Soul Again

Last night, shortly after 10pm, I finished Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. You may say big deal, many people have read that little 247 page jewel of a novel - and you would be right. I mention it because it was the second real effort at reading the book in the last five years. I tried to read it shortly after my father died but the book's theme was too much. I bet I got through at least 60 pages, but when I started it over this time I couldn't remember one iota from my previous attempt. This time was different. God bless you please, Ms. Robinson.

I am amazed at how Robinson was able to create the John Ames character. How did she create him with such detail? How many elderly preachers did she sit with before she wrote? How in the world did she get an Iowan cadence down on paper? (Yeah, I loved the book). After I put it down I wanted to write a similar book myself, not for my son but in the voice of my father writing the book for me. I would love to reconstruct his life from the memories he shared with me.

In other news...

As I mentioned the other day I am now on a sort of sabbatical. I am reading and writing but I am also trying to find something to do with myself during the day. I have hooked up with a landscaper. After the first day I realized (and I know this is going to be difficult for the non-preaching folk out there) that there are certain muscle groups and body motions that preachers just do not use on a regular basis.

I love to garden, but this is gardening on a massive scale; this is moving trees, and filling up pick up trucks with debris, and planting 30 bushes. Despite the soreness and aches I am finding the work to be very therapeutic. It is amazing how much frustration one can get rid of by weeding, trimming, shoveling, and pruning plants. It is also amazing how sharp, aggressive and down right nasty the thorns on a lemon tree are!

Oh, the places you'll go! There is fun to be done!

16 September 2011

Sort of Sabbatical Adventures

Many people have emailed and asked what I am doing nowadays. It is true I recently resigned as the Senior Pastor at the church here in New Orleans. It was a mutual agreement between myself and the congregation that we were not the fit for each other that we all hoped and prayed for. These things happen in congregational life. If I had it to do all over again I wouldn't trade my time here in New Orleans for anything. I found my voice as a preacher and found my heart for pastoral ministry was re-affirmed via Rhode Island.

So what next? Well, I am looking for a new call, helping out with music classes at the school my children attend (i.e. tuning violins), working on two manuscripts (a work of non-fiction on the social history of pigs and a children's book about a bear who smells bacon cooking) and an essay on long sermons.

I am also using this time (which I am calling a sort of sabbatical) to tackle one of the biggest fears and most troubling obstacles in my cooking life: BISCUITS. I love biscuits. I have probably eaten somewhere north of 100,000 of them over my thirty-six years of existence. I can attribute at least 50% of all my caloric intake from 6th grade to college to biscuits. Oh the loveliness of Tudor's Biscuit World - how "convenient" it was to have a strategically placed Tudor's between my college apartment and the Marshall University Campus. But despite my above average bread baking abilities I have never been able to make a decent biscuit. This week, however, I decided to give it my all.

First I experimented with the Alton Brown recipe - I did not, however, use vegetable shortening - I used coconut oil instead. The biscuits were tall, light, and fluffy. But according to The Joy of Cooking I did not incorporate the baking powder enough into the flour, thus the brown spots on the top of the biscuits.

Then while at the grocery store, for the heck of it, I bought a 5lb bag of Lily White Flour. Yes, the enriched kind with baking powder, baking soda, and salt already mixed in. But where does one find non-self rising soft winter wheat flour? The first batch was okay, a little dense. The second batch, that's another story. I sifted the flour, to better incorporate the pre-mixed baking ingredients, and used an equal mixture of butter and chilled bacon grease. This worked like a charm!
Riding a wave of new found success I decided to push myself and tackle one more elusive accomplishment: sausage gravy. Well I gave it all of my culinary skills I have obtained: a roux, deglazing, and pre-browned flour. The verdict: I am ready to open up a restaurant and sell nothing but biscuits and sausage gravy!

Maybe not a full scale restaurant, maybe a pop up restaurant open only on a Saturday & Sunday mornings.

Two more food finds of note.

1. Hubigs Pies. These deliciously evil concoctions are ubiquitous here in NOLA. I have spied them several times but never in the flavor I desire, until this weekend:
2. Blue Dot Donuts. I cannot recall if I have mentioned this place or not. Get this three New Orleans Policemen opened up their own donut shop. Man do they turn out some great donuts. Perhaps you viewed them on the Food Network the other day? They are "famous" for their maple glazed bacon long john. That's right bacon, maple, and a donut - it is like the ultimate breakfast pastry! Here is a picture of a remnant of one.

For the record: I am exercising at least an hour each day!

30 August 2011

The Strength of Ten Men

At various points in my life I have been asked to help people lift objects, to assist placing an item here or there, or to move things. When the job requires two people I like to say I can do it myself, for I have the strength of ten men. This quip either causes others to giggle or to look at me with much doubt but most of the time folk just roll their eyes...

At one point in my life I believe I did have at least the strength of one & half men (in college I could bench press 295). In fact I am almost convinced that Athens Baptist called me primarily because I could move things. You should have seen the face of one of the deacons when I single handedly moved a large screen television. After 11 years in the pulpit, spotty patterns of running, and enjoyable bicycle rides my "exceptional" strength has largely vanished. The only weight lifting I do now is throwing my kids at the pool (which is quite a work out if I do say so myself).

Nevertheless my children believe I have the strength of ten men (largely because I tell it to them over and over, amazing how a mantra can infiltrate and find residence in the mind of a child -well, all but my daughter, she says I only have the strength of three men - which I will take any day). This tall tale started about six or seven years ago when I took the kids for a walk in the woods in RI. I would look for dead/rotting trees, no larger than 10 inches in diameter, to push down. {Recall reader, I grew up on a lonely dirt road in WV. I spent countless hours roaming the woods around my house developing, cultivating, and honing this skill}. Oh brother, if you could have seen their faces when I pushed down the tree. They asked how I did it, back then I said with my bare hands - which they translated as "bear hands." Over the past few years "bear hands" became the strength of ten men.

I tell my kids the true story of how my father was struck by lightning not once but twice and lived! That part is true. I then stretch the story by incorporating a Marvel Comics storyline by stating the lighting strikes mutated my father's genes which were then passed onto me giving me the strength of ten men. This story works well in the family because all the kids now know the plot. However, when a neighboring kid, or a Kindergarten teacher, is told the story in the flashing pace of a five year old not every detail is properly conveyed.

Lately the story has taken on a new twist: has my special genetically mutated talent passed onto the next generation? Several tests have proven that it has been passed onto them: #2 can squeeze the air out of a ziploc bag, #3 can shake my hand with exceptional force, and #1 can braid her hair with her eyes close. I don't know where this storyline will go next but it is bringing hours of happiness to me and my family.

Postscript: The other day #1 was contemplating who she could dress up as for a Harry Potter themed birthday party. I suggested Phil Donahue, which brought about fifteen consecutive eye rolls. Thinking of Phil Donahue (yes this is one of those If you give a mouse a cookie stream of consciousness lines of thought) made me remember a time when I was five or six, actually, watching The Phil Donahue show (we only had two channels back then). The show had a group of child karate performers which I watched with great amazement especially as one kid flipped an adult over his shoulder. As soon as my dad came into the living room I told him about the flip (with, I am sure, the same flashing pace my youngest shares things) and asked if I could try it on him. He agreed. We went to the hallway, I grabbed his hand, and my father voluntarily let me flip him over my shoulder. I was amazed, speechless, and thought for sure I flipped a grown 200 lbs. man of muscle over my little shoulder. My father went over my shoulder and landed flat on his back. You may think what a considerate gesture for a father, which it was, but my house had concrete not wooden floors. Let me say that again as you consider flipping onto your back onto a concrete floor. My father was a construction worker, you could have, literally, parked a cement truck on the floors of our house. Needless to say, when mom and my sister came home later that day - dad was not willing to let me show them my new feat of strength.

03 August 2011

Randy Moss memories.

It was some kind of surprise when I learned of the retirement of Randy Moss. I suppose, deep down, I hoped he would find his way onto the Saints' roster so I could once again write an open letter inviting him to church (see this previous post from the vault).

It was a remarkable career, wasn't it? Those ridiculous highlights from your days on the gridiron for DuPont, the AAA highschool basketball championship against that team south of Fairmont (three D-1 athletes on the court) it was an amazing game. And what about those striped socks you wore during your Marshall days? I thought for sure we would cross paths in Lincoln, RI - I mean you only lived less than a mile from my house and I drove past your place all the time. Oh well. It was fun to watch you play.

01 August 2011

Pictures worth a thousand bites (to me at least)

So the final weekend of vacation/study leave went fantastic: the pool, inaugural trip to Hansen's (that place is just plain evil, oh man), and lots of time spent cooking!

Friday morning I brined the Boston Butt (oh the giggles from the kids about eating a Boston Butt, which for them quickly morphed from Pork Butt - and #3 saying over and over again, "I am not eating pork butt"), then applied my rub (no secret here brown sugar, salt, cayenne, garlic powder, cumin, paprika, celery seed, and chili powder - thanks to #2 lots of chili powder), and let it sit/cure in the frig overnight. Saturday morning I lit the charcoal, placed bricks (just some loose bricks from the house) in the grill (I like bricks rather than a drip pan because they retain heat and help evenly cook the meat), sawed off some pecan branches (a rather feisty growing tree if there ever was one) and got to smokin. Sometime around lunch the pork was ready. I placed it into a tray while the First Family and I went to the pool and Hansen's (did I mention how evilly delicious that place is?) Upon resting I began to prepare the sauces: one regular Carolina based sauce and one smoked pablano bbq or verde bbq sauce.

The verde sauce turned out surprisingly well; it still needs some work but I'll get there.

Pulled Pork BBQ slider (yes, I burned the bun) with sweet potato fries, baked beans and cold drink in a cold mason jar.

Sunday morning we spent lounging at the pool (it was 93 at 8:00am) then sped home to begin preparations for the grillades and grits. The G&G were fantastic. Although they are usually served as the main brunch entree, I couldn't fathom eating beef for breakfast.

29 July 2011

The Final Countdown

It (the end of vacation/study leave) is almost here, only two more full days then, then it ends. I have had a blast playing with the kids, hanging out with the First Lady, reading up a storm, working on some internal stuff, celebrated #2's and #3's birthdays, remembered my father (no way he died five years ago), got my fiddle back out, re-discovered exercise & cooking, and a host of other things.

I am fully celebrating this last weekend with some good eats: pulled pork bbq and grillades and grits. But like all good eats, painting a car, or working on a sermon, the majority of the work is prep work. Today after we returned from the Cool Zoo I got to work on some beef stock (nothing makes a house smell better than beef stock!), brined the pork shoulder, and mixed my dry rub. The stock is cooling in the frig (I will need the fat that hardens on top as lard on Sunday) and the shoulder is resting with the rub massaged on.

Tomorrow morning will be a time of smoking on the grill, followed by lunch, a trip to the snowball stand, time at the pool, and then a feast of pulled pork bbq, clint eastwood baked beans, ember roasted sweet potatoes, and slaw (for the F.L.). I will also introduce my very own smoked pablano bbq sauce. This is a coveted recipe that I am saving for a potential "throw down" with the pastor of the Presbyterian church this Fall.

I have enjoyed this time off more than any other time off before. It was the most refreshing and recreative time!

P.S. The First Lady is back to blogging to. Take a gander when you have some time.

20 July 2011

Flying Away

Somewhere in this amazing creative mix of jazz and bluegrass there is fodder for a month of Sundays worth of sermons.

Enjoy. (Yes, get the record it is amazing!)

More on Suits and Making Groceries

I have tried not to pay much attention to the Roger Clemens trial (or trial that almost happened). But when the paper boy (late as usual) delivered the NY Times on Friday I couldn't help but notice the suit of Clemens's lawyer, Rusty Hardin, a...white suit! Take a look at the contrasting suits between Clemens and Hardin. It was 93 degrees that day, who wears a black wool suit when it is 93? Not Hardin.
Doug Mills/The New York Times(please note the credit of this photo)

I do not know much about Hardin but you gotta love the suit!

Since it is summer break...I bought the kids some Pop Tarts for breakfast this week. I tried to steer them to purchase Chocolate Fudge (my personal favorite as a boy) but they chose their own flavors: Cookies and Cream, Smores, and Strawberry. They could not eat two of them, too sweet. Amazing! I remember downing thousands of those scrumptous delights throughout the years as a last minute breakfast wrapped in a paper towel and with a glass of milk on the way to school, and never thought of them as too sweet!

Speaking of groceries...the other day it happened again. I went to Rouses to pick up some coffee and bread when a lady stopped me and asked if I cared for a sample. Up to this point everything is perfectly normal. The sample: rum and iced tea! This still amazes me - free samples of hard liquor at the grocery store. Granted the samples are barely 1/2 ounce but still samples at the grocery store!

08 July 2011

Dad's Camp

In a couple of weeks the lady of the house will be hosting a sewing camp for girls. The first lady is quite a talented seamstress and designer. As she concocted this fabulous idea - the thought ran through my mind...but what about the boys? So I decided to devote one entire week to the boys, not that shouldn't be taught to sew but 2 boys and 10 girls is not a good recipe for a fun time. So I came up with...(are you ready for this, drumroll, curtains ready to be pulled back, man with gong anxiously anticipating the signal) Dad's camp. One day of golf, one day of tennis, one day of fishing, one day of rocket building, and one day of basic car repair.

Dad's camp got off to an early start yesterday with haircuts or get your hair cut like daddy today, i.e. buzz cuts. ( I went to the barber and got my usual summer fashion on Wednesday. My barber is an elderly gentleman; he cuts good hair but will frequently miss spots. When I asked for a buzz cut I expected him to rush through it and be done in five minutes. No way. This man lives for buzz cuts, he cut my hair with the precision of an open heart surgeon. It began with a consultation on guard sizes. He would cut then take a few steps back to observe then cut some more. He pulled out his scissors to clip any stray hairs. I have never seen or experienced anything like this. I was mesmerized. When I cut the boys' hair I too used the same precision. I must say they look quite amazing). The day continued with a picnic, trip to the book shop then library and wrapped up at the pool.

prequel day two of dad's camp brought even more fun - bicycle riding at Audubon Park. Inside the park is a small oval track, perfect for learning how to ride a bike. (By the way I would love to host a big wheel racing contest for kids here). I provided all kinds of agility and skills drills. I jumped out in front of them to test their braking skills, placed a large stick to see if they could ride over it, made them cut through the grass as if they were taking a short cut and timed them around one lap.

Suffice to say Dad's camp is a smashing hit. Aint it amazing how a slight change in wording makes a world of difference. I could have simply said, "hey kids lets go ride bikes at the park" too boring. But if you say day two of Dad's camp: bicycling at Audubon Park all of a sudden it is pandemonium - maybe not pandemonium but you get the picture...

Postscript: I think maybe I am having more fun then they are.

05 July 2011

Reading List

Many people have asked, "hey preacher what are you gonna do on your vacation?" The vacation is broken down like this: two weeks of vacation and two weeks of continuing education; some days will be both, others will be demarcated.

The First Family has several day trips, museum trips, and many days of play on the calendar. I, meanwhile, am planning an ambitious menu - trying to cook lots of dished I have been wanting to. Today for example I am cooking up a big pot of chicken and sausage jambalaya. More than anything the First Family plans to enjoy the company of each other.

For the continuing education part of the break I plan to read, read, read, and plan sermons for the following year (Aug '11-June '12) I have a skeleton now I just need to but some sinews and muscles on it. I first planned to read according to sermon subjects but instead I found a reading list that is more imaginative, playful, and well...re-creative.

-Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness by Eugene H. Peterson
-Centenary Translation of the New Testament by Helen Barrett Montgomery
-The Sacred Journey by Frederick Buechner
-Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections by Frederick Buechner
-Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life by Roberta C. Bondi
-Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
-William Sloane Coffin Jr. A Holy Impatience by Warren Goldstein
-Word of God, Word of Earth by David Napier
-Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith
-As many of the Harry Potter series as possible

This list found me. I kept placing books in a pile on my desk then going through them to thin it down. I finally whittled it down to about four books then for some reason I found myself in the library checking out some books I stumbled upon (the Buechner books) from there the list emerged anew. There are two commonalities: memoirs and imagination.

I looked over my sermons for the past year and found many stories in my sermons but not sermons in my stories. Reading the Harry Potter books has been a great joy and a surprising delight. Why shouldn't a sermon keep one on edge the way a Rowling written book does? Why shouldn't folk be challenged in a way William Steig book does? And why not look at the world around you to find inspiration for life's work the way Buechner and Coffin do (and did)? And why shouldn't a preacher re-read the New Testament in a new way to see it as a narrative?

I am having a blast cooking and reading. I am also having a blast hanging out with the kids.

02 July 2011

The Agony of Defeat

I am sorry to report that the mighty Pelicans lost their playoff game. The boys played hard but the bounces did not go our way. I am proud of the boys, they made great leaps forward in their skills and baseball knowledge. Until next year...

01 July 2011

It Starts Today

I suppose I will always be haunted by the 80s and use it as my lingua franca. Anyway, today is the first day of, what else...Vacation

29 June 2011

Starting Over: A Small Reflection on My Second Year as a Baseball Coach

Last night the mighty Pelicans (the team I am honored to coach) finished the regular season with a two game winning streak and a 5-9 record. It was a great regular season; now we enter the playoffs; we are in the single elimination bracket. We face a good team, but if the boys played like they played tonight...you never know.

Baseball in New Orleans is like baseball nowhere else. You tell me what other baseball/softball field in America that sells cheap American beer and cheap Argentinean wine at the concession stand? Where else do parents, coaches, and officials shrug off a sky filled with lighting and dark ominous clouds? It is an interesting experience to say the least.

In retrospect it has been a great season. I was reluctant to coach my son's team for all kinds of reasons. But I am glad I did it. Every boy on the team is a great kid; I like being around everyone of them. There has been lots of laughs and lots of high fives and lots of ways to go. It is a thrill to watch the surprise on a kids face when they hit the ball for the first time, when they stick their glove out and make a catch, when they score a run. I am amazed at the athletic talent of the kids at this age (7-8). I can't get over their capacity to learn how to play baseball. I also cannot get over their capacity for laughter and enjoyment during the game. Last night while I was pitching batting practice one of the 8 year olds hit a line drive right up back at me, I could not get out of the way in time (I knew I should not have eaten dinner before the game) and the ball smacked me in the side. Instead of asking if I was okay, he said "finally." The kid was jumping up and down like, he was so excited he hit the coach. These kids...

After each game the team gathers to go over the game, congratulate the boys on their achievements, and pass out team balls. What happens next is beyond scientific explanation. The boys could have played to near exhaustion or played with the body language of near exhaustion but once we gather hands on top of one another for our last cheer and I dismiss them for "team drinks" they run like the wind. Boys that five minutes earlier could barely make it first base run so fast to the concession stand that their feet barely touch the ground - it is truly amazing.

As the season shifts to the playoffs I am struck by how fascinating it is to have the chance to start over. Tomorrow evening everyone restarts the season at 0-0. How many times in life I have wanted to start over with a fresh beginning. But human relationships are too complex for that kind of instantaneous reappropriation of relationships. It can and does happen over time but not like it does in baseball; in baseball it happens. I hope the kids soak this up somehow either consciously or unconsciously. I wonder if my rather hopeful outlook on life stems from all the years I played (mediocre) baseball? I think there is something there.

We will begin again tomorrow...and I can't wait.

24 June 2011

Happy Birthday Henry Ward Beecher

While listening to the Writer's Almanac this morning I was reminded that today is the birthday of Henry Ward Beecher - a great American Protestant preacher.


Beecher was an amazing man, a lover of flowers & jewels, a great jokester, and, and he usually did not prepare his sermons until the last minute! (The last statement amazes me).

I read the biography by Debby Applegate this Spring. My favorite section follows,

" On one occasion Mr. Beecher, riding to one of the stations of his mission, was thrown over his horse's head in crossing the Miami, pitched into the water, and crept out thoroughly immersed. The incident, of course, furnished occasion for talk in the circle the next day, and his good friend the Baptist minister proceeded o attack him the moment he made his appearance.

" ' Oh, ho, Beecher, glad to see you ! I thought you'd have to come into our ways at last ! You have been immersed at last ; you are as good as any of us now.' A general laugh followed this sally.

" ' Poh, poh ! ' was the ready response, '
my immersion was a different thing from that of your converts. You see, I was immersed by a horse, not by an ass/

"A chorus of laughter proclaimed that Mr. Beecher had got the better of the joke for this time.

(by the way today is also my father's birthday, he would have been 68).

12 June 2011

Southern Comfort

I think it must have been the pictures of my grandfather decked out and dressed to the nines, I think it must have been my father's dark suit and dress boots (which I have been known to wear on occasions), or maybe it was my professors in divinity school always wearing nice suits, or maybe it was my own desire to move beyond jeans and polos. Whatever the motivating factor(s) I love suits - I make no apologies.

In Rhode Island my wardrobe consisted primarily of wools and light wools. Believe it or not it does get hot and humid in New England on certain Sundays. And believe it or not most churches are not air conditioned. One day JosBank ran a $99 sale on seersucker suits, in a heartbeat I bought one. I had to buy it online, they did not sell them at the store in RI - naturally. Everyone at church laughed at me for it, but I didn't care. When I interviewed here at the New Orleans congregation I wore a seersucker suit (I think that was good for at least 15 votes, regardless of my sermon).

I think seersucker should be in every man's closet here in New Orleans - you just can't breathe in poplin and the humidity, which never stops, has no mercy for wrinkles! You can wear seersucker, walk to get a cup of coffee and hardly break a sweat (that is an exaggeration, of course). I like linen but after five minutes it looks like you wore them to take a nap, then woke up, rolled them in a ball, used the ball for a pillow, then went back to sleep for a half an hour. Seersucker, however, is made for New Orleans.

First my best ever seersucker story. On Friday afternoon I drove up to Oak Alley Plantation for a wedding rehearsal. Upon arrival the wedding cooridinator sought me out to tell me the wedding party was help up in traffic, advising me to enjoy the scenery for the next twenty minutes or so. I moseyed out front, found a iron chair and sat down with my glass of lemonade. I pulled out my emailing-machine-phone to check some messages. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a large group of tourists coming my way. I chuckled inwardly asking wouldn't it be a hoot if they took a picture of me in my seersucker suit. The group began to pass when all of sudden one of the ladies asked if she could sit beside me and have her picture taken with me, then another, then another, then another, then another, then another. It was the craziest thing I have ever experienced. They thought I was part of the ambiance of the place, they thought I was the 20th century re-enactor or something. It was hilarious.

I'll get to the wedding in a minute.

But seersucker ain't the only game in town down here though. Almost two years ago I read a blog post by Jim Sommerville, the pastor of the FBC of Richmond, VA - Disclaimer: For the record I have never met Jim but we have some mutual friends that speak highly of him; he seems like a good enough chap (he has some WV in his blood, so he can't be all bad). End of disclaimer - on the long forgotten tradition of wearing white suits to church in the summertime; I would surmise from Confederate Memorial Day to Labor Day. I was enamored by the white suit but thought I couldn't pull it off. Then one day JosBank had the white suit on sale, online, for $99. Again I snatched it up (this time my wife took care of hemming the pants).

I saved the suit for Easter Sunday; I even bought a pair of white bucks to wear with it. I have to tell you I felt like a million dollars in the white suit. I felt like revival could break out at any minute; it did not but it could have!

Back to the wedding. Last night the wedding party was looking dapper in their black wool tuxedos; they were also sweating like it was nobody's business. I, on the other hand, was cool as cucumber in my white suit!

Yesterday I also completed the outfit...a white belt.

Now I have instituted a new tradition, the first Sunday of June, July, and August is officially seersucker (for the men) and hat (for the ladies) Sunday. The inaugural event in June was a smashing hit. Many men said the day was just what they needed as the impetus for going out and purchasing the suit. I can't wait to see how this tradition will unfold. I am hoping Oxford American will come down and do a story on the revival of our fashion tradition... Until then I am wearing my white suit till the humidity stops beating down on me.

Did I tell you I that I heard J.D. Grey, a former pastor of FBC NOLA, used to wear a morning suit during the non-summer months.

the author on Easter morn

08 June 2011

In Memoriam: Joe Taylor

Hell he lived right across the street, I probably saw the guy once or twice a day for three years without ever exchanging a word. He would wave but that was about it. I thought he was one of the meanest guys around, it was the husky voice and the wide shoulders I suppose. And to beat all he would sit out in his front yard and wait till the church yard sale was over to rummage through the "treasures" we left on the curb. The nerve of the guy.

Then one day, after a yard sale to be exact, he walked up to me and inquired, "Hey Father, what time is mass tomorrow?" Normally I would have corrected him and said please call me Travis and it is worship not mass - but those times were over. I simply said, 10:00am. At 10:00am the next morning he showed up in his church sport coat, and he never left. After a few Sundays he stopped genuflecting, then he stopped making the sign of the cross, and finally he stopped wearing his church sport coat. He simply relaxed, he sang hymns, he laughed, he prayed, he read scripture, he was Joe - it was like he had always been there - across the street he always had been. Joe and his wonderful quickly became friends.

One day some guys from the church cleared some land around the outdoor chapel, the brush sat there for a few months drying out. One wet Spring day we decided to light it. There was Joe, and Jon, some cold beer, and fire - what more could guys want? Then the school janitor came over complained that the smoke was being sucked in by the school's heating system - but no one believed him. A little later Randy appeared to show off his car, then Jason swung by, then every cotton picking kid on Great Road. It was one of the best days of my life.

We started talking about art. He showed me some sketches, then he showed me his work shop, then he showed me the totem poles. He was an artist in the true sense of the word, word made flesh, art that was embodied with his bear paws for hands, for the love he showered on his kids and wife, for the greatest laugh in all of New England, for the way he put you at ease, for just being Joe - and doing a damn good job of it.

In divinity school they always said do not get too close to your parishioners but how could you not with Joe? He taught me to be open, honest, and loving to those I serve. I am thankful that I was able to be a friend of Joe Taylor. He was a great man.

When news of the cancer came I couldn't believe it. Joe Taylor was a mighty man, no way cancer would get him. But it did. I tried to block the similarities out of my mind but I could not. Nearly five years ago my father died of esophageal cancer. He too was a mighty man. But dad was older; not a young man in the prime of his life. So what do I wish now? I wish my father's friends would call me and tell me stories about my dad. I wish people from his past would look me up to say hello.

To the sons of Joe Taylor I promise to tell you every Joe Taylor story I can remember, hear of, or find. I promise to call you up on peculiar days just to tell you how lucky I was to know your dad and call him my friend. I promise to tell you how sweet the sound was when he played Amazing Grace on his fiddle over the phone. I promise to tell how your father grew bigger and better tomatoes than me. And I'll tell you how when I called to talk about him and the cancer or when I dropped by to see him a few weeks ago he didn't want to talk about cancer, he wanted to talk about you all.

till grace lead us home. Peace be with you Joe Taylor.

11 May 2011

Seven Ways to Practice Resurrection

Hearts Ablaze

Third Sunday after Easter

Luke 21:21-35

Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

The sermon series on the seven deadly sins was great fun to prepare, write, and deliver for you. I especially liked to hear the college students who walked by and add their two cents on the sins as they were advertised on the marquee. I even saw some tourists stand in front of the banner to get their picture taken on one occasion. It was easy to access and pull sources on the sins, there are musical scores written on each sin, books devoted to each sin, and movies galore on each sin. There is a story as to how the sins moved from Constantinople, to Egypt to the west. But now it is time to move on from sin to virtue. But there is a problem. There is not a corresponding list to the Seven Deadly Sins. There is a list of the seven heavenly or cardinal virtues but they are not nearly as concrete or historical. The list at best is a combination of Greek and New Testament ideals. The four virtues of ancient Greece: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage and the three that remain from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth: faith, hope, and love.

The list just doesn’t reach out and grab you like the seven deadly sin, the seven cardinal virtues aren’t the least bit sexy. Yet, they are necessary if we are going to change the world.

I know the name E. Glen Hinson is a familiar name to some of you. If he is not, add him to your list of authors and people you need to get to know more about. Hinson is the reason I am a pastor, still Baptist, and not a monk. In every class I took of his he always ended the semester with an appeal of what the world and church needs most. He would say what the world and the church needs most are saints. Not brilliant professors, not princes in the pulpits, or large financial backers in the pews but saints. He had a broad, obviously Anabaptist view of sainthood, which he defined as people with six qualities (qualities he adapted from Douglas Steere, another name for your list)

1. Saints are persons whose lives have been irradiated by Divine Grace and have put themselves at God’s disposal.

2. Saints are persons who seek not to be safe but to be faithful.

3. Saints are persons who have learned to get along in adversity

4. Saints are joyful people.

5. Saints are kindlers and purifiers of the dream.

6. Saints are prayerful.[i]

Simple but difficult.

Christianity does not ask us to be the best at anything it only asks us to be good, to be virtuous or from another angle, to practice resurrection. Being good or being virtuous may not resonate without but I hope in the shadow of the Easter you will take up the challenge and call to practice resurrection. I think that is what saints, the virtuous ones, do they practice resurrection.

In the gospel lesson this morning Cleopas and his unnamed companion were on the road to Emmaus, they were on their way back home. When I read this story I can only imagine they had given up. They had walked with Jesus for an undisclosed amount of time and it was fantastic, life changing but then…Jesus was executed. Rome wasn’t playing around anymore and maybe they shouldn’t be playing around anymore either, it was time to head back home.

The time was the evening of the Resurrection. Cleopas and his travel mate had heard the astonishing tale but maybe just maybe it was too much, they were going home. But Jesus met them on the way, concealed his identity, and playfully watched what unfolded.

What follows is, in my mind, the greatest dialogue in scripture and the greatest rhetorical question in scripture, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know these things that have taken place in there in these days?” Jesus asked them, “What things?” They replied, the things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people…” What follows next is one of the sneakiest tricks in all of scripture, Luke, decided not to include how Jesus interpreted all of the things about himself beginning with Moses and all of the prophets. Can you imagine that conversation? Can you imagine what those words must have been? Is there somewhere buried in the desert of Egypt the gospel of Cleopas, a written account of Jesus’ self interpretation?

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

Why because Luke said so! Luke brushes off the interpretation for an even bigger event. “As they came near the village to which they were going, Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

The verbs say it all, took, blessed, broke, and gave. It was communion for sure. But it was something even deeper than communion, they, Cleopas and his unidentified companion, were practicing resurrection. Even though they thought the Jesus movement was over, even though they were heading back home, they welcomed a stranger, offered him a place to stay and broke bread with him. The text hints that Jesus was testing the disciples, he went ahead as if he were going on, even Jesus did not know what the two would do. Would they say happy travels? Or would they welcome him? They welcomed him, their action warmed Jesus’ heart to such a temperature that he took the normal elements of a meal, transformed the moment into communion, and revealed himself to them. They were willing to practice resurrection with or without Jesus.

This evening, right before the time our eyes begin to water because we know Jazz Fest is about to conclude, I hope to take my progeny and nudge our way forward in the WWOZ Jazz tent so they, and I, can see Sonny Rollins. I love Sonny Rollins and I want to my kids years from now to say they saw Sonny Rollins at Jazz Fest. In just a few years I will explain to them why I love the way Sonny Rollins approaches music and how Sonny Rollins provided me with the ultimate way of practicing resurrection. In an interview one time a reporter asked Rollins to describe the way he practices and approaches music. First he responded in such a way that every jazz musician has to respond, to dispel the usual jazz myth that a jazz musician does not practice since it is all improvisation. Rollins said as a jazz musician I practice and practice and practice, I constantly practice, I practice scales, I practice chord progressions, and will frequently practice classical music for feel. He went on. I practice for hours on end, then when I perform…I forget it all. For Rollins the music, the intimations of sound, the silence between notes, the movements of the rhythm all become part of who he is. He is no longer practicing or performing a piece that he has forgotten, he is now sharing a piece of himself with the world. I want my kids to see and feel that tonight. I want them to see resurrection in practice.[ii]

For Cleopas and his unnamed partner they had forgotten the way Jesus had taught them for it was now a part of who they were. They talked to the stranger, invited him to bed with them, and shared their provisions. They were practicing resurrection as part of their lives.

Over the summer and into the Fall I will be asking each of you to share your personal hopes and dreams for this congregation. I will be launching a church wide initiative for how to obtain critical mass. And I will be asking every committee, every member, every chronic visitor, anyone who crosses the threshold to commit to one vision for this congregation. I will ask you to sacrifice a Saturday morning or two, to be patient, to compromise, and coalesce around central vision for this church. I think and feel that we have an honest shot at new life. This vision will be a combination of goals for finding and nurturing new members and creative usage of our space. Imagine if the crowd we had on Easter was every Sunday, think of how numbers would change the way we offer church. Imagine if we could locate a long-term tenant that could pay for maintenance, deferred maintenance, insurance and utility costs of the building. Imagine if we could shift our energy into great ministry opportunities rather than worrying ourselves silly how much we are in the red for the month?

This vision is not about institutional or building preservation. Instead it is about the assured continuation of a virtuous community. Instead it is about the assuring another generation practices resurrection. That will be our legacy.

After this Sunday we will sadly watch as many of our college students return home, or travel for further studies, or begin new chapters in their lives somewhere other than here. I hope, wherever they go, they take some part of this congregation with them, I hope we have gotten under their skin and into their hearts. As we look forward to future growth realize that one component of our growth will be college students and transient worshippers. Part of our mission is to nurture them while they are here. To offer hospitality, to practice resurrection. About once a month I either receive an email, a letter, or a phone call from a former member. Each inquiry is different but each share two commonalities, one they want to know who I am and second they want to tell me how much they loved their time at this church. This congregation does not illicit casual feelings or sentimentalities but visceral reactions to the love they found here. But we cannot rest on our past sharing of love, our past commitment to justice, or our past practice of resurrection. We must continue and expand our current practices.

Being church or practicing resurrection is akin to gardening. It is never done. It is constant, there are bugs to remove, weeds to pull, manure to spread, watering, and harvesting. Practicing resurrection is never done, it is constant. We have to learn and relearn how to pray, we have to teach others how to pray, we have to learn and relearn how to read the Bible and to teach others the old old stories of Jesus and his love. We have to learn an relearn how to advocate for justice and to teach others what biblical justice is. We have to learn and relearn how to practice resurrection and to teach others how to practice resurrection.

In the broadest terms what I am saying is that we have to be and become a mothering community one who gives birth, nurtures and sustains life. My home church, FBC St. Albans I often wonder how some would react if they could see me now, I am not confident they would be satisfied with me. I am sure the deacons would not approve of my conduct or words from the pulpit. If the church were to ask me where did I get these ideas and practices I would simply respond I learned them all from you. For some odd reason the people at the FBC of St. Albans took a liking to me and loved me into a new creation. (name removed for privacy), not knowing that many in the church questioned her sexual orientation and therefore kept her at arms length, I simply knew as the older woman who always gave me a hug, always encouraged me, and always told me God loved me. (name removed for privacy), the oldest man in the congregation, he was also the funniest. He loved baseball and traveling. Why a 16 year old and a 97 year old got along so well I’ll never know. He shared the story of taking a flat bottom wooden boat from St. Albans to New Orleans, about his personal love and devotion of the Cincinnati Reds, one afternoon shortly after his wife of 75+ years died he broke down in tears and asked me to come again at a later date, he also shared that if you cant laugh in church or if the good news does not make you smile, then it aint worth having. I was not a project they took on, I was simply the one that received their love, their practice of resurrection. They were my midwifes as I was born again.

I want the kids and youth of this congregation to have the same experiences of love. I hope they are loved the same way. I want the practice of resurrection to be such a part of their lives that they forget it, that their practice is simply who they are.

Over the hot months I will offer seven ways we can practice resurrection. I hope they are the bedrock of our common vision for new growth and life. I hope they are the living well that nourishes and sustains our life. I hope they are the challenging words that illuminates our pursuit of the virtuous life, the saintly life the practice of resurrection.

I would like to close in two fashions. A poem and a piece of prose. First a poem by Wendell Berry who has provided the series title. The poem is Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front from 1973.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay.

Want more of everything made.

Be afraid to know you neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery any more.

Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something they will call you.

When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something that won't compute.

Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace the flag.

Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.

Give you approval to all you cannot understand.

Praise ignorance,

for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium.

Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion--put your ear close,

and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world.

Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.

Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap for power,

please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap.

Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and politicos can predict the motions

of your mind, lose it.

Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go.

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.[iii]

The prose is the close of one of Glen Hinson’s lectures that he included in a chapter of one of his books,

“The church and the world needs saints. They need saints more than they need more canny politicians, more brilliant scientists, more grossly overpaid executives and entrepreneurs, more clever entertainers and talk-show hosts. Are there any on the horizon now that Mother Teresa is no longer with us, either of the extraordinary or of the ordinary kind? I think there are. Maybe I should say that there are saints ‘aborning’ by God’s grace. There are those whose lives have been irradiated by God’s grace, who seek to be safe but faithful, who have learned to get along in adversity, who are joyful, who are dream filled, and, above all, who are prayerful. That is what the church and the world need most. It begins with you.”[iv]

Brother and sisters let us strive for the virtuous life, the life of power used for the mending of creation and the new birth of our community. Brothers and sisters let us strive for the saintly life as we seek to change the world and this church. Brothers and sisters with Easter at our back let us simply practice resurrection.

Amen & Amen.

[i] See p. 183 Spiritual Preparation for Christian Leadership by E. Glenn Hinson. Also see, On Beginning from Within by Douglas Steere.

[ii] See The Jazz of Preaching by Kirk B. Jones.

[iii] See The Country of Marriage by Wendell Berry

[iv] See Hinson, page 195.