A Dream of Honey: An Excerpt from Playdates with God

Below is a modified excerpt from my book, Playdates with God: Having a Childlike Faith in a Grown-up World, copyright 2014. Used with permission from Leafwood Publishers, an imprint of Abilene Christian University Press. All rights reserved.

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In mid-fall, as the goldenrod bend their heads low in the meadow behind my house—I visit the apiary.

It all started when I spoke at a ladies tea at a little country church in the valley where I live. The hostess served honey from her husband’s hives, and I was blown away. “It tastes like sweet clover,” I told her, as I sipped tea with my pinky raised. She smiled and nodded her head. This was entirely different from that syrupy stuff I buy in the bear-shaped bottle at the grocery.

Every day after that, I think about the bees. In the night, I dream of honey. When I awaken, I carry a memory of amber—a dewy sweetness on my tongue. I cannot shake the taste of it. So, I Google up local beekeepers and I talk to the state bee inspector on the phone and my father-in-law calls a friend of his who keeps bees.

“In the Bible, honey represents purity,” the Department of Agriculture’s state bee inspector tells me. “I think there must be bees in heaven,” he says.  I think about that little taste of honey from the tea and it seems to me that maybe a little piece of heaven is already here.

I read all the scriptures in my Bible about honey and I look up the original Hebrew in my concordance. The word used for honey in many of the scriptures refers to the distilled version of a watery sweetness that exists naturally. It is the refined essence of the substance—the richest part.

So. After weeks of waiting, when the goldenrod bend their heads low in the meadow behind my house, I visit the apiary. “That’s how you know the goldenrod is nectaring,” the beekeeper tells me. “The tops are so heavy they fall over.”

We walk into the apiary under a shower of walnut tree leaves. They float slowly to the ground like tiny canoes, sailing the air. I breathe in deep, thinking of honey. The farm smells like woodsmoke and decaying leaves. The sky is blue marble.

I hear the steady thrum of thousands of beating wings rise into that familiar buzz while we are still within a hundred yards of the colonies. The sound thrills me but I feel my heart begin to slow with the low resonance that emanates from the hives. He aims his smoker at the bees flying about the first hive. I watch him open the tall box-like structures and use his tools to remove one frame at a time. He lifts a frame, points out the shiny honey down in each little dimple.

The bees light haphazardly on my arms and midsection and on the veil I am wearing—they seem as curious about me as I am of them. I close my eyes and let the sound of their greeting fill—that low buzz pressing down around me. I know the smoke has made them docile, triggering them to consume as much honey as they can and slowing them down with the weight of it. They are afraid we have come to steal their golden treasure, and so they hide it the best way they know: inside their bulging abdomens.

He lets me take pictures of his bees, hunts out the queen for me to see. He is a good teacher—patient and kind. After he closes up the hives, he shows me his workshop. He makes beeswax candles and sells them. His wife has won numerous awards for baking with honey and her blue ribbons hang on the wall by the door. He teaches candlemaking classes and gives talks about beekeeping.

He tells me about how the honeybees make honey—this refining into the richest essence. He tells me how, after collecting nectar, the bees return to the hive and pass it on to other worker bees. These worker bees chew the nectar for a while allowing enzymes to break down the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. This makes the nectar easier to digest as well as resistant to bacteria. The nectar is then deposited throughout the honeycombs of the hive. Here, water evaporates from it, making it a thicker syrup. The bees use their wings to fan the nectar and accelerate the thickening process. Then, the honey is sealed with a plug of wax and stored until it is eaten.

By us or them.

But listen to this.

The beekeeper tells me about the dance of the honey bee. When a bee finds a particularly lush feeding ground—a place rich with pollen or nectar—they return to the hive and by way of giving the other bees directions to this Eden…they dance. The Honey Bees dance to communicate where a good food source is. The way they dance communicates direction and distance. The distance is communicated by the shape of the dance. Direction is communicated by the angle a bee will bisect her dance with, with respect to the sun. The dance is like the face of a clock, with the sun representing twelve o’clock.  If the bee dances from six to twelve o’clock, this means to fly straight towards the sun; eight to one o’clock would mean fly just to the right of the sun; twelve to six o’clock, fly directly away from the sun.

And the honeybee is a brilliant mathematician. See, these little dances sometimes can take a long time.  So the angle of the sun will sometimes have changed during the dancing. The bee will calculate the change in angle based on where the sun is at the time of the dance.

Scientists have been amazed at how accurately the bee dance communicates where the food is. Isn’t this remarkably beautiful? So I start thinking about this dance. How this dance is the first step in the honeymaking—in the refining process. And—in our lives—isn’t the refining the conforming? This hard work of life the way He uses to make us more like Jesus? And, isn’t this God’s desire for us too—that we dance through the refining? That our lives represent the richest essence of humanity? That as we—do our work, make our art—we would dance through this refinement?

I think about the dance and how each dance is different for each bee; depending on where that bee is, what that bee desires to communicate. I wonder if conformity, in this sense, is what we look like when we join every unique part of ourselves with Jesus? This place where we are, what we desire to communicate, our work, our art—all joined as closely as we can with Jesus. We are united with him but we still retain our own unique qualities too.

Once, I read a pastor describe this type of conformity as the way his wife will conform her body to his on cold winter nights to help stay warm. This is what it means to conform to Christ, he said. To cleave to Him in thought, deed, and desire.

When I think of conformity in this way, it’s easier to imagine that each of us—while our life will be directed by God’s will as the life of Jesus was—will express this in different ways. The ways we worship, the ways we pray, the ways we bring glory to God…all will reflect the glorious variety and diversity in creation that reflects the very image of God. It is the very best of each one of us joined supernaturally with the perfection of Christ. Because our Lord is infinite, we can all look like him and yet look different from one another.

Conformed.

And yet free to embrace who we are.

Now that is something to dance about.

 

 

Under a Different Sky: The Ministry of Imagination

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Yesterday morning when I walked the dog around the house the moon was a crooked smile in the sky. I saw Orion tipped over above me, candling the dark. The cicadas were in full strum and I listened to their morning song as we bended around back. The day began soft, sweet, and I felt summer thin on the edge. Autumn lurked—scent of wood fire on my skin.

This morning the sky is white with unshed rain and Bonnie and I hurry with her business. The air is wet against my skin, heavy. Without the stars to capture my eye, I lose my center. My mind flits through one thousand things I am doing or need to do or want to do. I feel like a mist-person—half here and half somewhere else.

Some days I long to be under a different sky. This place I toil in feels tired and I can’t help but agree with Solomon, “Nothing is new under the sun.” The days blur together and moments lose meaning. Time dissolves like sugar in water, but leaves behind no sweetness.

I’ve been reading Run with the Horses by Eugene Peterson. It’s a book about the prophet Jeremiah, the one we know as the weeping prophet. Peterson talks of Jeremiah’s creativity, seeming to describe him as a performance artist. This prophet went to alarming extremes to communicate the message of the Lord to his people. Yesterday, I read this:

 The great masters of the imagination do not make things up out of thin air, they direct our attention to what is right before our eyes. They then train us to see it whole—not in fragments but in context, with all the connections. They connect the visible and the invisible, the this with the that. They assist us in seeing what is around us all the time but which we regularly overlook. With their help we see it not as commonplace but as awesome, not as banal but as wondrous. For this reason the imagination is one of the essential ministries in nurturing the life of faith. For faith is not a leap out of the everyday but a plunge into its depths.”

For faith is not a leap out of the everyday but a plunge into its depths.

When life gets busy, this is what I tend to do: compartmentalize. I put my everyday life in one box and my spiritual life in another. Don’t we all do this? Our minds need to simplify for efficiency. Compartmentalizing is one way of doing this. But this can lead to a smaller life and narrow vision. Psychologist Ellen Langer, Ph.D. tells us this is one reason why adults lose their ability to stay present in the here-and-now—therefore losing that sense of wonder that so captivates children. We compartmentalize. We label. We oversimplify.

This is good, this is bad. This is sacred, this is secular. This is black, this is white. This is necessary, this is beautiful.

“But there have been times in history,” Peterson tells us, “when these things were done better, when the necessary and the beautiful were integrated, when, in fact, it was impossible to think of separating them.”

What if everything that is beautiful is useful? What if it inspires and unveils and pulls us deeper into relationship with God and each other? And what if everything that is useful was beautiful too? What if crafters of the utilitarian began to see their work as art? As a way to leave a mark on this world? What if?

I am working on my imagination, dipping into some of those great masters Peterson describes. I read poetry out loud every day—rub the lines between the fingers of my mind like prayer beads. I’m listening to music more, letting stories carry me away. I have found these do not take me under a new sky, but they open my eyes to the beauty of the one I am living under. Imagination opens up the sky and reveals the holy beyond.

 

Like Riding a Bike

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As I write, the little boy across the street is learning to ride his bike. From my desk I can see them through the window—his father holding onto the seat and running along beside as his boy pedals maniacally. When he lets go the man bellows, “Pedal! Pedal!” I hear a high pitched howl before boy and bike topple over into the soft grass. His sister and another little neighbor girl stand witness, cheering as he goes down time after time. But he keeps returning to the seat.

“I feel like my writing muscles have grown weak,” I joked with my friend last weekend at the poetry retreat. “Well,” she said. “It is a skill. If you don’t use it …” I recognized the truth in her words and felt a catch in my throat.

It doesn’t feel like “riding a bike,” this ebb and flow of the writing life. In some ways, though, it does feel like the learning to ride—all these bumps and crashes. I’m on a quest to rediscover the joy I used to find in words. Somewhere along the way, writing became something else, my voice muffled like a song under water.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls this quest “building a motherland.”

“This world is being made from our lives, our cries, our laughter, our bones. It is a world worth making, a world worth living in, a world in which there is a prevailing and decent wild sanity …” She goes on to say,

When we think of reclamation it may bring to mind bulldozers or carpenters, the restoration of and old structure, and that is the modern usage of the word. However, the older meaning is this: The word reclamation is derived from the old French reclaimer, meaning ‘to call back the hawk which has been let fly.’ Yes, to cause something of the wild to return when it is called. It is therefore by its meaning an excellent word for us. We are using the voices of our minds, our lives, and our souls to call back intuition, imagination; to call back the Wild Woman. And she comes.”

Last night I told a friend that I am learning I must fight to awaken my voice again—I mustn’t give up as easily as I have. This love of creating is a way of giving to the world and I feel like a part of myself is missing when I am silent. Like a psalm written on my bones, it is a core part of my being.

Across the street, my little neighbor friend gets back up on the seat of his bike again. I hear his sister and her friend lift up encouragement. I hear his father giving instruction. I have voices cheering me on as well. Some have held me until I can find my balance.

But the most essential part falls to me. I have to keep getting back up into the seat.

The winner of last week’s happy giveaway is … Julie Dodson! congratulations, Julie! I’ll be in touch.

The Right to Write: Invite the Muse to Tea (book club)

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My muse is not happy with me.

She has caught wind of all the niceties Julia Cameron lavishes on her writer-self to care for Inspiration. In our reading of The Right to Write this week, Cameron reveals the wooing:

I explain…that I take my writer out for treats, that I buy it expensive coffee concoctions with foam like clouds. I take my writer on train rides to write and admire the view. I buy my writer journals, race-along-pens, an embroidered writing chair that I place by the window with good light. I try not to bully my writer or attack it. I try not to make it write only “should” without also writing “want-tos”. My writer has learned to trust me, to enjoy my company, and to treat me well back.

What about me? Muse asks, petulantly. All you’ve ever given me is sleep deprivation.

I had no idea, I tell her. I had no idea this was part of it all.

But this is not entirely true. Haven’t I felt the romance? Don’t I know how writing seduces? I know this love affair with words must be nurtured and fed just as sure as any relationship. But like a pampered lover, I wait for Muse to come to me. And then I wonder why she sometimes does not show up. I am like Cameron’s young friend Regine who wants to be ravaged, swept away, “taken” by her writing.

Cameron says:

I do understand. Sometimes my writing takes me like a fevered lover … More often, my writing and I meet halfway like a couple who wants to make love amid a busy week and don’t know quite how to get started… I have been encouraging Regine to invite her creative pregnancies, to pay attention to her stirrings, to invite the Muse to tea at regular hours to see if her writing can become a little less mysterious and more matter-of-fact.

Invite the Muse to tea? Really?

I like café au lait, she says. Or maybe one of those pumpkin spice lattes.

We sit by the window and sip our creamy café from heavy mugs. Something about the way the light moves through the glass brings to mind a childhood memory. It feels so close, so real, that I feel tears begin at the edge of my eyes. She reaches over and touches my hand.

Thank you, I say.

You are most welcome.

She grins. And I can’t help noticing the faint mustache of froth on her upper lip.

In our book club discussion this week, Julia Cameron talks about nurturing our writer, writing as appetite, how mood plays into this writing life, and the importance of keeping the drama on the page.

What spoke to you this week? Come share in the discussion, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

Three more chapters next week: The Wall of Infamy, Valuing our Experience, and Specificity.

Image by Ginny. Sourced via Flickr. Used with permission.

The Sanctified Imagination

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I recently read the story of the Laetoli footprints. In 1976, archaeologist Mary Leakey was digging in the Tanzanian plain when she made an amazing discovery: a single footprint preserved in what was once volcanic ash. Further exploration yielded more footprints—an eighty-foot swath made by three people, fifty-four in all—all that was left of companions walking together, 3.6 million years ago. Leakey’s team studied the footprints for three years and when finished, reburied them for preservation.

As I read that story I began to wonder how much of the sacred is buried under the soil of the visible in this world. In our day-to-day lives, we pile on layer after layer of things we can see, things we can touch, mistakenly thinking this is the way to happiness and security … all the while losing sight of a priceless treasure as we bury it deeper and deeper under the soil of excess. How easy to lose sight of an unseen God when so many visible, lesser gods clamor for our attention.

Will you join me over at The High Calling for the rest of this reflection today? We’re finishing up a series on Imagination over there. If your curious, I think you’ll enjoy the other articles too.