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.

   





Monday, June 18, 2018

Turn Toward the Light (Do Not Be Afraid)


How did the rose
ever open its heart
and give to this world 
all its beauty?

It felt the encouragement of light
against its being.

Otherwise,
we all remain 
too frightened. 

- Hafiz


The world needs us all; every heart open, fragrant, bright with the gift of pure being.  

May the light of Love rest upon you this day.  

May the light of your own beautiful soul be an encouragement to all who cross your path today.

*   *   *

Things have been quiet on the blog for some time now.  Be sure to sign up for my newsletter and stay tuned later this week for an update on all the new things happening behind the scenes here at This Contemplative Life.    


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Keep Showing Up



I found myself in a bit of a funk last night. After mowing the front lawn, I sneaked into my office to pray for awhile. It helped. And then I saw my daughter outside and decided to join her because the hot humid day had finally turned cool and breezy. We road our bikes in lazy circles on the driveway and I noticed, again, the red roses blooming like fireworks along the side of the little house. I realized the Queen Anne's Lace was in full bloom too. After I parked my bike, I ran in for a vase and scissors and Sophia and I cut the first bouquets of the season. I felt immeasurably better then, I felt returned to my home, my self.

I painted this little plaque last year, based on a note I had taped above my painting station, "Keep showing up." My kids asked what it meant, and I said, "It means keep trying, keep being willing to be where you are, to start again in whatever moment you find yourself in."

I think that's part of what happened last night. Thanks to prayer and a cool breeze, I stopped worrying about what comes next and showed up to what was right in front of me - a riot of flowers, a lovely daughter to share the task of cutting the season's first bouquets.

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor says, “No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”

Today, friends, keep showing up, consent to be where you are, in whatever you are in. And, when you do, I hope you find flowers, or a friend, or even just a moment's peace and quiet that helps you move gently, hopefully, into the next moment and the moment after that.

Monday, May 21, 2018

What I Learned When I Was Dying

Edge of the Conodoguinet Creek, Still Waters Retreat, Carlisle, PA


“Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” – WeCroak.com

I had been keeping an eye on the spot for weeks.  I thought it was a bug bite.  I thought it would go away.  But it didn’t.  Finally, on the first free morning I had, the morning I was set to go on silent retreat, I googled my symptoms and found out I was dying.

Well, I’m not dying (I repeat: NOT DYING), but that morning, based on what I read online, death suddenly seemed like a plausible possibility.  Not only was my symptom a possible sign of something bad, it was a symptom of something very bad.  I called my Dr and made an appointment for the following day.  I called back again and said I’d be more than happy to come in that very day if they happened to have a cancellation. 

Then, with nothing more to do, I left for my scheduled retreat, for six hours of silence and solitude with the news of my own impending death tagging along, an unwelcome, nagging companion. 

//

My husband and I recently learned about an app called WeCroak which sends users a text, five times a day, with a simple reminder, “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.”  The text arrives at random intervals (like death) and keeps things simple, clear, and direct.  

My husband learned about it through a counselor, discussing humanity’s fear of death as a source of generalized anxiety.  I heard about it from my Spiritual Director after sharing about my silent retreat.  “These kinds of experiences can help us wake up,” she said.

//

One would think a silent retreat, with death as your companion, would be The. Worst.  But, it wasn’t.

After driving to the tiny house in the woods, I sat in the kitchenette drinking tea.  Surrounded by windows, I watched bees flitting from plant to plant.  Upstairs, later, I rocked in a cushioned chair, reading Richard Foster’s, “Freedom of Simplicity.”  When reading grew tiresome, I stared out another set of windows and watched witless carpenter bees droning in lazy, senseless circles.  I took a nap, half-wrapped in a downy quilt, while the sun shone down on me.  I woke to a stink bug landing too near my face. 

Don’t get me wrong, I was distracted.  I fought back tears from time to time and found it nearly impossible to focus on my original intentions for the day.  I spiraled into moments of worry and anxiety.  

I thought about my kids and what would happen to them if something happened to me.  I want to say my concerns were selfless, but they weren’t.  I mourned my loss of influence in their lives, the things I would not get to see.  I realized, I will not last the test of time.  Which is to say, I will die, and the world will go on without me.   There isn’t really a single thing I can invest in that will last; as Theresa of Avila said in her famous bookmark prayer, “All things are passing away.”

Except, that is, for love.

//

Later in the day, I ate my lunch sitting in an old Adirondack chair near a wide and lazy creek.  The surface of the water hardly seemed to move at all.  If I shifted my focus, I could see long fish swimming loops along the muddy floor.  Dandelions, with heads gone white like old lady’s hair, stood along the edge of the water, bearing witness, I thought, to its passage.

Those dandelions are, I’m sure, gone today.  But the creek remains. 

It seems to me, that love must be something like that stream – constant, slow, enduring, and we are like those fading flowers on the shore.  In which case, the only sane thing to do is cast ourselves, wholeheartedly, into love’s great stream, to become – with heart, soul, and mind – part of the love that never fails. 

//

This is what death told me last week, when I allowed it to draw near via a googled symptom and online self-diagnosis.  Maybe others might learn the same by answering death’s texts five times a day for months on end.  The apostle Paul, who had his own travels with death as a companion, tells us the same, “now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Cor 13:13)

Death’s message was clarifying and simple.  It put my world, which I thought had been tipped on its head, right-side-up again.  It brought my feet closer to solid ground, which is to say, it gave me level footing in the land of acceptance.  

I did not make peace with death over the course of six silent hours spent in the woods on a sunny Wednesday in early May.  I’m not that naive.  But I did catch a glimmer of a gift hiding in death’s hand, enough to make me understand what we lose living in a time and place where death is treated as an inconvenient truth, a reality best avoided at all costs.  

You can read more about the WeCroak App in this article in The Atlantic.  Let me know if you try it out! 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Origami and God (Fold, Unfold, Refold Again)


Each of my boys has discovered origami sometime between their sixth and seventh year of life.  It always begins with fortune tellers and airplanes, then progresses to boats and paper hats.  Soon, every surface of the house is littered with folded scraps of white copy paper.  Eventually, familiar patterns lose their thrill and we head to the library searching for new patterns to master.  
  
Harder patterns, though, require adult assistance.  Inevitably, I’m called to assist a frustrated child in deciphering vague diagrams and tricky folds.  This, I do, kneeling on the floor by the wood stove with an anxious, eager child peering over my shoulder. 

“Mom!  I don’t understand what I’m supposed to do,” they cry.

“Ok, let me see,” I say.

They want me to be able to look at the picture once and tell them what to do.  But, I need to begin at the beginning, to feel the paper moving through its motions beneath my fingers.    

I follow the patterns step-by-step: fold, unfold, refold again.  Even though I know the desired outcome, the path to completion’s often far from direct.  Jumping ahead is not advisable, so I stay in the moment working slowly, one fold at a time.

Some patterns begin with several steps of folds and creases that are then, one by one, undone.  These folds are preparatory, lining the page with creases that serve as landmarks for the steps ahead.  It would be a tempting but misleading to mistake one of these preparatory folds for a final fold. 

Sometimes I think this may be how God works in our lives – not that our lives are paper, manipulated by God into an unforeseen shape – but every life is filled with folds, some relating directly to the final goal, others only serving as markers along the path.  So much suffering comes from mistaking one from the other – pegging our lives, our identity on something that will, shortly, be unfolded to make way for something else. 

The problem is, from my human perspective, I can’t readily tell the difference between final folds and preparatory folds.  Even the final outcome remains unclear – what are we working toward here, God? A jumping frog? A peaceful crane?

The truth is, I'm not sure God cares nearly as much as I do about the difference between unfolds and final folds, about final outcomes and destinations.  God may be something more like a child, thrilled with the feel of pliable paper, delighting in the joy of shared discovery.

Knowing this, maybe we can learn to move lightly and freely through life, turning and folding, shaped in each moment by what is, rooted in the humility of not knowing, and a deep trust in the goodness of the One in whose hands we rest.  We are being turned, crease by crease, into works of beauty and wonder beyond what we could ever imagine.  This is what redemption means, this folding and unfolding, moving forward, always, toward wholeness.  

Thursday, April 19, 2018

God's Not Grumpy


I've been immersed in Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle's books recently (Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir).  I'm so encouraged and enchanted by his sense of God's innate qualities - qualities affirmed in scripture, but often overlooked in our own imaginings of God.  All of this led me back to this brief post from August 2015.  Enjoy.

*   *   *   *

“What do you think heaven’s like?” my oldest son asked. 

My kids and I were slowly waking up, seated around the sticky kitchen island, absorbing summer's early morning humidity.  I cradled my second or third cup of coffee while they spilled milk and cereal and crunched on chocolate toast.  

In a moment of unexpected quiet, my oldest son posed his question.

Wrapped in a fog of sleepiness and still focused on my coffee, I said, “I’m not sure.  What do you think it’s like?”

Perched on a wooden stool, he pontificated for a while, and made sure to specify that his picture of heaven included the conspicuous absence of bickering.

There had been a lot of bickering that morning.  In fact, first thing that morning I scolded the boys for their non-stop verbal warfare. 

The 'absence of bickering' idea made its way into my sleepy brain, tickling my imagination.  Putting on a grumpy voice (not unlike the voice I used to reprimand the boys earlier that morning), I growled out an impression of God policing behavior in heaven.  “Hey, cut that out.  No fighting allowed in here,” I said. 

Distracted from the joy of his own ideas, my son paused and turned to me with a quizzical look on his face.  Eyebrows arched, head tipped to the side, quick as a whip, he objected to my impersonation.  

“God's not that grumpy,” he said.

His correction ushered in a moment of silence.  Then we both laughed, surprised by his nimble reply.  In four short words, my son defended his understanding of the heart of God; God's very nature. 

//

I am often grumpy.  

Especially in the early morning, when humidity is at 90% and little sweaty, sleepy people are squabbling all around me.  

But God is not.  

The fact that my son not only sees, but defends the difference, is a wonder to me and a source of great joy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

My Daughter, Annie Dillard, and I



My twelve-year-old daughter says there are four eggs in the nest outside her bedroom window.  I believe her, because she's one sits and watches, keeping an eye on the world around her. 

//

On the night after the Parkland Florida shooting, my oldest two, my husband, and I sprawled around the wood stove talking about kids who struggle, kids who sometimes perpetrate unfathomable acts of violence. 

“There’s a boy in my class who seems really sad sometimes,” my daughter said.  “I ask him if he’s ok, I tell him I will listen if he wants to talk.  But he doesn’t want to.  I don’t know what else to do.”  She shrugged her shoulders, letting the weight of seeing and knowing another’s pain and isolation rise and fall. 

The mother in me wanted to pick up that weight, like a strongman lifting a car off a trapped child.  I wanted to lift the burden from her shoulders and carry it far away, toss it off a canyon cliff, never to be seen again.    

Instead, I said, “I’m glad you ask him.  Sometimes that’s all you can do.”  

//

During spring conferences, a teacher said she’d recently paired my daughter with a student who’s only integrated into mainstream classrooms for science.  They worked together for a single lab with his classroom aide keeping close watch.  The teacher, also observing, noticed how my daughter deliberately slowed her pace, waiting for the other student to process before moving on to the next step.  In other words, she treated him like a real partner. 

“Some kids just rush through and do all the work,” the teacher said.  “But she was so patient, she just let him work at his own pace.”  After they finished, the student’s aide told the teacher, “That girl is the kindest person I’ve ever seen.”

Tears sprang to my eyes when she said that and later, when I retold the story to my husband, he got chills up and down his arms.  They weren’t chills or tears of pride, but the kind that come when truth strikes close to the bone.    

//   

I recently started reading Annie Dillard’s collection of essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk and it’s filled parts of me I didn’t know were empty.  Dillard’s work makes me want to not only write better but live better.  She writes as one who watches and listens before asking gentle, curious questions of the world around her.  She reminds me of my daughter. 

I was only three sentences in to her first essay when this small fact stuck its foot out, causing my imagination to stumble and pause: 

“Sometimes [a weasel] lives in his den for two days without leaving.”

Now there’s something to write about, I thought.  Something for a poem maybe. 

Who knew weasels have a private life, hidden beneath the surface of the world?  The very idea dazzled me.  Here, I thought, is something to explore.  But, reading on, I realized Dillard knows the weasel in a way I never will, having both researched it and watched it in a pond near her house. 

I have no pond near my house.  I’ve never seen a weasel except maybe in a zoo.  I can write ideas about the weasel, but I can’t write directly about the weasel (not honestly, at least) because I don’t know the weasel.  Seated here by my office window, I suspect I’m a good deal removed from the nearest weasel-viewing-locale.  For now, I’ll leave the weasels to Annie. 

I’ll write instead about what I can see, about what I know.  Today, for instance, the gray hen is foraging in our yard and a pair of sparrows paused in the shrub outside passing something (a seed?) from beak to beak.  Dispassionate snow flurries are falling.  It’s a lovely snow, the kind you long for in December, but it’s April, and if I hear one more complaint about this late winter weather, I swear I’ll despair because I’m holding my breath for spring and complaining wastes air. 

Looking up and a little further out, I can see the awning outside my daughter’s window where an eager pair of house wrens built their nest weeks ago.  I can’t see the mother, but I know she’s there, sitting on those four eggs in the snow and cold because life depends on it.  I know she is there just as I know I am here, watching and listening, asking gentle, curious questions.  These children, my daughter and sons, they are my eggs, my weasels; they make me want to not only write better, but live better.  


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Lament over Jerusalem: FREE Prayer Resource


Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.  Matthew 23:37

Not long after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus' conflict with the religious leaders intensifies dramatically.  The closer he comes to the cross, the separation between those who Jesus has gathered and those who refuse to be gathered becomes markedly clear.  As tensions mount, Jesus reveals, again, the deepest longing of his heart - to gather us to himself in love.  

As a mother, I know what it is to spread my arms wide and gather my children in - in moments of joy, fear, or comfort.  I also know the bittersweet moments when new-found independence, willfulness, or hurt feelings cause my children to resist being gathered.  

As a chicken farmer, I know the way a mother hen spreads her breast feathers wide over a nest.  I have seen a newborn chick burrow into its mother's feathered cocoon, have felt with my own hands the warmth beneath her wings, the close, dark hidden-ness.  

When I read this verse, I wonder what it means to be gathered.  I think of the intimacy - the safety, calm, and rest.  I imagine, even the darkness of that hidden place would feel welcome.  There is, in all of us, sometimes buried deep, a longing to be gathered.

Yet, still, we often resist.  And even when we do allow ourselves to be gathered we are still painfully aware of the desperate, aching world just beyond our sheltered rest.  Gathered to God, resting against God's very breast, we cannot help but be shaped by the heartbeat we hear.  Gathered, we become gatherers; loved, we long to be lovers.  We become the kind of flock that follows God to the cross, through the cross, and into the kind of life that multiplies and makes manifest the longing love of God. 

God's longing love seeks to gather us ALL in.  Sit with that for a moment.  

One strange fact about hens is that, when brooding, the mothering impulse is so strong that they will mother almost anything they can find - puppies, kittens, piglets.  It seems, with hens, the longing and love are wide enough to gather all who are willing.  The same is true, of God. 


As we wait and prepare for Easter morning, I want to invite you to spend some time with this verse: 

What do you imagine it would be like to be gathered by God?  

Who do you long to see gathered into God's longing love?  

What parts of you resist gathering?  

To help you along, I'm including a simple coloring page/prayer activity I created just for you.  All you need to do is clink on the link: Gathering Love Prayer Resource and hit print, then follow the prompts on the page.  Jesus' words paired with prayer and coloring make a simple activity for you to enjoy alone or with a small group of individuals - kids will love it too. (If you do download the page, leave a me a comment below.)


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Imagining Palm Sunday (from the perspective of Simon the Zealot)


(painting by John Dunn, available here.)
(This piece of fiction is loosely based on Luke 19:28-40 and is told from the perspective of Simon the Zealot who I imagine being asked, along with Philip, to go to Bethany to get the colt for Jesus. Here's hoping you also find some time to wander around inside the gospel stories in the week ahead.) 

It felt like the first day of spring. Like everything we waited for was so close we could almost taste it. 

We were close to Jerusalem. The closer we got, the edgier we were. Jesus was quiet. When we reached the Mount of Olives, Jesus turned to me and Philip. He chose us, and told us to go and look for a colt in the next village, it would be tied to a post and we were supposed to just walk up and take it. 

How did he know this? 

We didn’t ask. He chose us, that was all that ever mattered.  Jesus and the others stayed resting in the shade of the olive trees. Philip and I walked alone. 

When you were with Jesus, walking beside him, it felt like the sun on your back – faith rose and blossomed. But with every step we took away from him, faith dimmed. Clouds of doubt rolled in, confidence wilted as we walked toward the village. 

We hardly dared think, much less talk about what might happen when we reached Jerusalem.  Instead, Jesus' stories ran through my head. Everywhere we went he spun stories, painting pictures with words. I tried to make sense of them, but I couldn’t. Maybe I didn’t want to. 

Bethany was small and dirty, like every other village, nothing special. The smells and sounds nearly knocked me out after the quiet walk through the countryside. It was hot, the sun unbearable. I envied the disciples left behind, resting under the trees. The village seemed to go on forever. Women stared as we passed. Children ran up to touch our robes, then scrambled away laughing. We felt strange and out of place. 

The further we walked, the more foolish we felt. Reason raised its head - why this village? Why a colt? And where? Where was it? 

At the far edge of town, we heard it. A donkey brayed. I stopped mid-thought, and put my hand out to stop Philip in his tracks. Again, we heard it, the screeching sound like metal grinding against metal.  It came from somewhere to the right. We followed a small path through a thicket. Our steps slowed, nervously. Then we came to the edge of a clearing. An ancient stone house stood silent, a fire smoldered in a pit. Chickens pecked the ground. Off to one side stood a young donkey tied, just as he had said. 

My heart leapt. Philip grabbed my arm and squeezed tight. Our eyes met wide with surprise and glee. It was all we could do to keep from laughing. 

Giddiness propelled me, I rushed toward the colt. It skidded sideways, stretching the rope taunt, and erupted in a string of screeches, its lips pulled back, teeth exposed. I lunged and wrestled the rope until Philip again grabbed my arm. 

“Simon,” he said. 

I followed his eyes toward the house. A small man slowly emerged from the shadows. I pulled my hand back from the colt immediately. Behind the old man a woman and a small child peaked out of the doorway. Chickens squawked and scattered as he crossed the open yard. 

I have never seen such a short man, he would’ve made Zaccheaus look like a giant. He had a grave and wrinkled face and seemed coated with a lifetime of hard work and dirt. My heart sank. He would never let us have this animal. I thought of the sword at my side, it wouldn’t take much to force the plan. But the woman and child watched from the doorway. 

Philip bowed in greeting and I followed. The little man bowed. 

Braced for anger, his simple question startled me. “Why are you untying the colt?” 

Why. 

Why not, I thought. Why shouldn't we take whatever we needed to overthrow the Romans? Why try to explain the unexplainable to this dirty man in his dark hut? 

Philip’s hand was still on my arm. I stared at the man, so solidly rooted to the ground, and remembered Jesus’ words, “If they ask why, tell them ‘the Lord needs it.’”

Everything was always so unbelievably simple with Jesus, the simplicity itself was confusing. 

“The Lord needs it,” I said. 

The little man caught my eyes with his own and held them. I watched him measure the truthfulness of my words. I knew he likely guessed my thoughts about my sword, my urgency, and frustration. 

Something in my eyes satisfied and he turned to the colt. He reached out and patted the animal, murmuring into its long ears. “Take it,” he said simply, then turned and walked away. 

Our excitement grew with every step back through the village. We marched into the olive grove like victors returning from battle. The donkey brayed and bucked at the rope. Everyone gathered around shouting questions, slapping us on the back, startling the colt. “How? Where?” they asked. 

“It was just like he said, just like it,” I repeated, grinning and proud forgetting the doubt I’d carried across town. 

Then, Jesus pushed in to the circle. He smiled at our surprise and delight. His tired eyes crinkled in the corners. His robe was wrinkled and dusty from resting on the ground. 

“You did well, Simon,” he said, clamping his hand on my shoulder and fixing his eyes on mine. “You too, Philip,” he added. Like I said, he was like the sun, you know? And when he shone on you, it was something you never forgot. 

Jesus took the rope and leaned in quietly toward the donkey. He patted it, whispered in its twitchy ears like the old man had. I think in that moment, the colt felt just as loved as we did, just as happy and full of hope and excitement. It stamped a foot and brayed flicking Jesus’ face with its ears and we all burst out laughing. 

Peter pulled off his cloak and laid it on the donkey’s back. Nathan too, and Andrew, until the poor animal was draped with a rainbow of dirty robes. 

It was time for Jerusalem. 

I knelt right there in the dust and made a step with my hands. Jesus stepped and leaned while Andrew tried to steady the donkey. But the animal sidestepped and I teetered, pitching Jesus forward. His stomach landed with a thud on the donkey’s back.  My face reddened with embarrassment, but Jesus pulled himself up laughing and swung his leg over the side. 

When he laughed, it unleashed something inside of us. We were like boys again, free and happy. Here we were, caught up in the biggest adventure of our lives, with Jesus at our side, and the wonder of it carried us all along.  

Jesus turned the colt toward Jerusalem, leaning to whisper again in its ear, scratching the coarse hair where the rope hung around its neck. Moving forward, a nervousness settled over the crowd of us again. Then, we followed, and with each step our excitement grew. 

Thomas started the singing. His deep voice rose and the others joined in following the words of the psalm we all knew. The psalm of victory. I heard the words entirely new as we sang them there in the dusty streets, under the open sky. 

I waited all of my life for a king. 

Here he was and here we were together, marching into Jerusalem. But not marching, nearly dancing. As much as I wanted it to be different, as much as I remembered the sword at my side and my dreams of a mighty king on horseback leading me into battle, I was happy. Happy with this fool of a man plodding along on a donkey’s back, this man who loved me. 

I felt my love for him surge in my chest as we repeated again and again the chorus of the psalm, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever.” 

I wasn’t the only one off pitch. Philip had no rhythm, not an ounce of tune, and we were an ugly bunch weaving our way into town, drunk on good news and friendship and the love we all needed. They heard us first (probably smelled us second) and women and children wandered out to watch us. 

Such a strange parade. We sang at the top of our lungs, jostling each other, slapping shoulders and backs. Peter reached out and grabbed a boy in the crowd, swung him on his shoulders and Andrew jumped to reach a palm branch. Breaking it, he placed it in the boy’s hand and the boy cheered and waved like mad. 

There’s something about a people, so beaten down with sorrow and fear, there’s little left to lose. Maybe this is what made them join us, welcome us, break branches of their own and join the singing, the dancing and shouting. Some stripped off their robes and laid them in the street and Jesus was there in the middle of it all, steady and solid as the sky.

Things got a little out of hand. 

But that never seemed to bother Jesus. He got tired sometimes, needed rest and space, but he didn’t try to control us. He let us be however we were, welcomed us and that day we were happy and he didn’t bother to contradict. 

But the Pharisees did. 

It was one of the things they hated the most about him, the way he refused to control us. He didn’t seem to need to control anyone and therefore refused himself to be controlled. It bothered me too, if I’m honest. I couldn’t figure out how he might overthrow the Romans without taking for himself some measure of the power and control they exerted over us. But it bothered me less when I was with him, then it felt like I could believe anything and, if I’m honest, I thought he would change when we got to Jerusalem. 

To the Pharisees, it was blasphemy, all of it. The way we sang and danced in the street, the image of Jesus on the donkey like some kind of street urchin playing king, it was all offensive. But mostly it smacked of disorder and freedom, two things they feared and fought tooth and nail. 

“Rabbi, tell them to stop, make them stop!” they shouted. 

Jesus turned from watching the dancing children, the singing men. I watched him meet the Pharisees’ eyes. My hand involuntarily drifted to the hilt of my sword. Jesus held the donkey still while all around him the crowd rose and swelled. There was amusement in his eyes and he smiled a sad smile. 

“If I tell them to stop,” he said, “the stones you walk on will rise up singing and dancing. You cannot stop joy, my friends, cannot stop praise that flows like a river. Heaven and earth are being un-damned. We will sing and dance while we can.”

If we ever needed permission, we had it. We cheered and sang all the louder, “Give thanks to the lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever!”

It felt like the first day of spring, I tell you. Like everything we waited for was so close we could almost taste it. It was glorious.

//

It’s harder now, to talk about the rest. When we reached the inner edge of the Jerusalem, Jesus burst into tears and the words he spoke terrified and confused us. Confusion and fear followed us everywhere that week; it hunted us, hounded us. 

For a long time, when I remembered Palm Sunday, I felt regret, embarrassment.  I see how little we really understood. 

But Jesus, he loved it. Now I know he carried our praise with him through the darkness that lay ahead. He focused on the memory of our singing when the crowds cried out for his death. 

Jesus’ first desire wasn’t to change us. It was to be with us.

And his being with us, changed us, slowly into something closer to who he was, what he was. 

I like to think of it like that – he carried us with him, our joy, our love, to the cross and we carry him with us, his joy, his love through every week ahead, singing and dancing or weeping in sorrow.  We carry him, he carries us. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Imagination: Creative Power, Curiosity, Vision




I do not think that the opposite of imagination is reality.  Far from it.  The opposite of imagination is cynicism and boredom; they are influences that deny reality (cynicism) or escape it (boredom).  They blind us to the beauty of human experience or lead us to distract ourselves with shallow, unsatisfying elements of it.  We need strong words.  We need strong images.  We need our minds shaken from time to time, if not all the time, to keep us from drowning in the swamps of cynicism or boredom.  And that’s what imagination does.

. . . when I speak of imagination, I mean the ability of our hearts and minds to create images and stories that express truths greater than can be expressed in a philosophical essay.  A failure to imagine is simply a failure to hope: in myself, in others, in God.

- Eric Ramirez, SJ
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Imagination: (n) the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality; creative power.  

Last night, I led a brief Imaginative Prayer session at a local church.  Imaginative Prayer is a method invented and taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola in which individuals or groups spend an extended period of time reflecting on one of the many gospel stories featuring Jesus.  The aim of this type of prayer is a direct experience of God's presence.  

In preparation for my class, I spent some time noodling around on Ignatian Spirituality .com and was delighted to discover these downloadable Imaginative Prayer Guides published by Pray As You Go .org.  I thought about the role of imagination in my own life, my experiences as a child and young adult, and times when I've stifled or encouraged imagination in myself and my children.  I learned that imagination is the capacity to form ideas and images of that which is beyond the senses, which sounds an awful lot like faith, to me.  And I discovered that the Latin root for the word 'imagination' means 'to picture oneself.' 

I listened to the Imaginative Prayer Guide on the Healing of Blind Bartimaeus three times yesterday.  Each time, I found something new and, like an athlete doing reps at the gym, I felt my imagination grow stronger with use.  I noticed, as I cooked, how my dog imagined I might drop the chicken carcass, dripping broth on the cutting board.  She knelt at my feet in anticipation of a world where miracles like that happen.  I watched the House Finches imagining the nest they'll build in my daughter's window, eyeing every angle of the ledge on which their future will rest.  I realized the church is called to be the imagination of the world in which we live - to be the link between that which can and cannot be seen.  

Today, I'm wondering what it is you imagine.  Maybe it's something big or something small or something silly beyond belief.  When is the last time you let your holy imagination run wild?  I'd love to hear about it.       

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Just Beyond (on Spring Snow and the Kingdom of God)


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


If the weather-watchers are correct, we’re due for snow tomorrow and possibly more on Sunday.  Snow in March isn’t unusual, but it’s definitely unwelcome.  Arriving just as the world starts to sing its wake-up song, spring snow often feels like the last straw. 

I’m doing my best not to check and double-check my weather app, though I’m anxious to know how the snowfall will impact my work-life and the kids’ school schedule.  Friends online are sharing weather predictions with accompanying proclamations of despair and dismay.  The more time I spend online, the easier it is to believe spring will never arrive.

But the songbirds, the ones who now make daily inspections of potential nesting places sheltered beneath our window awnings, tell a different story.  Something in them seems certain of spring’s promise, despite the cold-again nights, the frost-filled mornings.  Intrigued by their perseverance, I’ve been listening to them almost as much as I’ve been looking online.  I wonder what it is the birds sense, something just a hairsbreadth away from my bumbling human perception.

The songbirds, of course, are not alone.  The hens are laying like gangbusters, the dog and cat have begun they’re annual shedding extravaganza (Lord have mercy), and the tree branches bear red buds ready to burst at the slightest provocation. 

This week I remembered something my Spiritual Director told me several years back, when my kids were much younger and we were cramped in a small apartment together all the dark winter long.  There was snow on the ground then too, spring seemed like a fairytale – a nice idea, but nothing to stake your hopes on. 

“Do you hear the birds?” she asked, as we sat together in her sunlit meeting space.  “They only start to sing when they’re getting ready to build nests and mate.”

I took her word for it.  I allowed the birds to sing hope into my weary-with-waiting heart and I too started to live like spring was just around the corner. 

Maybe it shouldn’t be news to me that our hope, our faith, our love, are so easily influenced by the voices around us.  But most years I need reminders, just the same. 

Being a person of faith means living in light of a reality that may be just a hairsbreadth beyond our bumbling human perception and allowing that reality to shape the songs we sing, the nests we build, the future we work to bring to fruition.  And when we grow weary in faith it helps to tune into the lives and voices of those around us who seem to hear and live a bit more clearly.  

This week, Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, was one of those voices for me.  Quoting from the prophet Habakkuk, regarding the coming kingdom of God, Boyle says, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and it will not disappoint; and if it delays, wait for it.  What we all want to create and form is a community of kinship such that God might recognize it . . .  It shouldn’t surprise us that God’s own dream come true for us – that we be one – just happens to be our own deepest longing for ourselves.  It turns out, it’s mutual.”

If you find yourself also near despair - due to snow or otherwise - why not take 20 minutes to hear what Boyle has to say.  His words point to realities just beyond perception and his life's work continues to bring the kingdom into fulfillment.