Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In a Direction Unexpected (a Birthday Reflection)


Thirty More Years, by Wendell Berry

When I was a young man,
grown up at last, how large
I seemed to myself! I was a tree,
tall already, and what I had not,
yet reached, I would yet grow
to reach.  Now, thirty more years
added on, I have reached much 
I did not expect, in a direction
unexpected.  I am growing downward,
smaller, one among the grasses.

April's showers are hanging on with tenacity even now, as time's hand is poised to turn the calendar's page.  Today, April 30th, is my birthday and the day promises to be every bit as gray as the day before, with wind, rain and even thunder.  There are flood warnings in effect and roads coming and going are sure to be closed, but I'm grateful to be spared the wind tunnels that have made their way through the south and midwest this past week.  

April does not seem to want to let go gracefully.

The Red Bud tree by our old house, the one that was always in bloom for my special day, is waiting still to open its blossomed fingers.  This I know because I drove by the old neighborhood the other evening, marveling at its smallness, the cramped corners on which we lived.  

I've long loved this Wendell Berry poem and its words resonate this year as I feel poised between the pages of my life.  Three years ago I was surprised by the doubling of our family, the exponential expansion of my role as mother.  And now here I sit, just days after registering those two tornado boys for a small and local preschool this fall.  Two hours, two mornings a week and freedom is looming on the horizon (hallelujah!). 

"In a direction unexpected," Berry says and I nod my head amen.  

Looking up these three years later I can't help but wonder at the way life moves us along, quiet streams unexpectedly expanded by torrential showers and we are carried somewhere new - made into someone new - just like that it seems.


"I think it's just that we keep getting slapped in the face by how hard life actually is," I said over plates heaped with ham and potatos, corn and fresh greens.  We were talking about this valley of middle life (which you may say I've yet to reach) and how it sucks the air right out of you with its sometimes fierce wind and rain, the kind of weather that moves through like a locomotive.  

We wondered whether it was because we were coddled as children, not the way children are today (of course) but sheltered none-the-less.  But now, some days out from that conversation, I know we have no one to blame for the way life hits you in the gut.   If we were sheltered it was a gift, a grace, like that garden so long ago and the garden itself and its maker bear no to blame for our leaving.  


Glynn Young, posted this poem on his blog the other day:

Unexpected Storm

He was expecting the storm
when it arrived, almost
suddenly, without portent or
warning, simply arising
in front of him.  He held on
as it raged, tearing at his skin,
sharp nails with stinging points.
They found him there, still
holding on.  He did not know
salvation was in letting go.

One of the keys, it seems, to being able to endure the "direction unexpected," is the willingness to let go, which is easier said than done.  

This, I guess, explains the wind and the rain and the rising water, all of the things of life, both good and bad, that push against us, moving us along, out of the narrow channels and into something deeper and wider than what we thought we might find or even want.  

It's out here, in the wilderness, the dessert, the wind-tossed sea, that we find God most often.  Not the small, safe God of our childhood, but the wily One, the One who plays hide and seek among the stars, the One who sings with a voice both deep and wide.  

It is here that we find ourselves again made small, as Berry says, "like one among the grasses." And on the days when our hands are open we can see that this is a good thing, a very good thing indeed.

Monday, April 28, 2014

"Love You Too"

My little boy resting in those early days.

(A reflection on the Last Supper that I wrote during Holy Week, an invitation to us all as we return again and again to that life-changing meal.)
It’s Holy Week and my littlest boy is sick. 

A fever struck early Monday morning.  Puffy-eyed and red-faced, he simply wilted, laying on my husband until the Ibuprophen kicked in.  For three days now it’s been the same, the rising heat, the wilting and the slow, steady relief of the Ibuprophen.

Three days, the pediatrician says, absent any other symptoms, give a fever three days to break and then if it doesn’t, bring him in. 

In the biblical world, three days is a symbol for the fullness of time – three days in the whale’s belly before deliverance, three days in the belly of the earth before the resurrection – and now, three days until the fever should break.

This boy is my busy one, never still, always working.  Carrying his ladder and tool box from room to room, he is a ‘lecic man (electric man) on the look-out always for something to be fixed.  Well on his way to three, the moments for cuddling have grown few and far between and, a wiser mama now, I appreciate these days of illness as moments to cherish.

In his weakness, he draws close, nestling in my lap like a bird tucked beneath my wing.  Silent and still, his check pressed against my breast, he rests.


Although translations differ, tradition recognizes John the Beloved disciple as the one who reclined, leaning against Jesus’ breast during the last supper.  Celtic tradition recognizes John as the one who listened to the heartbeat of God.  

John reclined, listening and watching the meal unfold against the backdrop, the melody, of God’s pulse.  His whole identity was redefined from that moment forward, no longer ‘John’ he was forever-more known as ‘the one whom Jesus loved.’  


“Love you too,” my little boy calls, as I prepare to leave his room each evening. 

“Love you too,” he presses, answering the love he knows before I can even voice those three words, “I love you.” 

Having lain against my breast, he responds to love before it is even spoken. ‘Love you too’ is the statement of one beloved, one who leaned and now lives against the backdrop, the melody, of love.


This week as my son rests, beloved, I am listening too and leaning.  

God’s heartbeat echos through the gospel stories, through the green grass greening, through fevered heads bowed and wet with perspiration.  Leaning, listening, I feel the invitation to stay here awhile, three days or more, while this song, this heartbeat forms me with its rhythm, redefining the heart of who I am.      

This post is linked with Playdates With God.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Field Notes (Follow the Greening Road)

This is the field across the street from our house.  Lovely, isn't it?

A new nest rests
in the pine tree now.  
The Mourning Dove
and her eggs are gone.  

Too early for the eggs to have hatched, 
we wonder what happened -
a snake? the hawks? or
some other unsavory villain?  

Her nest was flat and open, 
gently curved like a palm, 
an open hand 
she sat upon. 
What's left looks flimsy now, 
oddly broken twigs 
like a child's game 
of pick-up sticks.  

The new one – a Robin’s nest – 
stands nearly five inches high, built 
like a fortress, with thick, 
heavy walls.  
It lies on the
North side of the tree 
and slightly more hidden 
than the Dove's was on the south.  

In the farm field across the road, 
a strip of grass grows 
greener by the day.  
Stretched like a runner 
beneath a line of trees
that march single-file toward 
the distant mountains,
empty fields spread on either side.
We're waiting to see what will
be planted, what will
come of it all. 

We build and plant and 
hope for the best, 
learning as we go:

Build your nest 
on the North side, 
high and strong.  

Plant when the danger 
of frost has passed.  

Follow the greening road 
home – always.

Monday, April 21, 2014

There's Something to Be Said

There's just one shower here at our new old farm house and it stands about three feet high over an ancient porcelain tub.  It's quirky, you might say, just the sort of thing to inspire a little poetry, and here's a case where one poem popped up inside of another. Do you think I should separate them or keep them together?  Let me know in the comments section . . .

There's something to be said
for a shower that forces you
to kneel each morning,
like a flower bent
by heavy rain.

*   *

Alone in a cold house
one evening on retreat,
I heated water for a bath
filling pans and tea kettle
on the stove, making trip
after trip up and down
two flights of stairs.
It took three rounds
just to get the tub luke-warm.

Watching myself
I wondered whether
it was all a ruse, a
busy way of avoiding prayer,
but then again, maybe
the work - the commitment,
the longing for a good, long soak
- was itself a prayer.

*   *

Every morning now I genuflect,
knees on porcelain,
while warmth rains down on me.
There's something to be said for that.

Photo Credit: HERE.
This post is linked with Playdates With God .

Andrea Ciccocioppo was the winner of the free copy of "Spiritual Misfit."  Thanks to everyone who participated and remember you can always pick up a copy HERE for less than $12!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Let us Lay Aside Our Judgments (a Dare to Keep a Steady Gaze Upon that Which Disturbs Us this Holy Week)

My friend spoke at a retreat recently, teaching about the use of icons in prayer.  She explained that icons are painted with skewed perspective - limbs jut off at odd angels and the symmetry typically associated with beauty is often missing.  “The first thing we do when we see an icon is judge it,” she said.  


The quickest and simplest way to create distance between ourselves and that which discomforts us is to cast judgment. 


When I returned to complete my chaplaincy residency, just a few short weeks after my oldest child was born, a new crop of summer students had joined our small rotation.  Among them was a heavy-set woman with wild, frizzy hair and frumpy clothes.  She talked loudly and out of turn, taking up too much space both physically and verbally and worse yet, she seemed utterly and completely unrepentant about it. 

Oh, she made me bristle and cringe. 

I was quieter because of her, hoping my own silence inspire her to follow suit.  I was more restrained in an effort to somehow make up for her exuberance. 

I judged her quickly and harshly for all of the traits I found so disturbing and my judgment built a silent and sturdy wall between us.

In the program I was in, this kind of strong reaction was fodder for reflection.  So I thought about my reaction and talked about it with my supervisor.  Eventually I came to see that this woman seemed to somehow be a flesh and blood embodiment of my shadow-self.  She embodied the traits I feared most and in judging her I was judging the most unacceptable parts of myself. 

If I dared to welcome, accept and even love her, how would I keep myself in check?  If it was ok for her to be simply as she was, then maybe the same was true for me.  Wouldn’t that just be giving myself permission to be loud, large, and unkempt?

I wasn’t ready to let that happen, though, so I judged her and parts of myself with her. 


Icons are not pleasing because they often appear to be somehow broken.  To accept the image they bear may require the acceptance of our own broken image.  Perhaps icons disturb us in the same way our own deep brokenness does.  In rejecting icons and the images they bear, maybe we're also rejecting the most broken and fragile parts of ourselves.

In this way, icons are similar to the sacred stories of  Holy Week - stories filled with human sin, awash with that which we'd rather not see, hear, or touch.  Everywhere we look in this week's gospel readings, humans are found behaving badly.  They're out of focus, skewed, and jutting off at odd angles in relation to the One who walks quietly among them.  Maybe this is why it's so tempting for the reader to cast judgment or, better yet, look away. 


“Icons are quiet paintings,” my friend continues, “They're not art, they are not meant to be beautiful.  In their quietness, they invite us in.” 

Maybe this is how the stories of Holy Week are too.


May we lean in close this week, my friends.   

May we lift our faces, our eyes, our hearts to that which disturbs us most deeply.   

Let us withhold our judgment on the brokenness we see lest we also judge ourselves.  

Give us steady eyes, dear God, as we gaze at your image distilled across the shattered surface of humanity.  Grant us grace that we might learn to see and be seen through eyes of love.