March 2017

{Mug-inspired reflections for Lent 2017…forty essays based on vessels found in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. I’m the first to admit the inspiration may come from mDSC05645.jpgore than the mugs.}

Look at this mug. It’s just a plain, ordinary mug. No imprint. No design. No marketing strategy at all. But it does the job for which it was intended with no ulterior purpose. It holds a healthy dose of morning coffee. As I think about it, I wonder where it came from and why we even have it. Maybe the printing has washed off through the years. Or, maybe it’s just one of those mugs we humans used to drink from before someone got the idea to embellish tumblers, beakers, and drinking glasses with art and slogans. The title of this reflection is apt, I think. This is just a plain old vanilla mug.

And you know what it reminds me of? The importance of getting back to basics. In fact, that’s something this Lenten period of forty days is good for, too. Getting back to basics. Removing clutter. Seeking quiet. Focusing on…well, almost anything. In this world of noisy distraction and destruction and obstruction, comes this instruction: focus. It’s simple. Just stop. Take a Sabbath breath or several in each hour, pause a few minutes each day, take a day a week, and stop. Stop the busyness. (Don’t worry; the world will continue to spin.) Just sit there. Or, lie there. Ever stood up in a corner before, leaning against those two walls. That can be very supportive. Really. Then, stopped, and breathing each breath as if it were the last, or the first, we can clear the mind and focus on one thing.

It probably doesn’t matter what that one thing is. An imaginary beach, a gentle breeze, looking out on an azure sea? The summit of a mountain overlooking a green vista of surrounding hills and river-carved valleys? How pleasant. But maybe the focus would be better directed toward a feeling of guilt, an unfortunate word, an expression of disappointment, a regret you had tried to escape, to cover over with daily clutter. That quiet moment can be used for escape or encounter. To evade an unpleasant truth, or to embrace a comforting thought. What is essential is to have stopped. To breathe. To focus. And to move toward healing. Simple, right?

Back to the flavor of the day: vanilla. Howard Johnson’s restaurants used to boast of 28 flavors of ice cream. Ben and Jerry’s may not have 28, but their flavors are exotic, clever, and very rich. The Kellam freezer usually contains five or six half-gallons of various flavors. Often, among those cartons, is plain vanilla. While we may enhance it with syrup of some sort (pure Vermont maple syrup is even better than chocolate), a scoop or three of vanilla by itself, unembellished, is more than just OK; it’s refreshing. And delicious.

But look at the variety of words we use to modify the vanillas of our lives: plain, old, dumb, stupid, flat, ordinary, dull, basic… But another word for basic is…pure.

In a previous blog, I quoted Irenaeus, a second-century bishop, who advised that “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” I fear that for many of us, that “fully-aliveness” means busy, busy, busy doing lots of good and valuable and productive and fulfilling things. But, at least in the context of this plain, old mug (the one pictured here, not my face), I suggest tthTH7T65IPhat fully alive could also be the simple purity of life focused on this moment. A basic beauty, simple and true, like the climbing orchid of the Vanilla genus. It’s not exactly a rose. Not intricate, nor flashy.  A simple vine with not a particularly impressive bloom.

But it yields a flavor and aroma that can be rich, inviting, and ambrosial. When we first lived in Richmond, Virginia, we were just a mile or so from the Southern Biscuit Company where millions of cookies were baked, and the aroma of vanilla filled the whole neighborhood. Chocolate, peanut butter, almonds…they couldn’t make one’s mouth water like the wafting aroma of vanilla wafers baking there on the city’s north side. Plain vanilla gets back to basics.

I’ll admit there is a place for extravagance, embellishment, decoration, and the downright clever. A few blocks down the road from that cookie factory is the Byrd Theatre, a 1920s movie palace, gaudy and grand, and still open. It’s never been “restored,” just kept clean and polished, and updated only in technology. Last I knew, the Wurlitzer pipe organ still rose from the pit on weekends to play before the feature. I love that place. But more vanilla is a family showing home movies on a bed sheet in the living room. More vanilla is a grandfather telling his grandchildren about his paper route and his adventures in 6th grade. More vanilla is a 2nd grader reading her scrawled-in-crayon story to her Mom.

Joan and I spend a lot of our vacation time in grand cathedrals. New York. Berlin. Amsterdam. Awesome, sacred spaces filled with light from stained glass, magnificent pipe organs, tapestries and statuary, rich warm wood and soaring ceilings. We love those places. More vanilla is the white clapboard rural church with rustic benches and clear glass windows looking out on a pasture. More vanilla is the quiet worship of Friends, “Quakers” who have never debated music choices: traditional or contemporary? More vanilla is the backyard where a teenaged girl lies in the summer grass humming a private psalm to God.

The plain, the ordinary has a richness all its own. Here’s another quick reference to my Richmond singer-songwriter friend Steve Bassett. One of the first records he released was called “A Poor Man’s Life (Is a Rich Man’s Dream).” It was based on a familiar theme: simple is better. Getting back to basics means loosening bonds, becoming unburdened, letting go. Many who have too much (success, stuff, clutter) may find simpler living appealing. Not to glamorize the poor in spirit, or the hungry, or those living just on or over the edge, but their blessedness is evident to Jesus. His beatitudes may well be troubling, or at least puzzling, to both the rich and poor ones, those burdened by poverty and those burdened by riches. If we stop and take one of those Sabbath moments of peace and quiet, and focus on it, the meaning of being blessed may become more clear.

It’s Lent. A good time to consider a vanilla blessedness that transcends the trappings of what we thought was an abundantly rich life. I think that’s the truth, plain and simple.




SONY DSC{Day by day in Lent 2017, reflections on mugs I see in the alliterative Kellam kitchen cupboard. I’ve counted, and I think I do have enough to lead all the way to Easter.}

The mug pictured here is one of those “home made” plastic mugs that provide a nesting place for a computer-printed paper image. Our son Jim, the biology professor whose other title is “ornithologist” gave us this mug while he was working successfully on his Ph. D at Purdue University.

Age and leakage have diminished the graphics, and some of the computer ink has faded over the years. The overarching theme is “Woodpecker Research,” and the subtitle there is “Department of Biological Sciences.” Our names have faded away, but still clear on the other side of the mug we are named as “adjunct members.” That was Jim’s way of thanking us for our support as he made his way through labs and woods, around lakes and up streams, into classrooms and lecture halls.

As I look at those downy woodpeckers and remember Jim’s Purdue years, there was one adventure we look back on with mixed feelings. Peril was endured, and injuries overcome, so there was great anxiety followed by profound thanksgiving. In doing some research with radio transmitters attached to birds and an antenna held high to capture the birds’ movements, Jim had discovered that one transmitter had become detached and lodged in a tree in a wooded university property. The transmitters were rather expensive, so Jim wanted to retrieve that one in the tree. It was pretty high up.

He engaged the assistance of a forestry student to get into that tall tree, climbing ropes flung over branches. (I’ll bet that’s not the official forestry lingo.) But CRACK! The branch they were using broke. Jim told us that as they fell those forty feet onto the forest floor he had time to think two thoughts. One: this might be the last pain he’d ever feel. Two: he felt the air blowing through his hair as he dropped. The two guys bounced off the loamy forest floor. His companion was seriously hurt and said he couldn’t get up. Jim lay there for a few moments to determine if he could move limbs, and if he could get up.

He did manage to get to his feet, and decided to find help at a nearby golf course. He made his way through the woods, over a fence, and onto a green at the course where some guys were playing. They saw Jim approach, obviously disheveled and bleeding, but instead of coming to his aid, or even driving him to the clubhouse to summon help, they said he could use their golf cart if he wanted. So generous. When he said he’d never ridden or driven in one, they kindly gave him a lesson and as he drove away, they putted. (I’m still pretty ticked about that. Bastards.)

Jim got to the club office and asked the attendant to call 911. The guy said he didn’t know exactly how that worked. Jim did it himself. And then waited for the emergency vehicles to get to the golf course, where (and I love this part) they drove a vehicle right over the lovely course to get to the place where Jim had emerged from the woods. Back over the fence he went, leading the rescuers, until they found Jim’s colleague still lying there, waiting. The EMTs attended to him, and then said to Jim, “You fell too? You should be on a stretcher!” The two researchers were carried to the ambulance and taken to the hospital.

While in his hospital bed, he got at least one phone call from a concerned friend. “How did you know about this?” he asked. “We saw it on the news!” Jim waited a day or so after he got home to call us with the news of the close call. He wanted to be sure he was OK. He hadn’t wanted us to worry. A cracked vertebra would remind him of this accident for years to come, but we are all so grateful he recovered fully enough to recently finish an Ironman competition.

It’s safe to say that Jim completed his woodpecker research, wrote his dissertation, and moved into college teaching without going back high into tall trees. He’s left the heights to the birds.

If you have read other entries in this series, you know how I like to, well, research the derivation of the words we use so casually in writing and speech. I looked up “search” and found that it comes from a root that means to “go around.” I can see that. You go around looking for something. To “search” for that something, that cure, or solution, or lost coin or sheep, or the lost chord for that matter, is to, according to my source, “investigate leading toward [a] discovery.” Clever. Notice that the investigation may not actually lead to discovery; but only toward discovery. If you don’t actually discover something, the search wasn’t necessarily a failure. You were still headed toward, indicating progress made and yet to be made. Keep searching.

Research, re-search, is understood to be more intensive. Maybe going around again and again. I so admire the researchers who are on the way to finding a new medication, if not a miracle cure. I admire those looking around the vast reaches of space, or at underwater reefs, or forensic evidence. Microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, bifocals…all helping us to see what’s out there or in here. Search again. And keep it up.

Those of us not professionally engaged in the sciences probably don’t consider ourselves researchers until it’s time to shop. Look into the reliability of a new car, or search out the best deal on some item for the home. Ever searched for a church? Or, investigated a politician’s stand? Or, used the internet to learn about a disease? We all do research, don’t we? If we are at all inquisitive.

It turns out that I do a bit of research for lots of these Lenten reflections. I look up words, definitions, people, songs, scripture passages, quotations. I’m not writing for the ages here. It’s not the stuff of a dissertation or even a sermon delivered before a hundred people in church. But I do research so that I can tell the truth. So I can be precise. (I almost wrote “fairly precise,” but you know…it’s either precise or it’s not.) I may write in a light-hearted way, but I’m attempting to be honest. And that means, in this writing and in my day-to-day living, I go around again, keeping my eyes open for new things, discoveries, delights, light, or, better, Light.

One of the gifts of “retirement” is having the time to search and re-search. A lead character on a TV show we watch says to his investigative team, “Learn things!” as he sends them out. I’m a pretty old guy, and I still like to learn things. Even if I can’t always remember them.

One of the gifts of Lent is to embrace the time to research the soul, the spirit, the self, our relationship to God, and to our neighbors, to learn new things as we approach the newest thing Easter offers. Go around again in prayer. Search out the fruits of silence. Head toward deeper understanding. Toward it.

Best keep our feet on the ground though, at least until Resurrection Day!



For those who are following along this Lenten season, it’s nice of you to keep up with the “mug shots.” Here is mug #26…I think. No one told me math was part of this.}

When the Presbyterians published a new hymnal supplement in 2003, it was called, as you can read on the promotional mug, “Sing the Faith.” The sub-title, also on the mug,SONY DSC fudged a little, claiming, “New Hymns for Presbyterians.” In reality, the collection was a bunch of new hymns for United Methodists first. It turns out that “Sing the Faith” was a “rebranding” of a Methodist supplement “The Faith We Sing.” The song list in the two books is almost identical, but the Presbyterian publicity that touted the new collection claimed that it “features more than 280 hymns, many of which have been written by and for Presbyterians…” I guess the Methodists really like all those Presby-hymns!

Quibbling over the origin of that book aside, the idea of “singing the faith” goes way back. The book of Psalms is an ancient collection of 150 songs held in common among Methodists, Presbyterians, Jews, and too many congregations to count through the generations since harp virtuoso King David wrote some of them. Lament and praise, complaint and wonder…those songs have been sung, chanted, prayed, read, memorized, paraphrased, and revised metrically for worship over the centuries. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” “The Lord is my shepherd..” “I lift my eyes to the hills…” “O sing to the Lord a new song.”

Jesus quoted the Psalms from the cross. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” So not only do we sing our faith through the Psalms, but also our un-faith, at least, our doubts and fears and feelings of abandonment. Such honest prayer. Unguarded. “From the depths, I cry…”

I once served a church in northern Vermont, a congregation with Scottish Covenanter roots. The only music allowed in worship in its early history was the a capella singing or chanting of the Psalm book. No instrumental music. No “modern” (or contemporary for the times) hymns.  We got a taste of that when we visited a church in Scotland that still chanted Psalms in its Sabbath services. Fairly dreary as I recall. Seems as if a psalm of joy should have some uplifting beat or danceable rhythm. (I kept that thought to myself, lest we all be tossed to the cobbled Glasgow street.) The Vermont church had reformed its heritage many years ago and sang from the newer hymnals, though singing a psalm each week was still a tradition when I was there.

Sing the faith! Words are not enough. The head may “get” the meaning, but the heart must find the music for the meaning to be fully expressed. “I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song,” Jim Croce sang, because “every time I tried to tell you, the words just came out wrong.” But music redeemed his verbal efforts, not covering up his awkward words, but adding an embellishment that communicated the emotion behind the nouns and verbs. Now, music may not save bad poetry or bad theology. Hymnals old and new hold evidence of that. Those books are full of (pardon the expression) God-awful lyrics and tunes that are syrupy or downright unsingable. But there are masterpieces too, and songs that feed the soul.

As Fred Pratt Green wrote, “When in our music God is glorified…it is as if the whole creation cried, Alleluia!” And, “May God give us faith to sing always…” And may God give us all excellent voices, like Pavaroti’s or Sills’. Well, that won’t happen, will it? So much for singing the faith, if one can’t really sing.

Some autobiographical notes here. I can’t recall ever hearing my mother sing. Dad, though, would walk into a room singing some ditty now and then, just fooling around. But he made fun of singing in church; thought it was silly. He said as much one day as we sat at the table together at Mom and Dad’s home, and in the presence of my wife, the church musician! The comment defined chagrin. When I reminded Dad of Joan’s musical vocation, he was a little embarrassed, though he didn’t retract his statement. (He also thought people looked silly blowing into horns.)

My first singing was done at my maternal grandmother’s piano. She was an elementary school teacher, and I know we sang songs together, maybe even before I went to kindergarten. Like every other child in school, I sang in the classroom and later, in junior and senior high choruses. Add church choir to the mix, too, but only after my voice had changed. In college, somehow I got up the courage to try out for the Vesper Choir. It wasn’t exactly a “select chorus,” since a tenth of the school’s population of 1200 sang in it. But it did expose me to some of the great anthems and religious masterworks of the ages, the Brahms “A German Requiem” among them.

Vesper Choir also exposed me to a voice major who sang in the Concert Choir as well as for Vespers. It was there in the Westminster College Conservatory of Music that we would look for each other before and after rehearsals. She had the voice of a talented soprano soloist, and I the voice of a trying bass chorus member. Or, was it more the trying voice of a bass? When I had left school for a semester just as Joan and I were getting serious about more than singing together in choir, I asked her to sing me some songs via tape, and I was thrilled to hear her sing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face,” with my reading into the lyrics her feelings for me. Ah, yes, I remember it well.

As Joan moved into professional church music, I continued to sing the faith in a more modest way, always trying to blend my voice well under the other basses in various choirs. Both of us found singing with the 500+ voices of the Adult Choir at the Montreat Music and Worship Conferences to be richly fulfilling, musically and spiritually. To hear the children’s and youth choirs add their repertoire to the week was a powerful reminder that the singing of faith had a future beyond yucky praise choruses and juvenile jingles. Not all sung faith has to be “classical,” of course, but music that is challenging and worth some work has a depth that moves us profoundly, and joyfully.

I have a gift for you, if you wonder if you have the right voice for singing the faith, or anything else for that matter. Click this link: to hear my old Richmond friend Steve Bassett sing some musical advice: “Sing Loud, and Leave the Listening to Somebody Else.”

A rather Cosmic Somebody.




{Lent 2017…a mug a day…meditations and reflections…}

This mug was given me by a friend. I suspect it was Billie Starr Brightwell, my faithful colleague at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (a Graduate Center for Educational Ministry). Billie was first a student there, then a graduate who became a DCE (Director of Christian Education) in Kentucky, and a short time later, she returned to PSCE to be my assistant in the Video Education Center. (It turns out that she had listened to me on the radio as a youth.)

Billie was big on friendship. There were friendship cards, notes, gifts, and scrapbooks. And this mug.  Obviously, it’s from the TV show, and the words at the top say “Good coffee, good friends.” I didn’t even drink coffee until well into adulthood when Billie had a pot brewing as I came into the office. She made it for herself each morning and I found the aroma inviting and sampled some. I’ve been sampling some every morning since.

Friends share a lot more than coffee. Life’s celebrations and disappointments, its many climbs and descents, make or break friendships. My guess is that if that friendship is genuine, whatever life deals us cements the heartfelt relationship. It may test it first, but ultimately the strength of friendship is reinforced. Love is that strength.

Love? Maybe that goes too far. Many friendships are casual, maybe even convenient, or neighborly. The James Taylor song “That’s Why I’m Here” is a good example of that. Friends meet one another’s needs. They have what we could call an amicable or amiable relationship. While the root of those words is love, maybe that intimacy isn’t the best descriptor of a casual friendship. But, if we are lucky — or blessed — to be friends with some people beyond immediate usefulness or fun times shared together… meaning over a lifetime and/or over long distances… then we know deep and true, even loving, friendship.

In my prayers are friends I haven’t seen or spoken with for quite a while. (My fault; damned introversion.) But they are dear to me. I treasure so much the past we shared that it seems like the present. As I age, I’m finding such friendships are more difficult to build. My life is full of acquaintances, and many of them close ones; but few friends beloved.

They say that men have a much more difficult time than women do building such trusted and affectionate relationships . Sharing interests in sports, civic affairs, hobbies, or religious groups can create fertile ground for planting the seeds of friendship. Loyalty, faithfulness, and trust both feed and result from such connections. One test of whether a relationship has gone beyond mere acquaintance to friendship is if two people can share a deeply intimate conversation. And eventually, shared silence. And always, a confidence.

Guess what they taught us in seminary about friendship. Ministers shouldn’t build friendships with members of their congregations. “You can’t be their pastor and a friend at the same time.” We were encouraged to remember the boundaries set by propriety and practicality. Show no partiality, they told us, but find friendships beyond our church folk. Maybe in neighborhoods or civic groups. But if a pastor moved around every few years, that was hard. I’m not sure how well that worked for me, or for my colleagues in ministry. (Many of my “colleagues” were my closest friends, too. But imagine if ministers’ only friends were other ministers. Yikes.)

In an old sermon I wrote on friendship I noted that friends do enjoy life together. Sharing fun times may initiate a friendly relationship, but then it grows into that “I’d do anything for you” kind of thing. As it matures, there comes the realization that having such friendships makes us mutually into better persons. And the whole world could benefit from that.

Finally, I never take for granted my best friend of over 50 years, my wife Joan. This is friendship taken to its very highest level. Faithful, fulfilling, and eternal. Oh, and blessed, to be sure. Mutual understanding, lots of laughter, intimate love, even honoring our differences (she is so ambitious and disciplined — and I? not so much), and still growing together after all this time… it is pure grace, and the gift of a lifetime.

Though I have to make my own coffee.


{Lent, forty days of meditative preparation for the Easter celebration…and these written reflections inspired (if one can say that) by mugs I see each day in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. Crazy, I know.}

Look… this mug is dated: 1989. I was hosting the “B-103 Jazz Brunch,” oDSC07385n Sunday mornings in Richmond, Virginia. Somehow this mug, promoting a jazz album by sax player Kirk Whalum found its way to me, along with the CD “The Promise.” The contemporary sound fit right into my format, so it got a lot of play, and Whalum, only into his third recording at that time, was becoming a well-known sideman and “smooth jazz” artist.  To be signed by Columbia was a big deal, of course, and to have a mug! Well.

Now, here I was a minister competing with myself, with one of me leading worship in a Richmond church and one of me on the radio at the same time, playing jazz. One Sunday, a parishioner who had just been listening to the Jazz Brunch in the car on the way to church asked me how I could be two places at once, I explained that in church I was on tape. Maybe one of the tunes I had played that morning was “The Promise.” It would have fit right in, theologically speaking. Because one of the primary influences on Kirk Whalum as he grew up in Memphis was “gospel.”

In the liner notes of that CD, Whalum wrote:

“The Promise”: If you will choose Me, I have already chosen you. Receive my love and I won’t reject you. It’s that simple. (see Ephesians 1:3-12 for more details)

Another cut on the album is entitled “I Receive Your Love.” In the context of the cited scripture text, the tune isn’t about a romantic relationship, but about accepting the unconditional love of God. And a third tune on the CD is called “Ma Foi c’est Ma Vie.” Translated, “My faith is my life.” While the Jazz Brunch wasn’t a religious show at all, Whalum’s music surely added a sacred element to the weekly proceedings.

All these years later, Whalum has played with the greats, recorded some classics (it’s his sax we hear on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”), won Grammy Awards, and recorded four collections called “The Gospel According to Jazz,” featuring jazz interpretations of traditional and contemporary gospel tunes.

I titled this reflection “Promise,” based on the Whalum CD and the mug, but the word is full of meaning in the Christian faith. Whalum connected the word to that passage from Ephesians, but “promise” is a theme that has roots going back to the rainbow covenant that followed the Flood in the book of Genesis. Covenant (agreement), assurance, prediction…while the word “promise” isn’t specifically cited in the Hebrew Scriptures, the meaning is there. Offspring to Abraham and Sarah, a land to Israel, a world to God’s liking as seen by the Prophets…promises kept.

In the New Testament, there is assurance that the ancient promises are both fulfilled and being fulfilled, and the word promise is present both as noun and verb.

We all grew up hearing and making promises. “Promise me you won’t run into the street again!” “Promise that you won’t ever smoke,” a parent says to the child. “Promise me you’ll quit smoking!” the child says. Some of us said the Scout oath. Some made wedding vows. And some have made a loyalty oath or baptism promises. If someone swears, it is either promise or profanity, isn’t it? And breaking a solemn promise is profane.

Early in his career, someone must have told Kirk Whalum that he had great promise, meaning that his talents would lead, most certainly, to success as a musician and as a person. Each life has certain predictors, for better or worse. One promise we might make to our children, to our communities, to ourselves, is to encourage and empower the best use of talents and abilities in service to others. Lent would be a good time to reflect on how to live up to our promises to one another. Especially if we have accepted the love of God as described in Whalum’s tune “The Promise.”

One more note about that promotional mug, maybe irony, or just a smile. Here is a CD with some religious sensibility, some theological notes in the music aDSC07386nd the printed insert. But on the reverse side of the mug, is this: “Sax in the Morning.” OK. It’s the clever side that will appeal to the jazz deejays who have the mug on their desks for staff to joke about. It’ll grab attention, and maybe draw eyes to the other side that shows the album info.

Sax in the morning? On my Jazz Brunch? Perfect. But we all know that sax is great anytime! The promise is sure.




{Lent 2017 continues with reflections based on mugs waiting for coffee in our kitchen. Working our way to forty.}

When you look at the date on this mug, you see that it’s obviously the newest of the lot. I once worked with the Tioga County affiliate of Habitat for Humanity, and my wife Joan was on the board of the neighboring Broome County HFH. Mine folded into hers, mine being the smaller group, with fewer volunteers and a tired Board of Directors.

My first Habitat for Humanity involvement was limited to making a quick little video for the Richmond, Virginia affiliate. In that larger city, resources were plentiful, but so was the need for affordable, safe housing. The video showed work on three or four homes going up at the same time. Our church was very involved. That congregation contributed financial resources and enough volunteers to build at least one home on its own. And probably more than one home through the years.

After we’d been away from Richmond a few years, we happened to be visiting that church one Sunday when volunteers were being commissioned for the next build. There were saw horses in the front of the sanctuary, and some 2X4 boards that would be used in construction. Church folk were invited to sign their names to the boards so that they’d have a place in the finished studs of the walls. Paint cans held contributions, and prayers held high hopes for a family that would call that house a home.

[An important note: the families that partner in the building of their homes contribute 500 hours or so of “sweat equity,” as well as paying off a no-interest mortgage on their new house. It is a common misconception that HFH gives homes away for free. No, they don’t.]

When we moved to Vermont, I got much more involved in the local affiliate there. It was a different animal in rural Vermont. The building season up in the northeast part of the state was very short due to the cold climate. Volunteers were far fewer, with most potential workers busy on their farms or working in professional building trades trying to make their own living during that short construction season. And the churches were very small, unable to make large contributions to support the mission. Still, the need was great. Despite the romantic “Currier and Ives” image of Vermont, substandard homes strained under the weight of heavy snowfalls, woodstoves labored to keep homes warm, and a weathered look meant thin skins (exterior paint coverings) let cold winds seep into rustic homesteads.

Much of our work was accomplished by work crews from outside the state. For example, a group of college students (even high school teens) would stay in church basements, work on a home for a week, and go back home, to be replaced the following week by another crew. And rather than expend a huge commitment to build a new home, our affiliate did rehab work on old homes. We could improve the living conditions of several neighbors by repairing roofs, adding a coat of paint, rebuilding porches, etc., instead of spending two or three summers to build one new home for a family. The national headquarters didn’t always smile on our more humble efforts, but that was the reality in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Again, that small Habitat affiliate struggled to find work crews, coordinate their availability and skills with our current projects, locate housing and showers for the crews, and fund construction materials and supplies. The board was small and it was difficult to find local volunteers to serve on committees and help with building and rehabs. One couple, a retired minister and his wife, provided the leadership and coordination year after year, until the husband became too ill to continue. Eventually the affiliate had to close. It was a sad day.

When Joan and I moved to upstate New York, the Habitat board in the county to which we’d moved had just discovered that an embezzlement had decimated its financial accounts. I offered to produce a documentary about the current home it was working on, and somehow wound up on the board. Long story, short… though it built more homes than the Vermont affiliate had, it had trouble recruiting fresh blood for work crews and board membership, and while its finances grew stronger, the group itself grew fatigued. As it dedicated its last home, Joan had joined with a neighboring affiliate and we saw her group absorb mine. Just in time for her affiliate’s 25th anniversary. Thus, the mug.

All that personal biographical information is meant to say that we regard the ministry of  HFH’s founder Millard Fuller as a valuable contribution to meet a global need through local efforts. When a local church partners with Habitat for Humanity to provide a safe, affordable, and energy efficient home for a qualifying family in need, the people of that community of faith discover skills they may not have known they had, see progress from the foundation to the roof top, and witness to the fruits of compassion and hospitality. With its Christian roots, this housing ministry has grown into an interfaith effort, and watching all the Children of Abraham join in a common cause wielding hammers and paint brushes alongside a partner family about to own its home for the first time — that is a sign of hope, whether in downtown D.C., a suburb of Tempe, AZ, or anywhere in Haiti’s storm-ravaged landscape. is full of helpful information.

To lighten things up a bit for tomorrow, the next mug says “Sax in the Morning.”

{Reflections prompted by mugs. Strange but true. One odd Lenten practice.}

I love this mug. Because I love the photo. Because I love the boys. Here aDSC05627.JPGre my grandsons, in younger days, as photographed by my daughter Wendy. A parent knows just the right time to interrupt play and ask kids to pose. And this was the moment.

Thanks to my parents’ old Agfa Ansco “folding camera,” and my mother’s photo storage (albums), I have a large collection of pictures of my two brothers and me in poses much like this one. By the time my three sisters arrived, I was the one taking the pictures and I disappeared from the albums and slide trays. What a gift it is to be able to look back at our childhoods through old photos. Well, for most of us anyway. Some didn’t have many affectionate moments to save.

We assume that what holds families together, and tightly, is love. Sadly, there are households where love and affection are scarce. You know the reasons as well as I do, so we needn’t list them here. I’d rather look at that mug, enjoy the protective arm around the shoulder, the lean in, the touch of vulnerability in the younger face…and see love there.

Truth be told, these two guys aren’t in this pose constantly. Brothers don’t always get along. I have a chipped tooth that reminds me of a fight one of my brothers and I had in the living room one day. What the disagreement was about, I don’t know. I do remember challenging that younger brother Kim to an out-and-out fight. “Let’s just go have  it out!” I said angrily. He said okay, and we stood facing each other in the front room of the house. He socked me in the mouth. Bang. It was over. And I’m sure I went crying to Mom, the bloodied big brother sorry he ever made the stupid challenge.

In later years at home, there was far less drama. I was the older brother by two and-a-half years. My second brother came a year after the first. That meant, I guess, that Kim and Steve, being just a year apart, were closer to one another in the family. They shared a room, friends, neighborhood adventures. Yet Kim and I had some things in common. When I invented a literary hillbilly character (Homer Bushberry), Kim came up with Crabbush Brooks. I played trombone; Kim took it up too, and actually practiced and played it in the high school band. I took up photography, and so did Kim. I was active in youth group at church. Ditto Kim. And he followed me into two teen jobs, taking over my paper route and working at the same local pharmacy as I.

Then family dynamics changed considerably. I went off to college. The whole family moved out of state. My youngest sister, who was born when I was 16, told me a few years ago that to her I was the brother who was “away.” As she grew up, I was miles (and almost a generation) away, and my visits “home” were infrequent and brief. I missed the “growing up” years of my sisters. As I look back, of course a regret is having been so out of touch, not due to any estrangement, mind you. It was just a matter of life happening “across the miles.” Steve has died. But Kim and I talk by phone and exchange internet greetings, complimenting one another on our photos. We no longer have trombones nor paper routes in common.

I look at my grandsons who are seven years apart and see many brotherly commonalities. The difference in their ages means they don’t go to the same school or have the IMGsame friends. I know that one thing they do share is playing hockey! I have a neat picture of them walking away from a rink after a game Ryan played. Tyler was barely big enough to hold a hockey stick, but he was clearly following in his big brother’s footsteps. I have other pictures of protective Ryan watching out for Tyler. Seeing the boys now, a few years later, on the ice together, Ryan refereeing one of Tyler’s games (totally objectively I add), I see two brothers who will be friends for forever.

The Bible has some fascinating stories about brothers. Start with Cain and Abel, move to Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, and then Moses and Aaron. In the New Testament, Peter and James, and Jesus…he had four younger brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. (Poor Simon…he wasn’t a “J.”) In one of Jesus’ best known parables, there is the “prodigal” and his “older brother,” neither named, but both familiar. Maybe they all, at one time or another, exhibited for each other that brand of love called “brotherly.” But there were rivalries, too, and misunderstandings, disappointments, and, in that original brother story in Genesis 4, murder. Did I mention my chipped tooth? I got off easy.

I’ve been focusing only on the male brotherhood; obviously some sisters have brothers too. But the mug I found this morning centered my consideration on the boys. The affection I feel toward my brothers (certainly still including my late brother Steve here), the bond between my grandsons, all the signs of love between those who share parents, rooms, friends, neighborhoods, and lifelong family connections — these are gifts that reflect the unconditional love called ἀγάπη (agape — ah-gah’-pay). In some Greek class wordplay, it was said that we stand agape at ἀγάπη. That undeserved, unearned love is awesome. In the best of times and circumstances, brotherly love helps define a love that stretches with open arms to the whole family of God, regardless of gender, race, or class.

It’s not much in the headlines these days, is it? But if we look at pictures of children at play, children we older ones have not yet taught to distance themselves from one another, through discrimination, greed, or conceit, we can glimpse protective, comforting, tender, and affectionate love that may yet bloom among us all. In that sense, let us become like children…

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