03 August 2015

An Hour on the Beach in the Early Morning

There is no quiet at the beach, because the ocean roars at you from across the dunes, says good morning before you can even see it.

I’m not the first person out. I pass a man with a baby strapped to his chest. The baby is watching the ocean. The man walks, eyes front. I wonder if the mom is sleeping in for once, or if he’s always up early, or if the mom is actually another dad instead. Did the baby sleep well last night and wake early? Or did no one sleep well last night and this is a desperate attempt to get someone some sleep.

The dogs are almost certainly not allowed on the beach, but there’s no one out to tell the owner to leave as he throws tennis balls into the ocean. The dogs race out into the surf. The bolder, stronger swimmer goes past the crashing waves, while the more timid one is tossed under wave. They race back with their prizes, tails wagging, ready to go again.

There are fewer joggers than I expected, but more fishermen. Fathers and sons, brothers, men alone. I see chairs and poles and bags of bait, lures flash as the lines are thrown, but no buckets for the catch. The catch is not the point, I suppose. Only when the walk is almost over and I start to wonder why there were no women out fishing do I see a young woman with a pole, out with her father. I almost stop to thank her for coming out, thank him for bringing her, but I don’t need to be the crazy woman on the beach, and they don’t need me to tell them that taking your daughter fishing is awesome.

The old woman, a term I use with deepest respect and admiration, dressed in a beach cover up and a bright floppy hat, stands at the water’s edge, her feet rooted in the sand. Her hands move up and down with the rhythm of her breath and the waves. Just looking at her is surely good for my blood pressure.

At the fence line that marks the beginning of the private beach, I am reminded of the story we were told in elementary school about the Native Americans selling Manhattan to the Europeans for 25 beads.  The Europeans thought they’d put one over on the Native Americans because they’d paid so little. The Native Americans thought they’d put something over on the Europeans because you can’t own the land. I am in full sympathy with the Native Americans at that moment. Who can own the beach?

The sun and the moon are up at the same time, which is one of my favorite things. There’s the vast expanse of interstellar space out there, and we’re just sitting in the middle of it.

A man is settled in a chair in the sand, no fishing pole, no book, just a thermos of coffee (probably, it could be whiskey for all I know.)  He sips his coffee and watches the sun and the waves. He is also good for my blood pressure.

The town is beginning to wake up. There are more walkers and joggers, more fishermen. Two men are setting up canopies by the dunes, preparing shade for a large group that will come later. The dogs are gone, but the three swimmers are still in the water. The man with the baby strapped to his chest is still out walking. He’s turned around, heading back. The baby is asleep.

20 July 2015

Snapshot: An Annotated List of What My Kids Will Eat Right Now

While I'd like to say that the boys will eat anything you put in front of them, they won't, and none of us like mushrooms very much. 

Apples, Fuji preferably, one boy prefers them sliced, the other whole.

Red seedless grapes, only red, only seedless


Cheese pizza (boys), veggie pizza (grown ups) but not mushrooms, as noted above, and not green peppers, because cooked green peppers are gross and they make everything around them taste like cooked green peppers

Anything in the black beans/ rice/ cheese genre 

Fixings for grilled cheese (damn you, public school breakfasts, for introducing my child to American processed cheese food product) or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. One child now eats pickle and lettuce sandwiches.

Blueberries, but really only the frozen ones, preferably wild, because while my children are American cheese eaters, they do know that the smaller, wild blueberries are delicious, while large cutlivated blueberries are flavorless blobs

Strawberries, in season. (See blueberries, re: flavorless blobs)

Carrots, sometimes with ranch dressing sometimes without. 

Peas, straight from the freezer is fine.

French fries with gallons of ketchup, tater tots and home-baked potato wedges are also acceptable.

Egg and cheese sandwiches, sometimes. Sometimes they'll just eat half of one and the rest will sit there on the plate congealing as the children scamper off to do something else until they are brought, sighing and rolling their eyes, back to the table to dispose of their plates and leftovers properly.

French toast/pancakes/waffles with real maple syrup, or that stuff called breakfast syrup. These items may be served at any time of day. In my house, French toast is what's for dinner when I don't know what's for dinner.

Boxed cereal, which I wish I would rely on less often, especially during the school year, when they often have cereal for second breakfast at school. 

Oatmeal, usually with blueberries and honey.

Dill pickles

Almost any corn or potato based item that can be called a chip.

Toast, preferably with butter and jam or apple butter.

18 July 2015

An Itch I Cannot Scratch

I would very much like to move. I would like a fresh start in a fresh place. Someplace closer to the beating heart of a city perhaps. (Much as I like to pretend I’d enjoy living further afield, I know that having to drive a long way just to get to the grocery store that’s not even my favorite grocery store would drive me crazy.) I want to live somewhere new where I have not eaten at all the restaurants or seen all the monuments, where I have not memorized the weather patterns. I would like to know more things about a place than you can learn in a single visit. I would like to try being a new person with new people. This is more lovely in theory than in practice, of course. I would like a really compelling reason to go through my belongings one at a time and decide what is important enough to keep and what should go. I would like to box up everything I don't love and put it out for the charity shop to pick up so that it can be used by someone who would love it. I’m pretty good at that kind of thing. I have little trouble being ruthless, but it’s hard to get excited about it. I want to be a minimalist, but I’m fairly sure I have to move to make it happen. But . . .

All of this would hinge on a job change, which seems unlikely, and it would mean leaving a village of friends that I love and that I rely on for physical and emotional support. So this moving thing is an itch that will go unscratched unless something changes drastically. I will stay here with a problem that isn’t really a problem and maybe I’ll clear out that corner of my bedroom.

07 June 2015

Unforgivable Sin and the Gift of Grace: A sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost B

Today’s readings are packed full of things that we as a church would rather not talk about: disobedience, shame, exile, despair, demonic possession and the unforgivable sin. Oof. It’s no wonder that the first commentary I read about these suggested that preachers talk about Jesus expanding the boundaries of family. That’s a nice gentle thing to talk about on a Sunday morning, isn’t it? Jesus sitting with his followers and claiming them as his brothers and sisters. I’ve already written at least one sermon about that idea, and I’m sure I could write another. But I’m not going to do that today.

I’m also not going to spend a lot of time on the Fall of Man in our Old Testament reading. If Carol would like to invite me back to preach in June of 2018, when this reading comes up in the lectionary again, that might give me enough time to put together a coherent sermon on snakes and apples, maybe.

Our Gospel reading is just a snippet of Mark which we’ll be hearing more of as the summer goes on. Mark is the earliest and the shortest of the Gospels. It begins with John the Baptist proclaiming “Prepare the way for the Lord. Make straight paths for him.” At the time of today’s reading, Jesus has been baptized, has spent 40 days in the wilderness being tested, begun his public ministry, called his disciples, driven out unclean spirits and healed many people, even on the Sabbath. In short, he had made a lot of noise, gathered quite a few followers, annoyed a lot of people, made himself notorious.

A crowd of people, both disciples and critics, had followed Jesus into a house. There were so many of them that Jesus and the disciples couldn’t sit down to eat. Now, Mark is not big on colorful details, but I imagine that the room was chaotic. In contrast to the peaceful paintings of Jesus teaching while disciples sit a respectful distance from him, quietly eager to absorb knowledge, this crowd jostled to get closer, to hear better. Men who had studied scriptures their whole lives didn’t just listen, they would have questioned and debated with Jesus. Healings would have been met with outbursts of surprise, delight and disbelief. Multiple small groups would be having side conversations about what they had heard and seen.

One of those groups was the scribes. No mere local rabbis, these scribes were the equivalent of a group of Vatican theologians. They had come, or been called, specifically to see Jesus, to figure out what was going on with this itinerant rabbi that was causing so much trouble. They had watched and listened and discussed among themselves, maybe they even had a small crowd gathered around them listening in. They had seen miracles, heard testimony from the crowd of even more miracles, and they knew that whatever this Jesus person was, he was not a charlatan. He has real power. It’s possible that they considered and rejected the idea of Jesus as God, but more likely the idea of God walking among them was so outrageous, so outside of the boundaries that defined their relationship with God that they couldn’t see it, even with the evidence in front of them. So they declare that Jesus is Beezlebub, the devil himself. And they say it loud enough that Jesus can hear them.

The upstart rabbi had been called out by the respected, established religious leaders. Shock must have rippled through the crowd as the Scribes declaration was heard and repeated, and then there was quiet, because everyone, disciples and Scribes alike, would have wanted to know what was going to happen next.

Jesus is not known for giving straight answers to religious authorities, especially the ones who are questioning his identity, so it’s no surprise that he starts by asking them a question: “How can Satan drive out Satan?” And before they can start to answer the question he tells a two sentence parable.  “No one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house.”

This short parable is also Jesus’ mission statement in the Gospel of Mark. This world is controlled by an evil power, and our job is to tie it up. But, as our Old Testament reading shows us, we lack the character to choose good over evil, and we don’t have the power to make good come out of evil. The Gospel of Mark is short, but it could be even shorter. It could be just this parable. Jesus has come to bind up the strong man and loot Satan’s kingdom. It plays out small when Jesus casts out demons, and then on a much larger scale when Jesus, having annoyed too many Scribes, is arrested and crucified, only to bind up the strong man that is death, freeing God’s good creation.

The Scribes of course, can’t see that. The gift of Grace that Jesus offers them is too different from the rigid structures of their faith. The radical change necessary to heal the sick and cast out demons, even on the sabbath, to eat with sinners, that love it is too hard for them, they’d rather follow the rules. So where they should see the Holy Spirit, they see the devil instead. And it turns out that deciding that “Love is too hard.” is the only unforgivable sin, that’s the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

So maybe I am going to talk about the expansion of family after all. The crowd pressed in on Jesus, wanting to hear his words, to be healed, to have one touch, one point of contact with the grace they saw in him. But Jesus tells them that they are his brothers and sisters, his family, and all they have to do, all we have to do  is see the gift of Grace that is placed before us, and do God’s will, and follow Jesus in healing and love. We will fail as Adam and Eve failed, as men and women have always failed, but if we get back up again, follow again, we will find that the touch of grace we were looking for has been paid out more abundantly than we could possibly imagine.

Lectionary Readings (Track 2)
God Calls Us to Expand Our Family (Sermons That Work)
Preach This Week (Working Preacher)

19 April 2015

Wounds That Do Not Heal: A Sermon for Easter 3B

I love Liturgy. It’s one of the reasons I am an Episcopalian. But there’s no doubt that because we say the same words week after week, year after year, we sometimes say them without giving much thought to what they really mean.

In the Apostles creed, the one that we use every time there is a baptism, we say

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
    the holy catholic Church,
    the communion of saints,
    the forgiveness of sins
    the resurrection of the body,
    and the life everlasting.

My guess is that most of you are like me, and don’t give a lot of thought to the resurrection of the body most of the time. And when we do think about it, we don’t think of resurrection in our current bodies. We imagine better bodies, taller, thinner, stronger bodies, bodies that don’t ache when it rains or wheeze when the flowers bloom, bodies that don’t grow malignancies, bodies without depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

One of the things that we say to each other when someone dies after a difficult physical or mental illness is “at least they aren't in pain anymore.” Whatever we believe about the afterlife, we seem fairly sure that we will shed these broken bodies. It’s comforting to think that way, and in the case of the things that affect only our physical bodies, it’s what I believe. But what about the wounds that aren't just physical, The broken-ness of our minds and our souls that shapes who we are? How can we split what is good about us, our compassion, our resilience, even our humor, from the pain that made us this way?

When my first child was stillborn, nearly ten years ago, I was approached by many women who offered their sympathy, and told me that it had happened to them, too. They meant to tell me that I was not alone in my grief, and I was grateful for it, but what struck me as I looked at them, was how open that grief still was for them, years, sometimes decades later. These were women with full, happy lives, healthy children, even grandchildren, and yet the wound was still open. And I thought, “I am never going to get out of this. I am going to be this person forever.” And it terrified me.

Ten years later, I have a full and happy life, and two healthy children. But I am still that person who has lost a child, because no matter how much journaling or therapy or reading or writing or exercising or praying you do, you cannot go back to being the person that you were before the lid was blown off your life. Many of you, most of you, have wounds of your own. They are the unavoidable result of living in a broken world. And some of them will never heal.

The disciples had their own wounds, loss and fear, wounds that were as real as the holes in Jesus’ hands, wounds that were still bleeding away their courage and their vitality, wounds so fresh that they could not see what was happening in front of them despite many signs. The women had found the empty tomb, in the passage just before today’s Gospel reading Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and now he appears to them in an upper room and says “Peace be with you.”

“Peace be with you” is another thing we say every week without giving it much thought. It’s a powerful blessing, if you’re paying attention. The Hebrew word Jesus would have used is “Shalom” which means “Peace”, but not just the absence of conflict, completeness, fullness and rest. Shalom is a full relationship with God and with each other. Think about that when we pass the peace this morning, and what it would mean for the world if we were sincere about it.

But the disciples weren't ready to receive the peace that Jesus offered. They didn't know what what happening until he showed them his wounds to prove he wasn't a ghost. It’s an understandable confusion, even with the signs and the scriptures. Who among us, faced with a loved one thought to be dead would think “this is the fulfillment of the scriptures!” instead of pinching ourselves, or wondering if someone had slipped something into our drinks.  Jesus then asked for a piece of fish, maybe to give further proof that he was alive, or maybe he was just hungry. Either way it gave the disciples time to process what they were seeing. Only then could he open their minds to the scriptures, and they were able to see how God was using the crucifixion and the resurrection to bring the peace that Jesus offered. It wasn't that they hadn't known the scriptures before, it was that they were too wounded to see clearly.

With the guidance of the resurrected Jesus, the disciples were able to see that the resurrection was about more than life after death and embarrassing human powers, it was about repentance and forgiveness and peace not just for chosen people but for all people, where repentance is not just being sorry for what you did wrong, but having a changed mind and a changed heart, a new perspective, a new community.

That’s the story that is at the heart of the crucifixion and resurrection. The same story that weaves through the whole history of God’s people. In the midst of destruction God is working. Jesus appeared with hands still wounded from the crucifixion, because there are wounds that never heal. Our wounds may never heal, but just as Jesus’ wounds were no longer bleeding, the promise of the resurrection is that our wounds do not have to bleed us of our lives and our vitality, and we can use our whole selves, wounds and all, to offer fullness, rest and relationship to others.

Peace be with you.


16 April 2015

The Story of Caleb Joseph, an Invitation to the New Fan

If you're not already a baseball fan, then Caleb Joseph is the reason you should become one.

A year ago, Caleb Joseph was stuck in the minor leagues. After four seasons with the AA Bowie Baysox, he was up a level at AAA Norfolk, making almost no money, not as much money as a man with a new wife and hopes for a family would need. He’d planned to give it up, to go find a real job and be a guy who had once played professional baseball but that you’d probably never heard of. Maybe he would tell stories, and maybe he’d be a coach somewhere in his spare time. He didn't want to quit, of course, but four years in AA ball is not how you get to the Major Leagues. I’m sure he thought it was time to grow up and stop dreaming about baseball.
It was Caleb Joseph’s wife who convinced him to give it one more shot, one more season of minor league ball, one more season of watching hotshot prospects get called up, of playing with big leaguers when they came to the minor leagues to rehab after an injury, one more season of trying to take everything the coaches said to heart and making his body perform the way they needed it to. One more season of subsistence income, bus rides, cheap motels, carrying his own gear.
Read the rest here. 

09 April 2015

American Vanilla Scones

Mmm . . .

Monday was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the air was warm. It was Spring Break so the boys were home and no one was complaining about school. Friends came down the hill and invited the boys to play at the playground across the street. It was the Orioles opening day and the good guys won. There was a brief moment where it felt like summer and when I remembered it was just a brief respite from the school year it was sort of a bummer.

The two days that followed were cooler and more Spring-like, and I had to make the older boy buckle down and work on some homework so there was no forgetting what month it was.

The biscuits that started the whole thing. So fluffy.
I made biscuits last night, based on this King Arthur Flour recipe, which came out beautifully, and went well with the bean stew I made. But I noticed on the recipe that I could add up to 4 Tablespoons of sugar and make them scones.  So I made a few adjustments and made scones this morning, because it may be April, but at least there is no morning rush. I used vanilla sugar, which is just a jar of sugar with some spent vanilla beans stuff in it, and vanilla bean seeds, but you could use a splash of vanilla extract if that's what you have to hand. There's a quick vanilla scraping tutorial here. I also added a bit of whole wheat flour, because I like the added depth of flavor.

Same ingredients, different method, very different crumb.
A picture of said scones on Facebook naturally led to a wide-ranging conversation on the nature of American vs. British and Irish chemically leavened baked goods: biscuits, scones, crumpets, muffins, etc. This is what happens when you have friends from all over who like to eat and bake. The consensus is that these are not scones because they're triangular, or because they don't have raisins, or because they don't have an egg. Or maybe only because they do not have clotted cream on them. The triangular part seems to be the thing that makes these truly American scones as opposed to English ones. I did serve them with strawberry jam, so maybe that's something. Also they are tasty and quick and if you have clotted cream you might as well use it on these as anything else. If you don't have clotted cream they're good fresh and warm with no adornment at all.

American Vanilla Scones
makes 12 medium-sized scones

4 ounces whole wheat flour
8 ounces all-purpose flour
1/4 cup vanilla sugar (or regular sugar)
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
seeds of one vanilla bean, or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 Tablespoons butter, cut into small chunks
1 cup milk


Preheat oven to 425 Fahrenheit. Cover a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Combine flours, sugar, baking powder, salt and vanilla bean seeds (if using) in a medium bowl, or a in a food processor work bowl. Whisk together for at least 30 seconds or 5 pulses of the food processor.

Add butter and cut in using two knives, a pastry cutter, or more pulses of the food processor, until butter pieces are the size of a pea or smaller.

If using a food processor, transfer flour mix to a medium bowl.

Add milk (and vanilla extract if using) all at once and stir just to combine. Turn out onto the counter and smoosh the dough together into a ball. It will be sticky, like a cookie dough.  Cut dough in half, and shape each half into a circle about 3/4 inch thick on the baking sheet with lightly floured hands.  Using a floured knife or bench scraper, deeply score each circle into 6 triangles.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until lightly browned.  Allow to cool for ten minutes, then cut into triangles and eat plain or split in half and top with strawberry jam, butter, clotted cream, honey, or whatever will make your morning better.


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