Sunday, November 18, 2018

What Is It? (Look, Gather, and Be Filled)


A sermon for Messiah Village's annual Thanksgiving Service, based on I Thessalonians 5:18 and Exodus 16:9-21, 31.

In this passage, God responds to the Israelite's complaints by telling them to "draw near."  Then, God provides for their needs, because that's who God is.  But the way in which God provides is so strange, so unexpected, so utterly confounding, that when the hungry, whiny Israelites wake up, step out of their tents, and look around, they turn to each other in utter confusion.  

Seeing nothing more than fine, white flakes spread across the ground, they ask each other, "What is it??"   

Their befuddlement is so complete, they take to calling the strange food 'manna,' which is the Hebrew way of asking "What is it?"   

Any parent can tell you that a meal that starts with the question, "What is it?" isn't likely to go over well.  Most of us like to know what's been put on our plate.  We don't want to be surprised.  We don't want to consume a meal we may not recognize or, worse yet, may not even like.  

But this story doesn't focus on the Israelites' confusion or preferences, it focuses on God's provision.  God provides and all the Israelites have to do is wake up each morning, step outside and ask, "what is it."  They are to look for what God has given.  Then, they are to gather and consume as much as they need.  Three times that phrase is repeated in this passage, "as much as they needed, as much as they needed, as much as they needed."

God's glory appeared in the wilderness, God heard the complaints of his people, and God provided for their need.  As advent approaches, I'm struck by the parallels between this passage and the stories of Christ's coming.  The stories of John the Baptizer appearing in the wilderness, and Jesus, the bread from heaven, sent from God to meet our deep need.  Jesus, like the manna in the wilderness also seemed like a strange and unexpected gift.  The question with Jesus was not "what is it" but, "who is he?"

Exodus reveals a God who appears and provides, daily.

In response, the Israelites are call to be people who look and gather, daily.  

I chose this passage because I think it can give us some insight into Paul's challenging command to "give thanks in all circumstances."  I don't know about you, but there are times when I find gratitude and thanksgiving come easily.

I'm thankful when the house is warm.

I'm thankful when my kids are happy (and quiet). 

I'm thankful when medical tests come back with good results, when money is plentiful.  In short, I'm thankful when things are going the way I want them to - the way I think they should.  I'm thankful when I can easily identify "what it is" that God is doing in my life and in the lives of those I love. 

But some mornings, I wake up and step outside and struggle to know what God is doing.  Like the Israelites, I find myself asking, "what is it" God is doing?  "What is it" that I even have to be thankful for? 

Maybe you have those mornings too.  Sometimes those mornings stretch into days and weeks and months; whole seasons of asking God, "What is it you are doing?  Where in this wilderness are you?"

I love this story in Exodus for the way it answers these questions.

Where is God?  God is with us, appearing right here in the middle of whatever wilderness we find ourselves in.

What is God doing?  God is providing, as much as is needed, every day.

In response we, like the Israelites, are invited to be people who look and gather what is given in every day and every season.  We place our trust in God who appears and gives as much as we need.  We accept and give our consent to the words of Moses, "This is the bread the Lord has given you to eat."  We look and gather and are filled, because of who God is.

God is meeting our needs, but God may not be meeting our wants.  And the difference between the two - wants and needs - can be the center of a lot of pain and suffering.  The way we navigate the difference between having what we need and what we want can be the difference between a life of peace and contentment and a life of anger, frustration, bitterness, and resentment. 

Let me give you an example from my own life.  Eight years ago I was working part time as an Associate Pastor, feeling fulfilled in a job I enjoyed deeply, when I found out I was unexpectedly pregnant with twins.  Now, if having two healthy, unexpected babies is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I have very little complain about.  But, at the time, I found the news and the changes it would bring very unsettling.  

I would need to quit my job, I would need to surrender to living a life that was markedly different from the one I planned.  Friends and family were quick to tell me that this pregnancy was a blessing from the Lord and, with time, I told a friend, "I know this is a blessing, but it's not the one I would have chosen."

Over time, as I grew to love my boys and my new life, I realized how large the 'I' in that sentence loomed.  Who's to say I would have chosen best? Isn't it possible that the answer to the question "what is it" might be, "something bigger and better than you could ever imagine"?

I like that the bible tells us manna tasted like wafers made with honey.  Honey was a rare treat, a symbol of luxury in biblical times.  Imagine if the Israelites had never gotten beyond the question, "what is it."  What if they'd never placed those small, seed-like flakes on their tongues, had never allowed themselves to taste the goodness because they first needed to know what it was?

Have you ever tried to get a child to try something on the tip of a spoon without first telling them what it is?  I do this with my own children sometimes, wanting to share a special treat, and they put up no end of loud protest.  But, I insist, luring them with sweetness. "Trust me," I say, "it's good."  Do you know the kind of trust it takes for a young child to open their mouth and receive in that way?

I think this is something of what Paul is asking of the early church.  He's reminding them to be people who trust in a God who provides; people who believe that the answer always, ultimately, to the question, "what is it," is "it is good, because God is good." 

I want to encourage you if you're in a season of life in which you don't know what God is doing.  Or, if you can't understand why God is allowing things to happen as they are in your life.  There are few more difficult circumstances to find yourself in.  You're pain is real and we pray that this season will pass quickly.  

If you find yourself in a season in which thanksgiving is difficult, I want to encourage you to keep looking and gathering what God is giving and to invite others to join you in the wilderness you face.  The Israelites went out together in the morning and turned to each other to understand God's strange provision.  No one stood alone outside their tent that day.  

Also, like the Israelites, may you remember that the sweetness you taste this day, like those wafers that tasted like honey, is only a small foretaste of the meal that awaits us when we reach God's promised land - that place flowing with milk and honey, where tears and sorrow shall be no more.  

Let us praise the God who appears, even in the wilderness.  Let us be people who go out together, looking for what God is doing, gathering what God has given.  Let us be people who can say, "We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good."

Friday, September 21, 2018

God & Grace in the Garden & Coop


"Hen Party"

I try to make it a habit to walk around our yard most days after work.  I circle the house, then head down to the garden where yellow and red Zinnias occupy one row and red-and-white striped ones form another. The heads of the sunflowers hang heavy, drooping and brown, and the yellow finches are happy to pilfer their drying seeds.  Our tomatoes grow nearby, dark and dense as a forest, with heavy fruit twice the size of my hand hanging like red water balloons on nearly every vine.

Our garden is a riot, an explosion of weedy chaos that cannot, in our current tropical conditions, be tamed. But, we try. We summon strength and courage to weed one bed, then another. Hidden, we find the small watermelons the grew from last year's seeds, the pale winter squash growing in inexplicable abundance.

This year, with our hens no longer free-ranging, we're freed the alarm of their endless infiltration of the garden gate. No more pecked-at tomatoes. No more chasing five, six harried hens, trying to shuttle them out through the narrow gate.

This year, the hens are confined to a large fenced yard attached to their coop and they've managed to peck the ground there bare of any sign of life. Noticing their sparse conditions this summer,  it dawned on me that our garden’s endless supply of weeds might be a welcome addition to their otherwise bleak landscape.

We started taking weeds to them by wheelbarrow and wagon-load, tossing the leggy green plants over the fence handfuls at a time.  The hens were elated.  They ran, pushing and shoving, to scour the windfall of succulent greens.  Our rooster, Joker, puffed out his chest, making several announcements to his girls, waiting until they set-in before taking his own. Within minutes, the stems were bare, stripped to frail, skeletal forms. 

What a grace this is, what a miracle: our chickens take our garden’s accidents and turn them into eggs.

There’s more, though.  Standing in the kitchen, on any given night, I’m frequently confronted with routine kitchen scraps (the peels, the cores, the wilted ends) as well as bowls of mystery food left too long in the refrigerator.  These too, the hens down enthusiastically, clucking and tutting.  When I feel weighted by the guilt of chili left too long in the back of the fridge, the knowledge that this too can feed to hens gives me solace.  These hens are teaching me grace again, reminding of the power of redemption, the truth that our mistakes are never the dead end we imagine them to be. 

Richard Rohr sums it up this way: God writes with crooked lines.  By which he means, God connects all the dots of our lives, the much-intended ones AND the ink blots that splatter accidentally on nearly every page.  God writes the story of our lives with a view so broad, so imaginative, even hens turning old tomatoes into eggs ought not to come as a surprise.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

This. Here. Now. (Again)



Last week, after a fifteen-plus year hiatus from the sport, I went running with my daughter. 

We laced up our running shoes and set off, down the wet, grassy slope of the field across the street, through a narrow hedge of what we hoped wasn’t poison ivy, and onto the trail.  She bobbed along beside me, like a frisky squirrel, impossibly light on her feet.  She commented on how slow we were going. She claimed she could walk at the pace at which I was "running."  I told her she could feel free to run ahead if she wanted.  I told her, “I am 41 years old.”

We went up the slight hill and down the other side and she reminded me to “run through the bottom” – to use the hill’s slope to fuel the steps ahead.  We moved out of the shade and into the sun and I started to think about walking. 

Walking, really, had been on my mind since before we began. 

Would I walk?  Would I not?  Was I capable of making the whole distance at a slow and steady jog?  Sure, I’m running now – in the shade, downhill – but what about the sunny patch along the road? the slow, steady incline near the house?

I had been thinking about running for a long time – for a year, really, if not more.  But before I could get started, I seemed to need to know how I would end.  Was I starting a lifelong habit?  Would I lose ten pounds or more?  Was I going to be a ‘Runner’? Or was this a one-time deal, a passing fad, maybe yoga or Pilates were more my kind of thing?

It seemed I didn’t think the effort was worth it if I couldn’t guarantee some intangible future result.  So, I didn’t run.  Until last week, when something in me had had enough and I decided to let go of the need to know and take it one step at a time.  

Trotting along the trail, I recognized my familiar tendency to race ahead, to absent myself from what is – a slow and steady jog – in favor of the fear and fantasy of what might be. 

So, I started practicing as we ran. 

Here. Now. This., I thought.

Each time I wondered if, when, I would walk, I repeated the phrase.  Each time I wondered how far I would get, I returned to where I was.  And while this might seem like an inspirational post about exercise and the will to overcome – I assure you, it is not. 

I don’t really like running at all.  I may keep at it, I might not.  But what I noticed (and what may be enough, for now, to keep me coming back) is the way even this small thing – twenty minutes on a trail with my daughter – offered an invitation to the spiritual practices of presence and return. 

On the final stretch of road, my daughter sprinted ahead, leaving me to climb the hill alone.  It wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be.

*  *  *

My most recent newsletter featured a reflection on the phrase "This. Here. Now."  You can read that essay hereDo you ever find yourself plagued by a need to know?  What practices do you use to stay in the present and move along one step at a time? I'd love to hear in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What I Wish I'd Said



“What’s with the bracelet?” he asked. 

The cuff in question, made of brightly colored fabric and secured with two snaps, circled my left wrist.  Across the top, the word, ‘joy’ was written on a piece of frayed ivory canvas.  I was making my rounds at physical therapy - moving from arm bike, to squats and leg lifts – when the young therapist posed his question. 

“I made it,” I said – an honest answer, but short of the full truth. 

“Oh,” he said, “do you make jewelry?”

The conversation moved on and did not circle back around, the moment was lost.  I was left mulling my reticent reply and wishing I’d been clearer.

//

Have you ever lost something and, when you found it again, you wanted to do everything you could to keep from losing it again?  That's how it is for me and joy.  So, I made a bracelet in all the brightest colors, the happy, vibrant ones, and wrote the word “joy” on it.  I wear it to remember to hold on to joy.    

//

I don’t know what that young man would have said had I unloaded my frightfully serious reasoning on him that day.  But, I wish I had, because it was the truth and sharing truth with others often helps solidify it in the deepest parts of ourselves.  

This summer, as I prepare to transition from working at home to working at a church again, I’ve been looking over these past seven years of life and taking an inventory of sorts.  What have I been given in this time that I want to carry with me for the work ahead?

One these gifts is joy - the reminder to cultivate and choose it, to recognize it not as an optional add-on to the spiritual life, but as a fruit of the spirit, an essential marker of the presence (or absence) of God in each of our lives.  To remind myself of this truth, I made a small painting to hang in my new office, a painting filled with gorgeous colors, patterns and textures and one simple word: joy.

   





Monday, June 18, 2018

Turn Toward the Light (Do Not Be Afraid)


How did the rose
ever open its heart
and give to this world 
all its beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light
against its being.

Otherwise,
we all remain 
too frightened. 

- Hafiz


The world needs us all; every heart open, fragrant, bright with the gift of pure being.  

May the light of Love rest upon you this day.  

May the light of your own beautiful soul be an encouragement to all who cross your path today.

*   *   *

Things have been quiet on the blog for some time now.  Be sure to sign up for my newsletter and stay tuned later this week for an update on all the new things happening behind the scenes here at This Contemplative Life.    


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Keep Showing Up



I found myself in a bit of a funk last night. After mowing the front lawn, I sneaked into my office to pray for awhile. It helped. And then I saw my daughter outside and decided to join her because the hot humid day had finally turned cool and breezy. We road our bikes in lazy circles on the driveway and I noticed, again, the red roses blooming like fireworks along the side of the little house. I realized the Queen Anne's Lace was in full bloom too. After I parked my bike, I ran in for a vase and scissors and Sophia and I cut the first bouquets of the season. I felt immeasurably better then, I felt returned to my home, my self.

I painted this little plaque last year, based on a note I had taped above my painting station, "Keep showing up." My kids asked what it meant, and I said, "It means keep trying, keep being willing to be where you are, to start again in whatever moment you find yourself in."

I think that's part of what happened last night. Thanks to prayer and a cool breeze, I stopped worrying about what comes next and showed up to what was right in front of me - a riot of flowers, a lovely daughter to share the task of cutting the season's first bouquets.

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”

Today, friends, keep showing up, consent to be where you are, in whatever you are in. And, when you do, I hope you find flowers, or a friend, or even just a moment's peace and quiet that helps you move gently, hopefully, into the next moment and the moment after that.

Monday, May 21, 2018

What I Learned When I Was Dying

Edge of the Conodoguinet Creek, Still Waters Retreat, Carlisle, PA


“Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” – WeCroak.com

I had been keeping an eye on the spot for weeks.  I thought it was a bug bite.  I thought it would go away.  But it didn’t.  Finally, on the first free morning I had, the morning I was set to go on silent retreat, I googled my symptoms and found out I was dying.

Well, I’m not dying (I repeat: NOT DYING), but that morning, based on what I read online, death suddenly seemed like a plausible possibility.  Not only was my symptom a possible sign of something bad, it was a symptom of something very bad.  I called my Dr and made an appointment for the following day.  I called back again and said I’d be more than happy to come in that very day if they happened to have a cancellation. 

Then, with nothing more to do, I left for my scheduled retreat, for six hours of silence and solitude with the news of my own impending death tagging along, an unwelcome, nagging companion. 

//

My husband and I recently learned about an app called WeCroak which sends users a text, five times a day, with a simple reminder, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”  The text arrives at random intervals (like death) and keeps things simple, clear, and direct.  

My husband learned about it through a counselor, discussing humanity’s fear of death as a source of generalized anxiety.  I heard about it from my Spiritual Director after sharing about my silent retreat.  “These kinds of experiences can help us wake up,” she said.

//

One would think a silent retreat, with death as your companion, would be The. Worst.  But, it wasn’t.

After driving to the tiny house in the woods, I sat in the kitchenette drinking tea.  Surrounded by windows, I watched bees flitting from plant to plant.  Upstairs, later, I rocked in a cushioned chair, reading Richard Foster’s, “Freedom of Simplicity.”  When reading grew tiresome, I stared out another set of windows and watched witless carpenter bees droning in lazy, senseless circles.  I took a nap, half-wrapped in a downy quilt, while the sun shone down on me.  I woke to a stink bug landing too near my face. 

Don’t get me wrong, I was distracted.  I fought back tears from time to time and found it nearly impossible to focus on my original intentions for the day.  I spiraled into moments of worry and anxiety.  

I thought about my kids and what would happen to them if something happened to me.  I want to say my concerns were selfless, but they weren’t.  I mourned my loss of influence in their lives, the things I would not get to see.  I realized, I will not last the test of time.  Which is to say, I will die, and the world will go on without me.   There isn’t really a single thing I can invest in that will last; as Theresa of Avila said in her famous bookmark prayer, “All things are passing away.”

Except, that is, for love.

//

Later in the day, I ate my lunch sitting in an old Adirondack chair near a wide and lazy creek.  The surface of the water hardly seemed to move at all.  If I shifted my focus, I could see long fish swimming loops along the muddy floor.  Dandelions, with heads gone white like old lady’s hair, stood along the edge of the water, bearing witness, I thought, to its passage.

Those dandelions are, I’m sure, gone today.  But the creek remains. 

It seems to me, that love must be something like that stream – constant, slow, enduring, and we are like those fading flowers on the shore.  In which case, the only sane thing to do is cast ourselves, wholeheartedly, into love’s great stream, to become – with heart, soul, and mind – part of the love that never fails. 

//

This is what death told me last week, when I allowed it to draw near via a googled symptom and online self-diagnosis.  Maybe others might learn the same by answering death’s texts five times a day for months on end.  The apostle Paul, who had his own travels with death as a companion, tells us the same, “now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor 13:13)

Death’s message was clarifying and simple.  It put my world, which I thought had been tipped on its head, right-side-up again.  It brought my feet closer to solid ground, which is to say, it gave me level footing in the land of acceptance.  

I did not make peace with death over the course of six silent hours spent in the woods on a sunny Wednesday in early May.  I’m not that naive.  But I did catch a glimmer of a gift hiding in death’s hand, enough to make me understand what we lose living in a time and place where death is treated as an inconvenient truth, a reality best avoided at all costs.  

You can read more about the WeCroak App in this article in The Atlantic.  Let me know if you try it out!