The Visitation, by Jacopo Pontormo is one of the paintings I most often display in my Spiritual Direction office during the season of advent. Pontormo depicts the moment of Mary and Elizabeth's meeting, as described in Luke 1:39-56. In it, the two women, each carrying a seed of a promise within them, stand belly to belly. Their arms create a circle of waiting, a space in which hope's fragile seed might be held and protected, nurtured into being.
Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen, explains, "Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait. . . . These two women created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for."
Recently, a dear friend sent me a small, cloth elephant ornament in the mail. We have both been through a LOT this year and, despite our own intense struggles, we've worked quite deliberately to support each other. Attached to the elephant was a note explaining that female elephants support each other in times of stress. Intrigued, a quick look online revealed a beautiful picture - when an elephant goes into labor (a time of great vulnerability and stress) the other elephants in the herd back themselves into a circle formation around her. Then, when the baby is born, they trumpet in celebration.
The elephants, like Mary and Elizabeth, form a circle of waiting.
Nouwen goes on to say, about Mary and Elizabeth's circle of waiting,
"I think that is the model of the Christian community. It is a community of support, celebration, and affirmation in which we can lift up what has already begun in us. [This visit is an expression] of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something is really happening."
Circles of waiting require intimacy, trust, and safety. Too often, for many of us, these things have been absent from our church experiences. What we have received, instead, is a conditonal welcome, an attitude that says something more like "we'll wait and see how you turn out before we support you" instead of, "we believe God has begun a good work in you and we can't wait to see how it all turns out." Churches fail to be circles of waiting when product (appearances, image, income) take priority over process, when control replaces trust.
Thankfully, though, many of us, including Nouwen himself, find and form circles of trust outside of traditional church structures. For me, this has been one of the great gifts of spiritual direction - the opportunity to be encircled in my own waiting and to offer to circle with others as they wait upon God's often surprising and mysterious activity.
I hope you find such spaces. I hope, if you are able, you offer such spaces to others.
Where have you found circles of waiting and with whom? Perhaps now is the time to let that person or people know how much their presence means in your life.
If you are need of community in your waiting, who might you reach out to? Perhaps now is the time to begin a spiritual direction or counseling relationship as God begins something new in you.
Who do you know who needs support in their time of waiting? Who's circle might YOU complete?
* Quotes are from "Waiting for God," by Henri Nouwen in the collection, Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas.
This advent, I'm sharing a few brief video reflections on my facebook page: Kelly Chripczuk, Writer, Speaker, Spiritual Director. You can find the first two videos in this series by going to my fb page and clicking on the "videos" tab. Or, simply click on the link below to be taken to a reading of Pearl S. Buck's classic Christmas tale, "Christmas Day in the Morning."
A young farm boy has a sudden realization of his father's real, but unspoken, love and searches his heart to find an adequate response to this unexpected love. My reading includes a few brief reflection questions and, at 12 minutes, might be perfect content for your personal or family advent time.
How does she
How do gifts
gifts she is
is the model,
will be wasted,
in the effort
in the room?
I see you
I call you
by your name:
that is yours
You are the mirror.
You are the model.
only a sliver
of the divine.
* for all of the female pastors I know, still struggling to gain access to the rooms of power, still sitting through professional conversations in which the validity of their ministry is questioned, still wondering if it's ok to be who you are. I see you, we need you.
Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, and so they give their lives to little or nothing. One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it . . . and the it’s gone. But to surrender who you are and to live without belief is more terrible than dying – even more terrible than dying young. - St. Joan of Arc
I’ve been sharing office space with Joan of Arc for the past month as she stares out at me from the August page of my Women Who Rocked Our World calendar. The artist’s image, paired with a quote, conveys an air of certainty and defiance, a sense of strength rooted in something beyond the realities of the world in which she lived.
A brief bio at the bottom of the page reads, “In a time when only men had power or choice, Joan of Arc commanded both. ‘I’ve arranged your marriage,’ her father said. Joan refused, changed into pants, cut her hair, and called herself Joan the Maid. She proclaimed her God-given destiny was to free France from the English invasion.” Joan led the army that restored France’s king in the early 1400s, only to be captured and executed two years later by a church heavily influenced by her former military enemies.
I never had any real interest in Joan of Arc until I wrote a paper on her for a seminary class on Medieval Female Mystics. It was one of the few papers that pushed me beyond the bounds of the seminary library and sent me across the street, hunting through the dark stacks of Princeton University’s library. I read everything I could find and wrote an extensive paper based on the idea that Joan of Arc represented an early proponent of Liberation Theology. It was a stretch perhaps, a bit of a convoluted hypothesis, that produced the only B grade of my whole seminary career. All of that to say, Joan and I go back awhile, but I’m no expert on her story.
Reading the quote from my calendar, I realize the artist and author are doing something similar to what I did, coopting Joan’s story for a cause (feminism) that came much later than her brief and complicated life. In doing so, they raise an important point – Joan of Arc broke out of the expected feminine constraints of her day. But they do so at the risk of confusing Joan’s motivation – Joan of Arc was called by God to deliver the French people living under an oppressive English occupation. This is the reason for her certainty, the reason for her throwing off expected social constraints.
I’ve been thinking lately about “difficult women.” Women are branded as “difficult” in our culture for any number of reasons – for speaking clearly, for refusing to bend to abuses of power, for advocating for change that is inconvenient to the status quo. The label “difficult” is meant to be pejorative. But I’ve been wondering lately whether the label, “difficult” might be more of an honor than a disgrace.
Joan of Arc, with her level-headed stare, and unwavering belief strikes me as a “difficult woman.” Her clarity, calling, and conviction are rooted in the voices of saints that she alone can hear. She has no proof other than her life, which she gives wholeheartedly and without restraint.
Which brings me to the Zinnias . . .
There are zinnias the size of salad plates in my garden this year - fat magenta petals flung wide atop of thick, green stalks. The stems are hearty and bristle with course hairs and the biggest flowers stand tall, with perfect posture, declaring themselves to the world.
I’ve been sharing heart space with those Zinnias this month, just as I share office space with Joan. I feel drawn to the garden to visit them. I feel loath to cut them for a bouquet or bring them inside. Those Zinnias stare me in the eye, as Joan does, in turns challenging and inspiring me with their clarity and certainty. My heart hears those zinnias proclaim, “My path ahead is clear . . . I was born for this.”
Those zinnias, like Joan of Arc, stand tall and confident because roots that dig down deep, drawing strength from unseen places, pushing past constraints, and living as they were made to, for as long as grace is given for them to do so.
I'm sharing space this August with Joan of Arc and those giant Zinnias. I’m listening to the invitation to grow deep roots, to live with clarity and conviction, to shine bright and uncompromising, like a woman in military garb, a zinnia in fuchsia standing with its face turned toward the sky. I'm letting the label, "difficult," fall where it may, and living as I believe, whatever the cost may be.
But what’s a pastor to do when [she’s] got no people to pastor?*
I slipped an extra egg
under the broody hen
and marked the eggs
already gathered there
with a permanent marker’s
The hen settled down,
welcoming new eggs and old.
She puffed wide, her feather-bare
chest, radiating one hundred
and one degrees.
I picked five cucumbers
and weeded around the late-started
zinnias. I asked after zucchini
and green beans, peering between
large green leaves, but the answer was,
I hung wet clothes on the line,
washed and dried over thirty-five
t-shirts. I went to the store for milk.
I cooked a chicken and helped
my son bake a two-layer chocolate
This is what I did
when I had no people to
*This question, posed by a pastor in Winn Collier's novel, "Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church," got caught in my soul and sits there still. It's a good question, because asking (and answering it) well raises all sorts of other questions. Sometimes a good question can shed more light than even the best of answers.
“They’re acting like a$$es.”
This is what I told my husband in a quick, condemning whisper during the few seconds our four kids were more than an arm’s length away from us on the hiking trail. I’m not proud of my words, it’s not language I use often, especially in reference to my kids. But I want you to know just how bad it was.
Our long-awaited vacation had arrived, and I was ready for us to be happy, grateful and relaxed. I had bought into the cultural myth of the “happy family vacation” – the ones you see in pictures, where siblings with smiling faces stand with their arms carelessly cast around each other’s shoulders in front of a serenely setting sun. I’d forgotten how new spaces – even welcome, joyfully anticipated ones – unsettle carefully orchestrated family dynamics. I’d forgotten how anticipation often equals heightened expectations. I’d forgotten how hard family vacations can be.
And so, we found ourselves rumbling down a hiking trail like a gang of hangry bears. Kids fought, picked, and climbed on top of each other. They complained about the hike, the heat, their siblings. The words, “stop hanging on me,” “stop fighting,” “keep walking,” shot from my mouth on an endless loop. I believe, at one point, I announced, “If you don’t stop fighting, we’re going to walk the rest of the way single-file, in silence.”
That is, nothing worked until we jostled around a bend in the trail and noticed a doe standing in a clearing at the forest’s edge. “Look, a deer,” someone announced.
We turned and acknowledged the sight. Our walking and talking slowed. Someone noticed the flicker of a white tail just inside the forest’s shade. “There’s another deer in the woods. Look. See it?” One, by one, we paused and pointed, waiting for the flash of a white flag in the shaded forest’s deep green.
“Maybe it’s a fawn,” someone suggested.
Then, my husband added, “I bet, if we kneel down, it might come out.”
The six of us fell to our knees without argument or question. We knelt, facing the open field, crouched within arm’s reach of each other. Silence descended, save for a few whispered questions and observations. After a few minutes, the second deer tip-toed silently from the woods and we saw they were about the same size – likely a set of twins on their way to the lake for an evening drink.
There was no arguing, no complaining, no pushing or shoving. The agitation of the heat, the bugs, the siblings vanished.
“Maybe, if we’re quiet, they’ll come closer,” someone suggested.
We waited and watched the deer who waited and watched us. We spoke in whispers and the deer carried on their own conversation with flickering tails and cautious movements forward and back.
Those deer did what I could not do. Stirring up holy curiosity and wonder, they pulled us together and brought us to our knees. Divisions eradicated, we found ourselves stunned into a unity of awe.
And so I pray for moments of curiosity and wonder to descend on our deeply divided world. That we would stop our fruitless chiding and bickering and fall to our knees. That we would learn to whisper questions and work in unison that the hope of the holy drawing near would be our unifying desire.
Nothing else seems to be working.
It is only in framed space that beauty blooms. – Anne Lindbergh
The haiku settles for doing, as I read it anyway, one very simple but crucial thing – it tries to put a frame around the moment. It simply frames a moment. Of course, as soon as you put a frame around anything, you set it off, you make it visible, you make it real. - Frederick Buechner
A rose bush dances
in the middle window
of my office’s far wall.
Beyond the bush, our back
door stands wide open.
My daughter is sitting
on the back step.
Blond and fresh,
she is bent forward
in her hands.
Her limbs are long,
her hair is long,
and the sun spotlights
her in the door’s dark frame.
She is engrossed
in the movements
of an insect making
its way between her two hands -
climbing a finger, then falling
back to her palm.
In a flash of motion, she looks up,
thrusts her hand forward
and the insect flies away -
a black blur across the wide
Then, she too flies,
off the stoop and out
of the frame and I
am left here, writing
the picture of beauty
I saw through the middle
window of my office's far wall.
This poem is shared with dVerse poet's pub.
"If you can segregate yourself enough, that you don't get to experience all the different cultures, and people, and beauty... then really, you're not just missing out on that personally, you're missing out . . . on a piece of the image of God. Seriously. You're not letting yourself see and experience the fullness of God if you continue to be ok with your world staying white." - Lisa Mays
Violet, Saffron Yellow, Paprika, Black – these are just a few of the colors I bartered from a friend a few summers back. She'd purchased the acrylics for a painting class, but never used them. They weren’t the colors I'd pick, but they were free and, just like that, I found myself in possession of an expanded palette.
Those colors sat in my paint box for a long time as I leaned toward my favorite shades of turquoise, magenta, chartreuse, and mango. My friend’s colors were darker than mine, richer, and bold. I shied away. In truth, I found it hard to believe that, faced with a wall of paints, someone would choose those colors. I certainly wouldn’t. I believed her colors were wrong and mine were right.
Until I didn’t. And I began to incorporate her palette into mine.
I bought 4 or 5 new tank tops this summer, mostly in neutral colors, save for one in my favorite shade of turquoise blue. I saved that top like a treasure for a day when I knew I wouldn’t ruin it digging dirt in the yard or cooking. Finally, one morning, with plans to meet a friend, I pulled it on: my new, turquoise top. It wasn’t until I reached out to grab my favorite earrings, in a matching shade of blue, that I thought of my former co-worker, the one who called those same earrings green.
I paused, looked down at my shirt and thought to myself, Lisa would call this shirt green. I took a quick picture with my phone and texted it to her: “I was all excited to wear my new blue shirt today, but when I put it on, I realized you would call it green!”
She replied a few minutes later, matter-of-factly, “Yeah, it’s green.”
I don’t remember when it started, but at some point, after several conversations in the office where we worked together, Lisa and I realized we saw and labeled colors differently. The most shocking (to me) was my favorite blue that she saw as green. I was so fascinated that we could look at the same object and label it differently that I developed the habit of running into her office at least once a week with a color related question. “What color do you call this?” I’d ask, holding up a notebook cover or pointing to an image on one of her most recent pieces of graphic design, eagerly awaiting her reply.
Lisa told me how a paint store owner named a color of paint after her special request for a room the shade of her “teddy bear’s feet.” She helped me see that pink (a color I adore) is in the same color family as red (a color I barely tolerate). She helped me see that greens can lean toward blues and visa-versa and that the line between the two might not be as clear as I thought it was.
Lisa and I, different ages, different races, bonded over the differences in the way we saw colors. She helped me see there was more than one way to look at things and that things, even as fundamental as colors, might change depending on your perspective.
How lucky I am to have friends who see the world differently than I do. Some help me embrace the darker, bolder hues. Others help me understand that the way I see things is only one way among many. I'm wondering - what colors are missing from your life? Who might help you find them?
Maybe my friend, Lisa, can help you too? Check out this video presentation Lisa gave last Sunday, talking about her experience of the world as a black person in the 1960s and 70s. She has such amazing perspective and insight and communicates in such a gentle, thoughtful way.
Isaiah (age 8) has taken up baking. He bakes like a happy drunk, tripping around the kitchen, leaving a trail of small disasters in his wake. He dives into each recipe like a boulder dropped into a pond, no caution, all energy. We may or may not have all the ingredients, he may or may not add them in the correct order. He scoops two cups of flour into the one cup measuring cup and scrapes the excess off with a casual flick of his wrist. Flour coats the counter, the floor, his clothes.
Often, all of this happens before I’ve stumbled downstairs for my first cup of coffee.
The other week while I was out (napping possibly or at the store), I returned to discover all three boys had established vegetable gardens IN-THEIR-ROOMS. They scrounged containers from the recycling bin and planted seeds in soil they found God-only-knows-where. Solomon offered me a pride-filled garden-tour and the twins boasted the convenience of midnight snacks being so close at hand. They love their gardens and water them daily, but I’m having a hard time getting past the act of hauling dirt INTO their rooms.
Speaking of dirt, we’re in the middle of installing an above-ground pool and, in the process, we’ve moved a bunch of soil from one place to the next. It turns out a dirt pile in the yard is even better than in your room and may just be the hottest toy of summer 2020. I’m only hoping they get as much use out of the pool.
The other day Isaiah was sitting on the edge of a once-buried cement goldfish pond, a treasure left by the previous owners. We’d planned to dig it up to make room for the pool, but it was built like a cold war bunker, all concrete and rebar, and after going through two jackhammers, we admitted defeat and moved the pool a bit further down the hill.
Isaiah, though, sat on the small concrete wall one morning, cutting at a piece of metal with a hacksaw. I guess I should have interrupted that activity, but he was so happy and it was his father who suggested the hacksaw after all. A friend was due soon for a playdate so I called form the back door, “Maybe you should put the hacksaw away. Your friend will be here soon.”
“Why,” he asked, looking up from his labor.
I paused a beat, then replied, “Well, some parents don’t let their kids play with hacksaws.”
It was later in the kitchen that my daughter repeated the line back to me, laughing and I heard the absurdity. I posted about it then, online and people loved it like they love most of my free-range children's outrageous activities. Some friends comment, "Your kids are having the best childhood." By which, I guess they mean my kids have lots of room to play and explore and test their wills against the wild, wild world.
I always laugh internally, though, when others (usually mothers) make comments along the lines of, "I admire how much freedom you give your children to create."
Hah, I think to myself, You're assuming I have a say in the matter.