Monday, March 20, 2017

But We Have This Treasure (What Happened At My House This Weekend)


But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 2 Corinthians 4:7

A petite Episcopalian priest and a divorced mother of two share one couch.  A retired history professor and editor reclines in a corner chair.  Beside him, a pastor's wife, worship leader and self-described 'queen of part-time jobs' sits cross-legged in a stiff Ikea chair.  Next to her is another recent retiree, a musician and woodworker trying to get his legs back under him after a lifetime of work in the non-profit sector.  

Beside me is a Grandmother with rheumatoid arthritis who works full time in the field of medical writing.  My dog, Coco, sprawls sleepily on the couch between us, circuiting the room throughout the day to give and receive her fair share of attention.  

We get to know each other over the course of the morning, beginning deep and going deeper still, with each of us likely sharing more than we intended to when the day began and yet finding ourselves relieved and grateful for it.  By lunch time, there's a general sense of excitement and conversation flows freely.  

Then, in the afternoon, we share our gifts - by which I mean, the writing we've labored over and likely felt more than a little scared to bring to share.  One by one we pass white pages with black words printed on them, such deceptively simple dressing for expressions so near and dear to each writers' heart.  

This is when the amazement begins.  

The Episcopal priest, weighted down with the church's good work of Lent and impending Easter, labors daily on the creation of a science fiction novel.  More than twelve chapters in already, she shares hopes of adding a prequel and sequel.  As we read, a world unfolds (two planets to be exact), double-spaced across several pages and I'm amazed - not because it's either good or bad, but because it exists at all.  And when the time comes for questions and feedback, the woman's lovely face lights up at each comment and every critique is welcomed as an opportunity to improve, an invitation to communicate more clearly.

This is how it goes for more than two hours.  Pages passed around a circle and one by one the people in my living room are revealed to possess hidden treasure that shines and sparkles as they unveil a wide range of words.  One writes so eloquently about friendship and music transcending a racial divide, that several readers gasp and tears spring to more than one set of eyes.  Another writes a simple and sparse description of her fast from social media and we all find within her gentle words an invitation - what might we do with our hands and minds if we simply had more time?   

Each story leaves us, like treasure hunters having stumbled across a rare jewel, longing for more.  

"I should've brought all thirty pages," the retired professor says, obviously delighted by our genuine interest in his story.  

"I only just recently resurrected this novel," the single mother says, "I'm not sure when I can commit more time to work on it."  But we all, dazzled by the mystery woven in a few short pages, silently wish with baited breath and pleading eyes, for more. 

At the end of the day, there's a palpable sense of encouragement, as we circuit the room one last time sharing our goals and 'takeaways' from the day.  Although it's a writing retreat, it's been and always is, a spiritual experience for me.  I am left with a profound sense of honor and gratitude, not unlike that which I felt entering and leaving the hospital rooms as a chaplain.

Within the human soul is a world of depth, meaning, and wonder - a small glimpse of divinity mirrored in the human being fully alive. Not just some humans possess this gift, we all do.  I used to only see the great divide in that verse from Paul to the church of Corinth - the vast disparity between those earthen jars and God's extraordinary power.  But, to read it that way, is to miss the point, at least in part. 

Now I see it from another angle - God has placed treasure in these jars of clay and sometimes, on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of March, the moment will be just right for that glorious power to shine forth and it will be all you can do to keep from squinting at the glory revealed as sunlight dances across a room full of diamonds, a gathering of simple, human souls.   

This past weekend Andi Cumbo-Floyd and I hosted our annual central PA writers' retreat.  Sign up for my newsletter if you'd like to hear about future events and, if you're a writer, consider attending our next event June 23-5 on Andi's farm in Radiant, VA.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

Necessary (Required, Needed, Essential)



Necessary adjective

1. required to be done, achieved, or present; needed; essential.
synonyms: obligatory, requisite, required, 
imperative, needed

I ran outside Saturday morning with scissors in hand and cut the bright, yellow daffodils blooming at the South West corner of our house.  It’s one of the sunniest spots in our yard, a small strip of gravel and dirt squeezed between the basement’s exterior wall and a narrow sidewalk that leads from a side door to the front porch.  These flowers are nearly always the first to bloom on our property.

After a mild winter, we've plunged deep into a cold snap and snow is forecast for tonight.  Daffodils are hardier than I expect, but I feared the buttery bits of sunshine wouldn't survive the extended cold, so I broke my own rules and cut the flowers to bring them inside.  

In all honesty, I can’t say for sure what day I cut the flowers, but I’d like to believe it was Saturday.  Somehow, in the middle of managing one son’s sleepover, carting another to the pediatrician and pharmacy, and dropping my daughter off to peddle girl scout cookies at a local greenhouse, I made time for the flowers. 

I don’t remember whether it was Saturday specifically, but I do remember bending there at the corner of the house where the sun shown.  I remember how quickly my fingers froze clutching the green stems in the wind and how I pushed myself to cut one more and then another – not just the open flowers, but the buds just beginning to bloom.  Then, the cold in my fingers drove me inside and I rinsed the stems and stood them in a tall, turquoise vase on the kitchen windowsill.

I think it was Saturday because I knew my husband, who'd been working under his truck for 24 of the past 36 hours, wouldn’t notice them.  No matter whether I placed them prominently on the kitchen island or tucked them in along with the other bright trinkets on the wide windowsill, he wouldn’t notice them because all of his energy was absorbed in the the effort of trying to save his rattletrap, red pickup truck.  The necessary repairs were what left me to handle the rest of the weekend’s demands.    

When he stood in front of the kitchen sink that afternoon, with his back to the window, and told me, near despair, that he thought he’d ruined the truck’s engine, I told him – calmly and rationally, but not helpfully – that we couldn’t keep ‘doing this.’  By 'this,' I meant trying, through pure elbow grease and ingenuity to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.  All through that tense conversation, while we wrapped our minds and wallets around the possibility of needing to buy a new vehicle, the happy flowers stood calmly just over his shoulder in their tall blue vase.  

At least that’s the way I remember it. 

Later, it seemed the truck would be ok after all and it felt like an evening of letting down in front of the TV might be in order.  But, we went to bed at 8:30 anyway, because sometimes necessary can be exhausting and we were already losing an hour of sleep that night by springing forward.  

This was a weekend of necessary things.  Demands on my time, energy and focus hit, one after the other, in a steady stream.  I carefully plotted pick-ups and drop-offs with our one running vehicle.  I put one meal after another onto the table, like a magician pulling one rabbit after another out of a hat.  I even stayed home from church Sunday morning to run to the grocery store because we were out of all the necessary items.    

And still, this morning, dirty and clean laundry sits in piles awaiting my attention.  The chicken food purchased yesterday must be pulled out of the van, into the garage and distributed into the feeders.  Wood must be hauled before the big snow storm descends, the floors, covered in crumbs and dust from the wood stove must be swept.  

At times like this, it feels like the necessary things will never end, like they will squeeze and squeeze the breath out of each and every day until our breath is gone.  But somehow, today, I'll find time to pause and pet the dog where she sleeps curled beside me on the love seat.  I'll hug the cat, the kids, and tell them they are loved.  I'll run outside, once more, and cut what flowers still remain on the bright, sunny corner of the house.  And when the snow begins to fall tonight, those bright blossoms will still be blazing gently, quietly, in the kitchen whether we pause to notice them or not.      

Monday, March 6, 2017

Remember the Real


"Contemplation is a long, loving look at the real." - Walter Burghardt

This is the first winter our female cat Perfect has spent downstairs in our house.  After the arrival of our dog in the spring of 2015, she confined herself to the unheated upstairs of our house and endured the entire winter of 2016 in frigid seclusion.  This, then, is the first winter in a long time that she's been truly warm.  

For days on end, after creeping downstairs and courageously concluding that the dog might not eat her after all, she slept in the corner behind the stove, moving slowly in and out of a heat induced coma.  Once the residual cold was finally cleared from her body's memory, she edged away from the stove and started sleeping on the top of a bookshelf and then, finally, settled on the top of my asparagus fern.  

The first time I saw her there, I took a picture, because my daughter's first kitten - Tiger - slept there too before she died an untimely death in the jaws of our neighbor's hunting dog.  It seemed a strange coincidence that Perfect - Tiger's replacement - would then find her way to sleeping in the same planter some two years later.  I took a picture to show my daughter when she arrived home from school, not wanting her to miss it, but then Perfect took to sleeping there regularly and I became increasingly fascinated by her commitment to such an obviously ill-fitting perch. 

Tiger was a kitten when she slept on the fern and I have a picture of her tucked in behind the plant's fine green fronds.  Perfect is two to three times bigger than Tiger was, and yet she seems deeply invested in the idea that she fits in this planter.  All day long she sleeps on top of it with her back-end hanging precariously off the edge as heat from the stove nearby swirls up around her. 

"Look at Perfect," I say to the kids and my husband, marveling at her persistence.  Later I ask, "How can she even sleep that way?  There's no way her body's fully relaxed."  And yet she stays, committed to the idea (do cats even have ideas??) that she fits and therefore committed to the discomfort of sleeping there. 

Observing the cat, I can't help but think of my own willful obstinance, my tendency to - at times - ignore the realities of life, even at the cost of my own discomfort.  How often do I ignore the truth of my own limits - spiritually, physically, financially?  How much time and energy do I waste ignoring the truth of any given situation?

This has been one of the major growth points for me in the past five years - the invitation to accept reality as it is.  Mine is a personality gifted with ideals and vision and, with that vision, comes the temptation to live at odds with reality - the refusal to accept what is.  And yet, every journey only begins where we are.  Anywhere other than reality is not solid ground, it is fantasy that leaves us precarious at best (like the cat with her hind end hanging off of the planter) and in grave danger at worst.  Over time, I have discovered that fear is most often what keeps me invested in illusion and freedom is the biggest gift that comes with returning to reality.  

There are a couple of phrases I hold onto to help in me when I find myself wandering away from what is real and investing in illusions either about myself, others, or the world around me.  One is, "Remember the Real" and the other is the simple concept of "Return."  The more I live in the truth of what is, the closer I find myself to God.  The more I engage what is with a loving, honest gaze, the more I find myself positioned to live and love well right where I am.  

What ways do truth and illusion impact your life?  How does looking at reality with a 'loving gaze' impact your willingness to accept what is?

Monday, February 27, 2017

Ignored, Dismissed, Insulted


Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.  Matthew 15:21-28, NRSV

(I preached on this passage yesterday in church and continued learning about the passage during and after our service.)

A man approached me after church while I was tucking my sermon notes back into a folder. 

“There were three words you used that really struck me," he said,  "Can you remind me what they were?”

I looked at him, a solid man, my height and balding, a good ten years older, perhaps.  He was one of the few in the congregation I didn’t know well and while I spoke he had alternated between lowering his head, eyes fix on a spot on the carpet in front of him, and looking at me with grave concern.  It was easy for the anxious, insecure preacher in me to imagine him disagreeing with the entirety of the sermon or, more simply, disapproving of a woman in the pulpit. 

“You said three things that happened to the woman,” he said, “real succinct.”

Lowering his reading glasses from where they were perched on top of his head, he peered over my shoulder while I rifled through my notes looking for the line I guessed he had in mind.  Finding it in my bare bones notes I pointed and he nodded and read aloud, “Ignored, dismissed, and insulted.  That’s really all there is, isn’t it?”

At first I thought he was referring to my sparse notes, then I realized he meant that the woman in the passage pretty much experienced the sum of what we humans can do to each other. 

“Thanks,” he said, raising his reading glasses again and shaking his head as he walked away.

//

I started the sermon portion of the service by reading the passage three times, pausing for a brief silence between each reading.  “Try listening with your eyes closed,” I said.  “All you have to do is pay attention.”

After the reading, I invited the congregation to share their impressions of the passage – what did they notice, who did they relate to, and what were they curious about?  Every time I start a sermon this way, the congregation identifies almost every single one of the relevant issues in the text, often outlining the relevant points of my sermon for me with hardly any effort at all.  I guess maybe that speaks to the power of crowd-sourcing, but I also take it as a sign that people are much more capable of reading the bible than they think and that every good reading of a passage begins with a lot of questions and a little confusion. 

During our discussion, one man in the back mentioned how struck he was by Jesus’ response to the situation – that Jesus seemed to allow the situation to unfold in front of him and waited before making a definitive judgment. 

This is one of the things I would identify as a positive later in the sermon too – Jesus listened to the woman despite seeming to be pretty clear about wanting nothing to do with her.  Because Jesus listens, the Canaanite woman is able to insert a new perspective into the conversation, one that makes room for Jesus to recognize and respond to her faith.

//

I thought about all of this as my husband drove us home with the kids squabbling in the back of the van and my head pounding from sinus pressure.  “Ignored, dismissed, insulted.”  I thought about the Canaanite woman’s vision, the way she shifted the conversation away from the position of those at or beneath the table to the meal itself which was so abundant it couldn’t help but overflow beyond the table’s borders. 

Riding home I thought about the people in our world who possess a greater vision, those who are willing to push against status quo and shift the level of conversation into a wider more productive space.  These people are, most often, outsiders, people who for one reason or another have been relegated to the outskirts of society.  But their exclusion, painful as it is, often comes with the gift of perspective – positioned on the outside looking in, they often see beyond what is to the possibilities of what might be.  Lacking the benefits of insider status, outsiders like the Canaanite woman are often willing to risk more in order to attain a more inclusive vision and they’re not the only ones to benefit from it.

People like that are often ignored, often dismissed, often insulted.  But I wonder what it would be like if we were to be a bit more like Jesus; if we were to pause a little more and listen more often to an outsider perspective, if we were to refrain from ignoring, dismissing and insulting.

When Jesus listens to the Canaanite woman he discovers ‘great faith’ in a place where no one would have thought to look.  I hope I can learn to listen more to people with outside perspectives and I also hope I’ll continue to push beyond the risks to share what vision I’ve been given.  At times like this, when people are so divided and arguing over a place at the table, we need a broader vision more than ever.   

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Hard Words (Like Water on Stone)



I'm preaching on a difficult passage of scripture this Sunday, one I would not have chosen.  This rough poem arrived mid-week as I found myself wrestling the text.  Frustrated, I stopped to reflect on what I was doing and found myself invited to let the word do its work in me.  Sometimes we have to trust that the hard things also might bear fruit if we are willing to be present and vulnerable with them.  * I have to give credit to the show 30 Rock for the term 'mind vice.'

When the passage assigned
is hard and sharp, 
solid, like stone,
I try to crack it with
my mind vice.  Stuck,
I also apply the pressure 
of commentaries - three - 
each striking from different 
angles.  And when the passage
fails to yield (does it ever yield
under such force?) I turn it daily,
in my head, like a rubix cube. I hunt,
like the woman who's lost a coin, for 
a key to unlock the good news hidden
within.  

(Too often, I am merely looking
for comfortable news, rather than good.)

When I wear myself out, when the words
wear me down, I decide at last to let it be.  
I am the one who yields, who accepts, that I 
have been given these words, not others.
Then the passage works on me, like water
on stone until I am cracked open and somewhere 
in the cool, dark, earthen heart of me the gospel 
seed is planted and takes root.


Monday, February 20, 2017

Gumption (Initiative, Courage, Spunk)


(now THAT'S a moustache . . . )

(Lately, I've been having fun playing with words that strike me and writing a little about their definition and use.  I love words.  This post is an old one tweaked from the winter of 2012, back when I had three littles at home and drove my oldest to school every morning.  It was a challenging time, to say the least.)

Gumption noun
1. initiative, aggressiveness, resourcefulness
2. courage, spunk, guts

Gumptious adjective
See above definitions.

Every day, while driving my daughter to kindergarten drop-off in a van stuffed with four children that I’d wrestled, wrapped and carted out one-by-one, I saw him.  Sometimes it was on the way to school, sometimes on the way back home, but always, he appeared on the edge of the horizon; regular, predictable, like the sunrise. 

I found him consistently fascinating.

He ran along the side of the road with a loose, loping gait.  Drooping athletic pants swayed as he pressed forward, one step at a time, his arms bent, hands in front of him.  A hat, or more often a white visor, and white gloves completed his attire. 

But the thing that struck me most was his moustache. 

It takes a certain kind of moustache to attract the attention of a driver passing by with a van full of noise and need at twenty miles an hour.  Maybe you can picture it without me having to draw it out in fine detail, but I will tell you it was brown and heavy yet, well-trimmed. 

He was a regular Tom Sellek, my mustachioed man.

Something about his regularity, the predictability of this sighting, this crossing of paths pleased me. 

That, and his moustache.   

It takes a little gumption to sport a moustache like that, don’t you think?  And I guess there are times when we could all use a little gumption.    

When's the last time you noticed someone's gumption or displayed a little gumption of your own?  I'd love to hear about it!


Friday, February 17, 2017

Love Leads (Let Us Follow)


(In honor of Valentine's Day, I'm sharing a post on the topic of love each day this week.  Today's post is from fall 2015 and looks at the way love can lead and open doors. When our own love is worn and lacking, we can always lean on the love of another.)

In the rush between dinner and dessert, in the harried press to Get-These-Kids-to-Bed, four-year-old Isaiah remembers.

Running through the house, he shouts, "Guys! We need to do our yeaves!"

//


Last Tuesday I cut contact paper into the shape of a large, barren tree and stuck it to the wood paneled wall in the living room.  Then we cut a bowl-full of leaves.  Every evening we each write what we’re thankful for on a leaf and stick it to the tree.  By Thanksgiving the tree will be full and green, vibrant. 

//

Isaiah doesn’t remind us to do our leaves because he’s so very grateful.  Most of his leaves proclaim anticipatory gratitude for the handcuffs he hopes to receive for Christmas (heaven help us).  He reminds us because after the note’s written, he gets to color his leaf and Isaiah is a big fan of coloring.  He’s been known to spend a whole afternoon coloring at the kitchen counter.  

He loves it.  And his love leads us, even if it has nothing at all to do with gratitude. 

That’s the way love is. 

Love opens doors, makes way, and helps us remember what we set out to do, who we wanted to be, when we ourselves have forgotten.  And if we don’t have enough love of our own, all we need to do is follow someone else’s, to sit for a while in the glow of their passion and delight. 

I don’t love coloring like Isaiah does, but his love for it cuts through the evening rush, spurs memory and reminded, we follow in its wake.