Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Wood Stove (Need Draws Us)

Our need for warmth draws us and keeps us together, sprawled where the seating is too limited for six, the noise levels too much.  The dog, also, is there, taking up more than her fair share of the love seat.

In the corner, the wood stove ticks as the cast iron absorbs a slowly growing fire’s flames.  On the coldest mornings, the twins stand directly in front of the stove, blocking its window’s orange glow.  The older children stand within a foot, one on either side, squeezed between the wall and stove.  The smell of drying laundry fills the room as their clothes absorb the pulsing heat.  They stand until their pants are so hot they can barely walk and sitting down, forcing the hot cloth against chilled skin, ceases to be an option.

This is how we start and end each of winter’s darkening days, as the sun slips its way to and from arctic nights.  During the day, our circumference expands.  With time, heat grows, and the kitchen, the laundry, the sun-warmed front room, all become habitable and we spread, easing into the furthest reaches. 

But, when the sun sinks, we return.  Our need for heat draws us into the heart of the house, into the space of one another, into the stove’s orbit again where we hover until need is met.

These winter days, I find myself grateful for the warmth and the need that gathers us around our own glowing sun.  Need is also a gift and, often, the clearest path to communion with others and with God, who draws us also; God, like a great pulsing heart, a glowing sun, a wood burning stove, drawing us all close and closer yet.       


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.