Tuesday, March 12, 2019

One Craft, Many Ways: The Gift of Large Families and Writing Retreats

 

On a recent afternoon, my middle son flew off the bus and in through the front door, driven by an urgent demand.  “Mom!  Mom!  I want to buy a felting kit!  Can I buy a felting kit?” he cried, throwing his coat and backpack to the ground. 

“A what?” I asked, while reminding him to hang up his things.


“Get the computer,” he said, “I’ll show you.”

Curious, I pulled out the laptop and sank into a chair.  Isaiah and his brother, Levi, both in second grade, crowded around me, buzzing and bouncing with excitement.  I googled the words, “needle felting kit” and quickly found the set his art teacher recommended.  We placed an order and several days later, the kit arrived in a small cardboard box.

The box was packed with bags of felting wool dyed in shades from black to ruby red, as well as a foam mat, finger guards, and long, deadly-looking, metal needles.  Isaiah pounced on the kit like a hungry lion tearing apart its prey.  Bags of wool exploded in all directions and he dove into a project following the step-by-step instructions included with the kit.   

He felted like it was his job.  

He felted like his life depended on it.  

In short time, he completed one, two, then three penguins, repeating the same step-by-step directions.

//

Levi also ordered a felting kit.  But, being more frugal than his twin brother, he carefully sorted through options on Amazon, pouring over customer reviews, before deciding on a smaller kit that saved him ten dollars.  He was most excited about the plastic toolbox included with his kit, as well as a special pair of dangerous-looking scissors.

Levi’s box arrived a few days later than Isaiah’s and, given the intensity of Isaiah’s progress, Levi felt pressured and behind.  He chose a project and worked doggedly toward its completion, clearly not enjoying it as much as he thought he might.  Within a day, he completed an adorable owl with big blue eyes.  Then, he tucked his tools into the toolbox and placed all the wool and the toolbox into a larger cardboard crate.  This, the storing and saving, pleased him more than the crafting itself.

//

Finally, my third and oldest son asked if he could try felting.  Isaiah gave him a small amount of white wool and he set about felting haphazardly, without the intensity and stress his brothers displayed.  He made a small, white ball, then added a green dot, which became an eye.  Then, he added a yellow beak, followed by a short, white tail.  He laughed at every new idea, every new addition.  He was playing, improvising, like a jazz musician.

Watching him, I commented to my husband, “His work is so outside-of-the-box.”

My husband said, “I don’t think he even knows there is a “box.””

//

I watched my boys working at the living room coffee table over a series of several days.  I tended their needle-jab wounds and held wayward pieces of wool in place while fearing for my own fingers’ safety.  I encouraged them when the going was rough and exclaimed over their finished projects.

They were all creating, but each did it in their own way. 

This can be one of the gifts of being part of a large family, being part of a group large-enough to allow space for a variety of ways of being.  This can be one of the gifts, too, of attending a writing retreat. 

//

The Friday night Open Mic event is one of my favorite parts of the God’s Whisper Writing Retreat.  One-by-one writers of every genre share glimpses of where their words have taken them.  As each writer shares, the variety of voices and styles present works its magic on the group as a whole.  I can almost feel the artists in the room heave a collective sigh as it becomes clear, There’s room for my voice too, for my way of being and creating in the world.  There’s room for me AND you.

Part of the beauty of God’s Whisper Writing Retreat is that it echoes this “large family experience.” Exposure to others, coupled with the space to explore and hone your own abilities, leaves attendees with a clarity about their unique gifts and this clarity produces confidence and enthusiasm.  God’s Whisper Retreat celebrates one craft, honed and practiced in many ways.  Everyone receives the same life-giving message: There’s room for your voice too, for your way of being and creating in the world.  There’s room for me AND you.

*   *   *
Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned author, there's room for you at God's Whisper Writing Retreat - sign up NOW to register at the Early Bird Price which ends April 1st.



Friday, March 1, 2019

Prayer Loom (a Prayer What??)


Destiny itself is like a wonderful wide tapestry in which every thread is guided by an unspeakably tender hand, placed beside another thread, and held and carried by a hundred others. 
- Rainer Maria Rilke

For the past few years, we've tried to adopt a family prayer practice during the season of Lent.  By which I mean to say, we've engaged in an entirely hit-or-miss time of devotions with our older two kids after the younger ones are in bed.  It's been good - good to try, good to fail, good to lean into the long waiting season leading to Easter's joy. 

For two years, we used Praying in Color resources, coloring a simple shape to mark each day of Lent (or, let's be honest, as many days as we remembered).

This year, we're trying something new: a Prayer Loom.  

//

Several years ago, my Spiritual Director erected a small wooden frame in her meeting space.  At the end of our session, she invited me to weave a strip of fabric onto the frame as a symbol of my prayer for the season of Lent.  I chose a long, thin strip of cloth from a basket of assorted materials and wound it, somewhat awkwardly, on the frame.  

That was it. 

That was, as I said, several years ago, and I haven't seen or returned to the concept since.  But, this winter, the image and memory of that simple prayer practice loomed large and welcoming in the recesses of my mind. 

If I had to put words to the practice, I'd say this: a prayer loom gives us an opportunity to pray with our hands and creates a visual representation of our conversations with God.  Weaving together prayers with others (in community) reminds us how our lives and longings are knit together in God.     

//

Last week, I asked my husband to build two small looms - one for church and one for home.  Using old roller-blind-dowels and scraps of plywood, he constructed two simple frames, which I strung with yarn from our craft cabinet.  Then, short on fabric, I bought several spools of ribbon (on sale!) in various colors and cut it into pieces for weaving.  There's something so good about the feel and sight of those ribbons, especially here in the long, slow slog of winter's end.  

Isaiah, age 7, helped with the ribbon cutting. His involvement was, frankly, annoying.  The scissors were dull and he bobbed and wove on the kitchen stool where he was sitting, bumping into me and nearly nipping me with the blades several times.  But, his involvement piqued his interest and he was the first to use the loom, weaving one, then another prayer through the threads.  Throughout the evening and into the following morning, he kept returning to me to ask, "Mom, can I weave another prayer?"  

//

I made a prayer loom.  Not because I'm super holy or a tremendously amazing mother, but because I need it.  I need the color, I need the texture, I need the visible reminder that our longings toward God are more than ephemeral.  I'm sharing it here, not to make you feel impressed or jealous or shamefully inadequate.  In fact, if this post makes you feel any of those things, move right along.  Life's too short or that.  

I'm sharing it, because it's one of the things giving me life this season.  I'm sharing because I need it. Maybe you do too?  



* Local to central PA? Stop by the Grantham Church prayer room to see and use a prayer loom during this Lenten season. (Try saying that, five times fast, "Prayer Room, Prayer Loom.")

* If you want to make your own loom and don't have a fabulously-amazing woodworking friend, try googling images of prayer looms.  They don't need to be free-standing and could be easily made using branches of various sizes, dowels, or even paper. Whatever you do, keep it simple, keep it messy, don't spend a lot of money on supplies, and leave lots of room for grace. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Desire and Persistence




My cat teaches me
about desire, about persistence. 

//

Seated for a time of prayer, I hear
him at the screen door, crying. 

I open the door, open my heart. 

Seated again, he climbs, purring,
into the warm curve of my lap. 
His black fur is wet, his large
white feet streaked with mud
and bits of grass. 

I settle him and prepare
to pray, but he's unsatisfied. 
He buries his head, his damp nose,
under my resting hand.  “More,
more,” he purrs, willing
my hands into motion
when they pause. 

He is the persistent widow,
the hungry child
asking for bread. 

I watch him settle once need is met. 
He sleeps against my chest, content. 
His body rises and falls with my breath. 
 
This is how, my heart whispers,
you might come to God.    

//

My cat teaches me
about desire, about persistence. 

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.