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.

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“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. 




Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Meditation and Social Action


Last Friday, I took a few minutes at the beginning of class to ask my Christian Spirituality students how events like the school shooting in Parkland, FL impacts their lives.  

"What's this like for you guys?" I asked.  "I know what it's like for me as a parent, but you're a whole different generation growing up with this reality.  What does it mean for you?"  

The shootings were (and still are) heavy on my heart.  But I was also worried that the day's class topic - meditation - would seem too other-worldly, too removed in the face of recent events. 

Several students expressed concern about the abundance of violence in our culture and the real possibility of increased desensitization to incidents like these.  Another said he found it frustrating how many polarizing opinions were flying around without anyone really presenting a vision for how we can move forward together.  A third student expressed an awareness of how very complicated the matter is - "How we we decide where to focus our energy?  How do we figure out what part is ours to do?"

As I listened, taking notes as I often do, a strange thing happened.  I realized that meditation - time spent dwelling in the presence of God - offers a means of addressing each of these questions.  

Meditation, it became clear, is the bedrock of social action. 

Time spent in the presence of God increases our sensitivity to the cruelties of this present age.  The more we dwell with God, the more aware we are of the brokenness of our world and of our very own lives.  In prayer, our hearts are made vulnerable and soft, attuned to the violence of our own words and actions.  We begin to long for the kingdom of God to be made real and we're empowered to live differently in the world, to live as true witnesses to the kingdom which is both already and not-yet. 

Time spent in the presence of God nurtures the kind of imagination, freedom, and confidence required to envision a path forward.  Only those who are rooted deeply in divine love will be able to risk building a path free of ego and personal gain.  Only those rooted deeply in divine freedom can speak boldly and confidently in the midst of our entrenched and antagonistic perspectives.

Lastly, meditation, more than any practice I know, teaches us who we are.  In the deep places of our soul, we come to know not only God, but self.  Stripped of ego, we're confronted with both the limits and gifts, the strengths and weaknesses, of our true self.  Positioned in truth and grace, we become uniquely situated to discern our own path - to discover the place of alignment between  our deep gladness and the world's deep need (Buechner).  Meditation offers, in the midst of the many voices shouting for us to run here or go there, a calm, quiet voice that says, "This is what I have made you for, this is who you are."

The phrase, 'thoughts and prayers" has lost its meaning in our culture not only because it is often an excuse for inaction, but because too often it isn't accompanied by the kind of prayer that actually makes a difference and positions us to do the same.  Prayer gives rise to action and change, both internal and external.  Action that produces fruit - long and lasting change - both arises out of and leads us back into prayer.  

If you want to know how to respond to the current crises we face as a culture, ask someone who prays.  Odds are, they will be able to identify a good, solid starting point.  If you want to be a person who brings lasting change in the world, begin with prayer that places you before God - simple, quiet, prayer that forms you, moment by moment into the image of God. 

*   *   *

If you are new to meditation or, like many of my students, fear meditation may not be for you, I urge you to check out Ed Cyzewski's book, "Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace With God Through Contemplative Prayer."  Written from an evangelical perspective, Cyzewski addresses common concerns and offers practical insights to developing a practice of prayer rooted in the presence of God. 
  

      

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Voice of Love




Prayer . . . is listening to the voice that calls us "My Beloved." - Henri Nouwen

My husband wakes, alone, in the early morning dark.  While the rest of us sleep, he lets the dog out, rekindles a fire in the wood stove, and turns on the coffee pot.  By the time I stumble down, he's often sitting, cross-legged, in the arm chair closest to the stove, with his eyes closed.  With a timer set on his phone, he endeavors to start the day in silent prayer.

But, he is no monk in a cell alone.

I wander through, on the way to the bathroom, then back again with a full cup of coffee in hand.  Then, my daughter’s alarm clock goes off and she staggers blindly into the living room as well.  The dog, of course, leaves her seat and clatters around, needing a greeting from every new entrant into the room.  

His morning prayer is rarely silent, often interrupted, even though his eyes remain closed.

The other morning, before the lights were on, my husband sat in his quietening chair and I sat near the base of the stairs, scrolling on my phone.  Then, out of the darkness, six-year-old Levi yelled from the top of the stairs, “Dad? Dad?”

Wanting to preserve my husband's silence, I answered for him, “What Levi?”

“Where’s Dad?  Is he still home?  Is he going to work today?” Levi belted his questions, like a winter storm flinging hail. 

“Yes,” I said, stealing a glance at my husband, whose eyes were now open. “It’s early.  Daddy’s still home, but he’s going to work in a little while.  What do you need?”

“I want to say goodbye to him,” he called.

I looked again at my husband, seated by the stove, and he nodded his head. 

“What Levi?” he called.

“Goodbye Dad, I love you!  I’ll see you tonight!” Levi said, “Thanks for helping with my Valentines.”

“Goodbye, Levi.  I love you too.  I’ll see you tonight, sweetie,” my husband replied.

Then, from the shadows, came Levi’s twin brother's voice, “Goodbye Dad, I love you!  I’ll see you tonight!”

“Goodbye, Isaiah.  I love you too.  I’ll see you tonight, sweetie.” my husband replied.

All semblance of prayer was lost as they scampered back to their beds.  As my husband turned off his timer and prepared to leave for work, it occurred to me that, despite numerous interruptions, his time of silence was also exactly how prayer should be.  Not the absence of sound, but a listening quietly in the dark for the presence, the voice of love.  How very lucky we are when that voice descends not once, but twice, clothed in the voice of a six-year-old child.

May you find the voice of Love descending on you today in unexpected ways.  


Friday, February 9, 2018

The Wandering Hen



She stood still, and silent as stone, under the garage’s small overhang.  I had to look twice to even tell it was a hen.  Her gray coloring and curved outline made her look more like a bowling pin.  The yard and driveway were coated in a layer of February’s mixed snow and ice.  The eaves protected her from a steady rain as she stared out across the driveway.

“Is that Brownie?” I asked my husband, while peering out the kitchen window.

“Yeah,” he said, “earlier, she was perfectly centered between the two trash cans.”

“She’s so strange,” I said in a tone of awe and admiration.

Since we fenced in our flock of chickens a few months back, Brownie has been one of the only birds to persistently escape.  She’s one of our oldest hens, one of the handful of chicks we bought in 2015.  A gray, speckled, Araucana (easter-egger), she lived in our small, a-frame coop for two and a half years before being forced to integrate with our much larger garage flock.  She’s also the only hen we have who sports a real and genuine beard of feathers. 

I don’t know how much a chicken thinks, but her persistent solitude and wandering captivate my imagination.  I like to think of her as something like a Desert Mother or a John the Baptist type, led by an unrelenting urge to be alone, exposed, in the wilds of our two-acre yard.

Outside of the flock, she has no protection, no direct access to food or water.  She scrounges for seeds under the wild bird feeder and drinks from the driveway puddles.  When the garage is open, she wanders it too, but I wonder if she doesn’t sometimes sleep in the old a-frame coop where she was raised.  The other day, I found her sitting, happily feasting in the open corn bin in the garage.  Clearly, she has developed a certain level of ‘street smarts.’

My oldest son and I have put her back in the pen time and time again.  Solomon corners and herds her in through the wide fence gate.  I have done the same, but the other day I lured her close with a pretzel, then bent and grabbed her by the tail feathers.  She squawked and lunged immediately, and a few seconds of battle ensued while I struggled to get my hands around her wings.  Once her wings were tucked, she calmed, and I carried her under my arm and deposited her unceremoniously in the coop.  I was surprised by the fierceness of her fight.  She was out again the next day.

I don’t know what that hen has to tell me, to teach me, but I continue to watch her with admiration as she persists in holding steady, defining her own way of being in this large and lovely world.   

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Vulnerability & Trust in the Classroom



Every once in a while, I have the opportunity to teach a full semester's worth of introductory biblical studies materials over a period of fifteen days.  This, January, is one of those once-in-a-whiles.  Which is why I haven't been posting much here.  But I have been listening to my life, thinking, paying attention and the thoughts that follow are just a bit of what I've been noticing.
  
"I don't know."

I said those three scary words at least twice in class the other day.  

From the front of the room.  

As the professor. 

I can’t tell you how alarming that would have been for me when I first started teaching college level classes.  I was fresh from seminary then, wearing the one suit I owned.
 
That suit was – as they often are – something like a suit of armor.  It was a symbol that I was an adult (even though I didn’t feel like one) and that I knew what I was talking about (even though I didn’t feel like I did).  Looking back, I can see how fear-driven my teaching was, even though I didn’t want it to be.  I wanted to connect with the students, to engage, but I was unable to allow the kind of vulnerability that forms community. 

I was too attached to my armor of rayon/polyester and knowledge. I set up every aspect of the class in a way that guaranteed I would know the answers to any question that arose.  I chose the passages we studied based on papers I’d written in graduate school – a sure-fire way (I hoped) of ensuring I would know more about the topic at hand than any one else in the room.

I often wondered why I felt so isolated, lonely, and frustrated as a teacher.

//

This time around, some fourteen years later, I purposely wore jeans on the first day of class.  Mostly, I wanted to feel like myself and, as someone who works from home, I wear jeans almost every day.  Feeling like myself meant drawing on the sense of authority I carry day-in-and day-out as a parent, writer, spiritual director, and middle-aged human being.  Also, I wanted to lessen the distance between the students and myself, and jeans seemed like a concrete, visual way to do that. 

First thing, on the first day, I explained that every class would start with five minutes of silence.  This would be our way of acknowledging the presence of God which dwells - like silence – above, below, and in-between all our words.  After silence, I explained that, because this was their class, the first twenty minutes of every class was theirs to use as they saw fit.  Every student has an opportunity to submit a topic for conversation and we use silly questions to decide who will draw a question out of the stack. 

Those twenty minutes were a little awkward the first day – and still are, sometimes – but we’ve had some laughs, heard some differing perspectives, and even witnessed a little passion.  I like to believe giving the students some time and space up front, is one, small, concrete way of reminding them that this class is for them.  It also gives me an opportunity to observe and eavesdrop on who they are, how they interact with each other, and how they think about the world we live in.  In short, it gives me a chance to listen and builds community.

Finally, before lecture that first day, I explained that we needed to choose a passage to explore together in class the following day.  I gave them a few minutes to think about it, then invited them to offer suggestions.  Many offered favorite, well-known passages, but there were some random ones thrown out too.  I didn’t even flinch (hardly, anyway) when someone tossed out a story I’d never heard of from the apocrypha.  After we had ten or so to choose from, the students voted and chose Jeremiah 29.

I stopped by the library after class and grabbed a couple of commentaries.  That night, I spent about a half hour familiarizing myself with the context and reading through the passage.  Mostly, I figured, we’d figure it out together the following day.  And we did.  
Rather than worrying about the class, I looked forward to it.  I suppose part of this is the confidence that comes from teaching and preaching for years – a gift I’m grateful to have found.  Under-girding my decision, though, was the belief that what would be gained by working together, side-by-side, was more than what might be lost by me not knowing all the answers. 

//

I have a great group of students this semester.  They’re older, and more prepared to handle the course material.  Many are seniors and already thinking about how the things they learn now will apply to life in the ‘real world.’   All of this leads to a more enjoyable class environment.  But the thing I’m most grateful for, is a deeper capacity to be with the students, to create an atmosphere where those three little words, “I don’t know,” are nothing more than a fertile starting point for conversation, exploration and comradery. 


Monday, January 8, 2018

Writers' Retreat: March 3rd 2018



Savor a day focusing on your work and identity as a writer. 

Reconnect with the reasons for your art, the source of your words. 

Network with other writers and gain insight on integrating writing into your everyday life. 

Author, Editor and Writing Teacher, Andi Cumbo-Floyd will lead a retreat for writers of all skill sets.  

When: Saturday, March 3rd 

Time: 9:00 - 4:00

NEW Location: We will be gathering at the Silver Spring Retreat Center in Mechanicsburg, PA.   The center's Historic Waugh-Wilson farm house dates back to the 18th century and offers a blend of gracious space and natural beauty. 

Cost: $60 (as you are able - please contact Kelly if cost is a significant burden) 

20 Spaces Available

Registration deadline: Tuesday, February 27th 

Includes:

     * Two free-writing sessions with prompts

     * Craft-talk on balancing discipline and gentleness   

     * A brief workshop experience giving and receiving feedback
     
     * Homemade lunch
     
     * Opportunities to network and connect with other writers

Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a trained Writing Teacher, highly-sought Editor, and author of several self-published books.  Her first traditionally published book is due out May 2018.  Kelly Chripczuk is a Writer, Spiritual Director, and teacher and has self-published two books.  


With a wealth of knowledge and experience, Andi and Kelly excel at creating a retreat space that is safe and enriching for all participants, no matter what your experience, skill level or goals may be.  Our desire is for you to leave the day refreshed and encouraged in your writing life.  

Questions?  Contact Kelly at Chripczuk.Kelly@gmail.com or leave a comment below.


Reserve your spot via Paypal: 


Friday, January 5, 2018

Slow (adjective)


Slow (adjective) : moving or operating, or designed to do so, only at a low speed; not quick or fast. synonyms: unhurried, leisurely, steady, sedate, poky, sluggish

Every year, January 1st brings a wave of declarations and intentions splashing across my facebook page.  I've hardly started purging the house of Christmas clutter and somehow it seems everyone else has already shaken off the dust of the old year and moved headlong into the new.  

In the face of it, I find myself feeling out of pace.  Here I am spinning my wheels while the rest of the world races ahead.  

Pining my slowness earlier this week, I thought of my paternal Grandma.  She never did anything fast, as far as I can remember.  She ate slow, walked slow, talked slow.  She buttered bread slow and somehow managed to make large dinners that were ready right-on-time while working at a snail's pace.  

Recalling her slow ways, I remembered the comfort she gave even in the midst of (or perhaps because of) her predictable slowness.  I remember her lamenting once, during a visit to an Amish farm in Lancaster PA, how she missed the slowness of the old days, how everything was so hurried now, she felt she couldn't keep up.

Remembering my Grandma's slowness, I felt less alone, more able to accept my own, often poky, pace. 

//

Slow isn't sexy.  A poky puppy is cute, but doesn't hold our attention span for long when the rest of the world is racing by.  And, though we offer lip-service to the value of 'slowing down' or embracing an 'unhurried' life, we're quick to defend our productivity lest we somehow be deemed lazy or, worse, slow.  

I guess it's one thing to choose slow.  Another to be slow, by nature.  

//

This morning, while pushing myself to get ahead and make up for my slow, I remembered a conversation my husband had with my mother-in-law when he first told her we were dating.  

His mom asked, among other things, "If she fast?  Can she get things done?" 

It's was a funny question to ask, because my husband lives on the slow side of things as well.  Maybe she thought he needed someone to kick-up the pace and keep things moving along?  

Whatever she had in mind, it was not to be.  My husband answered immediately and with certainty, "No, I've never seen her do anything fast."

Remembering his reply, I smiled, and felt another layer of self-imposed judgement about the pace at which I live, slide off, like an ill-fitting skin.  

//

I think there are a lot of people who miss slow, but most of us feel we can't really afford it.  Here, I guess, is where the slow people (like me) have something to offer.  Hitching along at our leisurely pace we seem to stand out as a symbol that slow is not lost and, what's more, slow is sustainable.  Slow may even be the only sustainable speed in a world committed to fast without pause.  

What struck me most in the online definition of slow quoted above, is the phrase "designed to do so."  Maybe that's what I am - designed to move slowly, to offer steady in a world off-kilter.  I like the way that phrase hints at the intentionality of making something (or someone) slow.  Almost like slow itself has a purpose or is a gift.  

Who needs the gift of your slow today?  What practices help you live more in tune with your own natural pace?