Bringing People Together to do Good

On the Death of Anthony Bourdain

I woke up this morning to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. I’m not usually affected by celebrity deaths. Robin Williams’ hit me, and I always feel a moment of sadness for the friends and families of those who have passed, but celebrities are — almost by definition — people I do not know. I know of them. I know about them. But I do not know them.

But…

A lifetime ago, I was a cook in a good restaurant in a sleepy college town. My chef recommended Kitchen Confidential to me. And I devoured it. I wasn’t planning on cooking as a profession. Like many people in restaurant kitchens, it was something I was doing to bide the time while I waited for the next thing to come along. Cooking for other people was what made things like eating, drinking, and living indoors possible for me. Reading Bourdain’s book didn’t change that.

But was there any young cook — professional or not — who didn’t want to be Anthony Bourdain? A rising star sure, but also a well-loved scoundrel and a damn fine cook? Even if we didn’t live that life, we knew it… at least a little bit. I never did cocaine off a cutting board, but I was part of the kitchen culture of yelling and teasing and swearing and drinking too much. And I know that there were other people in that restaurant who were doing far worse things. We were all embroiled in the simple self-destructive behaviors of a kitchen. And those behaviors were, in a strange way, done in the service of making something beautiful. That steak tip pasta has just a few ingredients, but one of them is a little bit of zest from the soul of the person who cooked it.

And here was Bourdain, putting that life — and so much more — into words. He wrote with the same visceral intensity that he cooked with. He made it look like he must have picked over each word with great care, like a tv chef at a farmers market carefully inspecting every apple and asparagus before putting it in the basket. But I suspect that it was a little more like the kitchen life he wrote about: careful and hurried all at once, an ounce of linguistic sauce covering a multitude a sins.

I didn’t follow him much after I left the restaurant. I caught occasional interviews and episodes of A Cook’s TourNo Reservations, and Parts Unknown (did anyone watch The Layover?). I saw the other side of the cook. The gastronome, yes, but also someone who just loved food. It didn’t have to be fancy. It just had to be good. And ‘good’ was a big category, ranging from mom’s homemade meatloaf to weird stinky cheeses to cobra heart. His work was a reminder that we are all united by food — by that need to consume something else — even if some of us wouldn’t even entertain the idea that what some of the rest of us eat qualifies as food.

As I said at the beginning, I was a restaurant cook a lifetime ago. Since then, I’ve worked plenty of odd jobs. But, mostly, I’ve been a student, a fundraiser, and a pastor. Some of my favorite images from the Bible are of food. The feast of rich foods and well-aged wines at the end of days, the last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples, the fish that he shared with a few of them after his resurrection, the fruit of the tree of life in the book of Revelation. The Bible is full of reminders that God feeds us, and that we imitate God when we feed each other… especially when we feed those who do not have enough to eat.

Tony — if I can call him Tony — Tony’s life and death is a reminder of things that unite us all. He completed suicide at the age of 61, a sad reminder of the fragility of human life. Even a successful celebrity chef who gets to travel the world and eat great, and occasionally disgusting, food can be broken broken enough to end his life. And if that’s true for him, then it is also a reminder that everyone is struggling with a brokenness we know nothing about.

Everyone is struggling with a brokenness we know nothing about. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please 1-800-273-8255. Click To Tweet

But those 61 years are a reminder of something else, as well: food can bring us together. Our way out of that brokenness can include the small kindness of sharing a meal, of being at a table together with friends and family and strangers, of breaking bread or weird stinky cheese or cobra heart together. In the midst of all of the terrible things in the world, there is the beauty of a medium rare steak, the sublime flavor of garlic soup, the warm comfort of a reasonably priced merlot, and the joy of good company.

In the midst of all of the terrible things in the world, there is the beauty of a medium rare steak, the sublime flavor of garlic soup, the warm comfort of a reasonably priced merlot, and the joy of good company. Click To Tweet

As a Christian, I have faith that there are more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of. I don’t know what is next for Tony, but I entrust his soul to God. And I will choose to believe that he has pulled a chair up to a great table and is enjoying a feast of rich foods and well-aged wine, of rich foods filled with marrow and well-aged wines strained clear.

Go in peace, chef.

‘Baga!

Posting is lighter this week because last weekend, I went to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. When I was a student there, I played in the jazz ensemble, as well as a few of the jazz combos. And while I’m not nearly as good as I used to be — because who has time to practice anymore? — I enjoy going back for the Rootabaga Jazz Festival (named for Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories… the spelling is intentional).

‘Baga is a surprisingly good festival for a small town in Illinois. This year’s featured artists were Greg Ward & 10 Tongues, Matt Ulery’s Loom, and, of course, the Knox Jazz Ensemble. Both Greg Ward’s and Matt Ulery’s ensembles take some work to listen to; they aren’t background music. But both are also well worth the effort and can easily grab your attention and make you want to listen carefully. The Knox Jazz Ensemble is easily one of the best jazz ensembles at a small liberal arts college. This year, they had the added treat of premiering a piece written by Matt Ulery especially for them, and which truly highlighted the talents of this year’s band.

The festival also had performances by the Knox Faculty & Friends Combo and the Knox Alumni Jazz Ensemble.

 

Cleaning the Digital House… Letting Go of Attention Hogs

While I haven’t been thinking about it this way — it’s still ministry, after all — the move from fundraiser to pastor is technically a career change. And while there’s a lot that goes along with a job change and a career change, one thing I wasn’t expecting was that I would spend time cleaning the digital house. I spent serious time clearing out the blogs that I follow, unfollowing Facebook pages, deleting browser bookmarks, unsubscribing from so many email lists, and generally saying, “I don’t need to pay attention to this anymore.”

That’s not to say that I got rid of everything. I just edited my online world a little.

And I think it’s a practice I might continue. My feeds are a lot neater. My bookmark bar is less cluttered. I’m not scrolling through or clicking ‘read’ on an endless stream of content I don’t care about. I can focus on the things I care about because I made room for them… by removing the things that were taking up attention I couldn’t spare.

There are a lot of attention hogs in my life. There are, of course, all of the things on my social media feeds. There are the books I read because I feel like I’m supposed to. There are television shows that I only watch because I started watching them however long ago. There are all of the things that have become habits that don’t have to be habits. Passionless projects that I could let go of if I gave myself permission.

Which is to say: things I can let go of.

There are a lot of attention hogs in my life. Passionless projects that I could let go of if I gave myself permission. Which is to say: things I can let go of. Click To Tweet

So let this be a new practice and a new discipline, going through my digital life every so often — maybe once a year — and deciding what I can get rid of. At least, until I let go of this practice, too.

A New Adventure (and Refocusing the Blog)

For the last five-and-a-half years (plus a bit), I’ve been the church relations associate at Back Bay Mission, a community ministry of the United Church of Christ in Biloxi, Mississippi. Now I’m preparing to move on to a new adventure. Soon, I’ll have my first day as pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa.

I’ll be honest. I’m both excited and nervous to take on my first pastoral position. There are many parts of the work of a pastor that I love, and there are many aspects of this congregation that I think I’ll love. At the same time, there’s no way to know exactly what to expect. There are going to bumps and bruises and the people of this community and I learn to be together as a church. But I’m looking forward to this new thing. I’m excited to see where the spirit will take us.

I’m also going to miss Back Bay Mission. I will miss visiting churches across the United States. I will miss board meetings at the Mission. I will miss the day to day work of fundraising. I will miss friends and colleagues who are working every day to strengthen neighborhoods, seek justice, and transform lives.

This is a big change… and I’m glad to be making it.

This transition also means that some changes will be coming to the blog. For example, I hope that First Congregational will have a website where I can post my sermons and some other ‘churchy’ musings. I may link to that content from here, I may crosspost that content, but content and schedules will change.

One of the things I’m hoping to do is refocus this blog. When I started this version of the blog in December of 2015, I was focused on defending charity from its detractors. Over the last couple of years, I’ve added posts about fundraising, politics, and other topics. I’m glad I did, and I don’t regret anything I’ve written. But it’s time to get back to the basics.

Going forward, I’m going to focus this blog on three subjects:

  • Charity (including the history, philosophy, and theology of charity)
  • Fundraising, stewardship, and communications for churches
  • Some ‘being a pastor’ topics like scheduling and energy management

Of course, I’ll talk about some other things, too. That’s just what I’m planning on spending the most time on.

I hope you’ll join me.

Hope… Eschatological and Immanent

While working on another project, I’ve been thinking about hope. And part of what I’ve been thinking about is the difference between eschatological hope and immanent hope. Those are big words, but they matter.

Eschatology is the branch of theology that asks questions about death, judgement, and the ultimate destiny of creation. Eschatological hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom will be realized: that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).

Immanence is the reality of the divine that we see here and now. Immanent hope is the hope that we have that God’s kingdom is already in the world among us. It is the hope that we can make the world a better place now, even in the face of the world-as-it-is.

And this matters because it’s easy to think that, because we can’t make everything perfect now, it isn’t worth doing anything at all. We can — to use a phrase that I remember showing up a lot in the original discussions of the Affordable Care Act — let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I’m going to talk more about this in another context — yes, I’m writing this post so that I can write another one — but I wanted to put this concept out there. As a Christian, I always have an eschatological hope: I always hope that the world will ultimately be the world-as-God-intends-it-to-be. As a person, I also have immanent hope: I can make the world a better place today. And I’m not going to let the fact that I hope that God will ultimately make the world what it should be keep me from doing my part now.

Or, as the quote often clumsily misattributed to ‘the Talmud’ puts it:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

When People Tell You That Everything You’re Doing Is Wrong

Over at Coffeehouse Contemplative, Jeff Nelson has a parody that beat me to an issue I’ve been wanting to address: the idea that everything you’re doing is wrong.

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things I am apparently doing wrong: tying my shoes, adding milk to scrambled eggs, putting oil in pasta, peeling bananas, crossing out words, eating tic tacs, eating cupcakes, cutting bread, and putting rolls of toilet paper on the toilet paper holder. “You’re doing it wrong,” has become the cute click-bait listicle way of saying “Here’s a different approach.”

And I like cute click-bait listicles. That’s probably another thing I’m doing wrong. But we live in a hypercritical culture. That’s especially true on the internet, where ‘well… actually’ has become a mantra.

So, I want to say just three, easy things:

You are doing things wrong. I am doing things wrong. It is a fact of human life that we make mistakes and we build bad habits. Some of the things we do wrong matter: we support unethical companies, we hurt other people, we make the world a little worse or we fail to make it a little better.

Different isn’t wrong. You can tie your shoes however you want. You can put oil in your pasta. You can cut bread from the top. There might be ways to do things that are different. There might be ways to do things that are better. But that doesn’t mean that they way you are doing things is wrong.

As long as it works and it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s fine. This is a key point. Do the things that work for you and don’t hurt anyone else. That’s fine. That’s good. But also seek to improve from there, because who wants to settle for fine?

In a world that is increasingly critical, we don’t need more lists of things we’re doing wrong. We need permission to be doing the best we can, and encouragement to do better tomorrow.

On Being Realistic

We are not here to be realistic. We are here to change reality.

Don’t be foolish: we aren’t going to end hunger by the end of the year. But don’t be overly cautious: we can end hunger someday, and we can do it by feeding one person at a time.

‘Being realistic’ is too often code for being too cautious, for backing off the big idea, for playing it safe. ‘Being realistic’ too often means: don’t take the risk; don’t dream big.

I wonder who the first person was to look at a plan to eradicate smallpox and say: be realistic.

I wonder if anyone replied: We’re not here to be realistic; we’re here to change reality.

Renovations

Sorry for the relative silence around here recently, but as you can see I’ve been doing some renovations to the site. I’m sure I’ll be finding bits an pieces that need fixed over the next few days and weeks (and months and years). If you find anything that you think needs my attention, please head over to my home page and use the contact form to drop me a message. Thanks!

I hope to be back to my regular posting schedule soon.

Please Remember to Vote Tomorrow

This election – like all elections – matters.

I’m not going to take a public position on this election – though people who know me can probably guess who I voted for (I voted early) – because it’s important to me that this website be reasonably nonpartisan. But it’s also important to me that this website be Christian, and as a Christian I am asking other Christians to vote with Christ’s words in their heart:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)

I know that it can be hard to decide which candidate comes closest to realizing that ideal. But please, take that call to bring good news to the poor seriously. And please remember to vote.

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