Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Honey Bees in Advent


Each bee senses that her one obligation is to give the smallest motion of her flight muscles to the collective work of keeping the queen and the colony’s honey stores warm.  The whole hive knows they survive only if they shiver together. 

Some of them in the shivering cluster will die of old age.  Had they hatched in the flowering season, their labor for the hive’s survival – harvesting nectar and pollen from as many as two thousand flowers a day – would have killed them in four weeks or less, their wings worn to nubbins.  But hatched on the cusp of winter, they may live six months.  They will know only the dark hive, the press of their sisters’ bodies.  They will never fly, never fall into a flower.  They give their lives to shivering together in the dark, the tiny repetitive gestures of each, added together, a music beyond our hearing, sustaining a future for the community.

- from “Honey Bee” in All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings by Gayle Boss

My kids buzzed around the dining room table covered with a crowd of mismatched candles.  Darkness deepened outside the window and the wood stove breathed its warm breath in the far corner as we read Gayle Boss’s description of how honey bees endure winter. 

The bees, huddled in the hive, ‘shiver’ their tiny flight muscles, located just above their wings, to create life-saving warmth. 

“One honey bee shivering her flight muscles does not make much heat.  But twenty thousand, huddled together, shivering, can keep the queen and the colony’s honey supply at their core a tropical ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit, even as blizzard winds, inches away, flail. . .”

Wow.  This was impressive, we all agreed.  But then, Boss went on to describe the bees, “hatched on the cusp of winter” who will, quite possibly, never see the outside of the hive.  Those bees that “give their lives shivering together in the dark.”

“What?!” we said.  “Can you even imagine?” we asked. 

Then we prayed and argued (as always) about who would get to blow out the candles.

//

This past week – between an ailing car, a dying washing machine, and some questionable medical results - we had our own little season of stress.  It felt like winter was here and, with it, darkness both deep and wide.  My husband and I wondered how to keep our hope, our faith, from freezing over while the ordinary blizzards of life beat against our little hive. 

Messaging with our Pastor, he mentioned the passages for Sunday’s sermon spanned five hundred years between Isaiah’s prediction of salvation and John the Baptist’s proclamation. “God delivers,” he wrote, “just as promised . . . five hundred years earlier . . .”   

//

This is what I thought of when we read about the winter bees – all those people, shivering together in darkness, keeping faith alive in the hope that someday hope would become reality.  Five hundred years of generations lighting candles, telling stories, waiting, watching for the moment when the world would tilt toward new rays of light and life.

I thought about my own faith, so quick to cool when the waiting is long, so short-sighted and dependent on knowing in the here and now.  What can I learn from those bees, made for spring breezes and blossoms?  Does the dream of a future they cannot even imagine and will never taste keep them alive?  And, just as important, who is shivering still, in the darkness now?  How can I partner with those still waiting, working, for light and life that has come and is still yet to come?

//

Our winter passed fairly quickly – a friend delivered a washing machine this Monday and I did up the waiting piles of laundry with a welcome sigh of relief.  John’s sister and father worked together to gift us with a new-to-us car, one much newer and nicer than any we’ve ever owned. 

Crisis averted, thanks be to God.

Still, I think about those bees, and the reply I sent my Pastor last week.  “I’ve been thinking,” I wrote, “that faith is something like the belief that everything will turn out better than you thought it could, but different than you expected, coupled with the acceptance that the thing you have been longing for, the thing you hoped for most, may not happen in your own lifetime."  

I imagine there were times (and are times still) when this description of faith would not sit well with me. As an intellectual prospect, it seems both valid (biblical) and also terribly unsettling.  But faith is rarely warmed by intellectual assent.  When I wrote those words to my Pastor, I knew them to be true, by the golden glow of something deep in my heart.  Like the bees, I know now this is my job, to give my life to keeping that golden center warm and soft, no matter what the weather may bring.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Mistaken Identity, Poetry and a Secret



Twenty years ago, Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry collection, Red Suitcase, came across the check-in desk at the library where I worked.  Captivated by the cover, the title, I flipped through, checked the book out, and wrote down two poems I’ve carried in my head and heart ever since.  One was, Shoulders, which I comeback to time and time again; the other was Valentine for Ernest Man, in which Nye tells a secret.  

“Poems hide,” she says:

In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping.  They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up.  What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them. 

The poem goes on to tell the story of a man who gave his wife two skunks for Valentine’s day.  His wife is upset at and he is at a loss to understand her tears.  The poem continues, offering the reasoning behind his strange gift.    

“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious.  He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way.  Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so.  He really
liked those skunks.  So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him.  And the poems that had been hiding
In the eyes of the skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

//

I also want to tell you a secret, not that you asked, but here you are: Poets hide too.

//

After college, I attended what my professors told me was one of the best seminaries in the country.  I got good grades – great grades, in fact.  I even got an A in theology.  But, in our weekly precept gatherings, I had an often repeated, strange experience. 

Ten or so students sat in a circle.  Led by a sleepy doctoral student, we discussed the week’s readings.  Questions were asked, comments made, and time passed in a smooth flow of conversational give-and-take. 

I read the texts (mostly, I mean, skimming is, in my book, completely acceptable when it comes to several hundred pages of Calvin and Barth).  I commented too, I raised my hand, opened my mouth, and spoke.  Often, without fail, while I talked, the room turned oddly silent.  Students stared.  I felt I must be speaking a foreign language.  I became self-conscious and my comments withered on the vine.  After I finished speaking, the room held a weighted pause.  Then, a grunt, or someone’s shifting in their chair cleared the air and conversation resumed, often in another direction completely, as if I’d never spoke at all.

Maybe I’m over-dramatizing for effect? 

That could be true, but all I can say is, that’s how it felt to me.  

Back at our little apartment in the evening, navigating the slim hallway of our kitchen, I explained the experience to my husband.  “It’s like my words are lead balloons.”  Gesturing with my hands, I clarified, “I launch them up, out, and into the room.  They should float, like butterflies or leaves, but instead they land in the middle of the circle with a thud.  Then everyone looks around awkwardly before moving on.”

We laughed and let it go.

Fifteen years later, I repeated the story for a friend.  “I didn’t quite fit in,” I said. 

“Oh, my gosh, of course you didn’t fit in,” he said.  “You were a poet among mathematicians.”

A bell went off in my head, my heart, it rang all the way down to my shoes.  He was right.  I was speaking a different language. 

//

I’m sure I wasn’t the only poet at Princeton Theological Seminary, in fact I’ve met a handful in the years since graduating.  Thankfully, the experience wasn’t scaring since my grades helped counter-weight the sense of not fitting in; what I was left with was more of a sense of a question mark hovering over my head.  What I was experiencing – me, a serious woman, who lived in a serious way – was a case of mistaken identity. 

//

Some time ago, I fell in love with The Story of Ferdinand. The story of Ferdinand is a story of mistaken identity – because of his great size, and an unfortunately timed bee sting, everyone is convinced that Ferdinand is a prize fighter.  Ferdinand is carted off to the bull fight ring in Madrid, but his actions there give everyone – from the Benderilleros to the Picadors and Matador – pause.  Ferdinand, who has always loved sitting quietly, smelling the flowers, sits down in the middle of the bull fight ring, completely absorbed in smelling the flowers that have fallen from the lovely ladies’ hair.  The crowd is disappointed, the fighters are disappointed, and Ferdinand is taken back home where he sits quietly, smelling flowers, and “he is very happy.”

In this analogy, I suppose, seminary is the bull fighting ring and I led myself there and did my best to fight in the circle I was given, but, still, when I thought no one would hold it against me, I made handbound books with watercolor illustrations, I wrote creative nonfiction, I colored outside the lines.

I’ve grown less and less fond of labels over the years, because of the way they so often restrict and confine rather than opening and inviting.  But for some time now, I’ve been trying ‘poet’ on for size and, when I need to find permission to bring all of me to the task at hand, I slip the title “Preaching Poet” or “Artist” on for size. 

//

This week, as I launch my first little poetry book out into the clear, blue, winter air, I’m thinking of the man who gave his wife skunks for Valentines, the way he saw that “nothing was ugly, just because the world says so.”  I’m thinking of the courage it takes to be who you are, in a world where fighting is more valuable than smelling the flowers.  I’m thinking poets, like poems, hide and present themselves in strange guises and all it takes is the patience, the willingness, the nerve, to live in a way that lets us find them.

________________________________________________________________________________

Hot off the presses!  My poetry book is available now, just $9.99 on Amazon.  Stop by, check out the reviews, and order one or two for Christmas.  



Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Year of Failure


“I’m tempted to declare 2017, The Year of Failure.” 

This is what I messaged to a friend minutes after opening a long-awaited email informing me I was no longer in the running for a coveted job.  My emotions were high; melodrama rose with ease. Looking back over the year, I identified a series of significant failures that lined up month after month in a neat and tidy row: 

• the book proposal and draft I spent months writing and was rejected.

• the library job I thought would be a good long-term fit, but wasn’t.

• the chaplaincy job I spent two months applying to and interviewing for and didn’t get.

The longer and harder I looked, the more failures I found.  Each failure represented energy spent without any easily identifiable reward; each failure was followed by a significant period of disorientation.  Why not chalk it all up as a miserable, frustrating disappointment?

Slapping a label on the entire year offered a tempting satisfaction, and the word ‘failure’ simmered with an oddly appealing blend of self-pity and shame. 

I’m not accustomed to failure. 

Partly because I’m amazing (wink wink), but mostly because I avoid significant risk like the plague.  If you only ever attempt what you know you can accomplish, failure is rarely an issue.  But, then again, neither are surprising successes or the experience of being comforted and carried by those who love you anyway after a difficult fall from glory. 

My friend replied, “Oh, I’m sorry.  That is so hard.”

She didn’t push back.  Her response left space for me to move around a bit, and I quickly realized other names might apply to this year as well.  Like, The Year of Risk-Taking, for one.   Opening myself to the possibility that other labels might just as easily apply helped me identify my real struggle:  I wanted to understand what had happened and to know whether my energies had been misdirected.  If I could figure those things out, then maybe I could make 2018 The Year that I Finally Do Everything Right (or something like that, only with a little more finesse).

I wonder whether, in all of this, it might be better in the long run (although, perhaps more intensely uncomfortable) to just say, “I don’t know what happened or why things happened as they did, but I’m committed to continuing to show up, to ask the hard questions, to look and lean and leap.” 

Still, sometimes, I feel that label – Year of Failure – hovering like a shadow in the periphery of my vision.   I sense it most when I feel uncertain and insecure.  But, for the most part, I’m resisting pinning it to my lapel or scrawling it across the front of my now-almost-finished 2017 planner. 

Even now, as I’m writing, other possible labels continue to present themselves.  Like, The Year of Withholding Judgment or perhaps, best yet, The Year of Believing There is More Happening Than I Can See, by which I mean, of course, The Year of Faith.  

That has a better ring to it, don’t you think?

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like a Tree



What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?  It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches. Luke 13:18-19  

A large, brown seed sat in our cupboard for a good month or more.  Sealed in a zip-loc bag, surrounded by moistened paper towels, it was my husband's experiment, the result of a moment of possibility. 

It seemed, at best, forgotten.  

Then one day, after an online search for instructions, he planted it shallow in a white ceramic pot.  He watered it and placed it on the windowsill. 

Something maternal in me must have kicked in then, because I watered it faithfully along with my violets and ivies.  I watered it too little.  I watered it too much.  The sun came and went and, still, it sat there just the same - half-buried and silent, like a stone sleeping in the barren brown dirt. 

I can't tell you how long it took - weeks? months?

I watered.  I watched.  I waited and forgot to wait.  Inside the seed, secret life stirred, hidden, invisible.

Then the seed split.  It cracked open, right down the middle, and out curled a small green shoot, bent but rising, like a head that had been bowed in prayer for such a long, dark time, but now lifted to take a look around.  

//

The kingdom of God is like this, Jesus said, and then later also he added, "the kingdom of God is within you."  

//

Maybe we too are like that seed, like trees planted and growing, seen and unseen, in the midst of a busy and barren world.  We are watered, too much at times, or not, and the roots grow first, hidden, pressing down blindly, like worms in the dirt and secret places of our lives. 

Then we too are cracked open, split right down the middle of our lives.  We are the shoot that rises, the seed splitting, the roots rooting down deep.  We are the ones drinking in light and water and growing, always growing, into trees of every shape, color and size.  

And the birds of the air - those lonely, wandering, homesick birds - make their nests in our branches.  

May it be so.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Discipline & Struggle


We go up to heaven and down to hell a dozen times a day - at least, I do. And the discipline of work provides an exercise bar, so that the wild, irrational motions of the soul become formal and creative. 
- May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude


Seated in the corner of my office, I close the internet window on my laptop and hunker down to write.  With just a half hour left before I leave to meet a friend for lunch, I ought to have enough time to squeeze in my goal of 500 words for the day. 

I need to write something for the week’s blog post and, hopefully, for my newsletter too.  Neither need to be very long.  The problem, though, as I begin, is that, well, I don’t know where to begin.  I don’t have a story to tell, not even the faintest glimmer of an idea to explore.  I had a couple of ideas flitting around last week, but failed to capture them and now one is stale, like bread left out overnight, and the other is shrouded in fog too dense to be explored in this limited amount of time.

Still, I close the internet, sit in my chair, and begin. . . . (pop over to author and editor, Andi Cumbo-Floyd's place to read the rest of this piece).  Leave me a message there, then take a few minutes to look around at all the lovely tools and supports for writers Andi has going on. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Love Big, Love Wide


My twin boys, now six, are still little enough to let me sneak a snuggle. 

So, I do, as often as I can. 

I tuck their sleep-warmed bodies close in the morning and press my aging cheek to their soft skinned faces.  I drink in the profile of their noses and eyelashes, still boyishly soft, perfection.  I ask for monkey-hugs after school and end the day with bedtime kisses on cheeks, hair and foreheads.

It was during one such snuggle session, with my heart full-to-bursting, I told Levi, “My love for you is so big.  It’s as big as this whole room!”

He turned in my embrace and eyed me with a look of serious appraisal.  “You mean, the whole house?” he asked.    

I paused, afraid my expansive expression of love might not measure up.  “Yes,” I said.

But, he caught my hesitation and asked further, “Is that what you meant?”

Found out, I replied, “Well, I meant this room.”

Quickly, he added, “And the whole galaxy?”

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s how it is for me too,” he concluded, then turned and settled back into my lap.  

I felt my heart expand, my love grew ten sizes larger, returning to a size somewhat closer to what it must have been when I too was a child of six, still willing to seek a snuggle. 

Children love on an epic scale, maybe this is why Christ tells us to turn and return again to a child-like heart.  Here's hoping your heart grows a little larger today, too.  

Friday, October 27, 2017

I (Still) Hate Skittles


(Re-posting this story, originally written when the twins had just turned four, because every year I dread the CANDY, CANDY, CANDY of Halloween and, every year, my kids' joy and excitement help lead me through.)

I hate Skittles. 

I do not want to, as the slogan suggests, "Taste the rainbow."

If a Skittle accidentally fell into my mouth, I would spit it out.  This is how I feel about most candy, except for Sour Patch Kids.

My twin boys, though, like every other four-year-old on earth, LOVE Skittles. 

And M&Ms.  

And Blow Pops. 

And all the other crack-in-a-wrapper kids get at Halloween. 

//

The candy-consumption-negotiations began bright and early the morning after a late night of Trick-or-Treating.  Isaiah came out of his room with his bag of candy slung over his shoulder, like a little Santa's sack.  He stumbled down the stairs, focused on navigating the precious bag, as though it was worth its weight in gold.  

Before I knew what had happened, he deftly negotiated the potential consumption of one piece of candy after lunch.  He then proceeded to remind me of our deal before breakfast, after breakfast, before preschool, after preschool, before lunch, etc.  

The candy of choice?  A full size bag of Skittles. 

He and his twin brother waited all morning for their agreed-upon candy.  This, for a four-year-old with candy on his mind, is like waiting a lifetime.     

Finally, a lifetime passed, and the candy was distributed in the few minutes we had to spare before leaving to watch their brother's school parade.  Isaiah tore into his bag in the blink of an eye and before I could get a handle on the situation, it was half-eaten, then spilled and picked-up, twice.  

Foreseeing the potential for a disastrous candy spill at the parade, I turned to get a zip-lock bag for both boys so I could pour their candy into separate preschooler-compatible packaging.  I sat Levi's candy on the counter, hoping to open it for him and avoid a repeat of Isaiah's spill-and-pick-up performance. 

I forgot, though, that a four-year-old tears into a candy-wrapper like a squirrel attacking a plastic feeder full of sunflower seeds.  Place a thin layer of plastic between a toddler and a handful of sugar and stand back – all sorts of destruction is sure to ensue.

During the brief moment my back was turned, I heard Levi’s bag of Skittles explode.  A rainbow of sugar shot all over the kitchen floor.  I spun around and discovered that he'd ripped open one whole side of his bag with one swift, semi-miraculous, yank.  Skittles rained down, and scattered (or would that be “skittled”?) under the island, across the rug, and behind the heavy iron radiator. 

This was a crisis of epic proportions.  Children hunt spilled candy like the women hunting her one lost coin in Luke's gospel; kids hunt lost candy with the kind of determination and passion that God’s hunts lost souls.

Levi immediately started crying while Isaiah quickly began grabbing and eating every one of his brother's Skittles he could find.   

This was less than twenty-four hours after Trick or Treat and I had already had it Up To Here with sweets.  I wanted to explode like that bag of Skittles.  I wanted to hunt down the person who thought it was a good idea to give little people bags of candy bigger than their faces.  I wanted to scream and stomp on the candy in a fit of rage.

But, I didn't.  

I dug deep inside myself and caught a glimpse, for a brief moment, of the rainbow shining right in front of me.  I saw how every moment has a rainbow and - everyone knows -  rainbows lead to hidden treasure.  Rather than breaking the moment further, I somehow saw and embraced the invitation to be the hero  - I reached for the pot of gold.  

I knelt down beside the crying boy and the thieving boy and began gathering candy.  With due diligence, most of the loss was recovered.  We put the rainbow in a new bag and I zipped it tight.  Then, we ran out the door together, two boys clutching baggies of brightness and one Mama carrying a rainbow in her heart.

//

By the way, we did miss one red Skittle.  This, I know, because the dog found it . . . and spat it out. 

Even the dog knows better.