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.

::

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.

 

 

Love Story

It’s my anniversary. Today marks 24 years since I said “I do” under a cloudless sky on a windy day in May. Sharing a little re-post from the archives. I wrote this on our twentieth anniversary. It’s also featured in Dawn Camp’s essay collection, The Heart of Marriage.

::

Dear Husband,

On the way to school this morning, our youngest says to me, Tell me about your wedding day. The world shifts and I grow lighter and my heart leaps inside of me. Because thinking of you and the way our love was planted still does that to me.

Twenty years ago today, I tell him. The sky was as blue as your eyes. But it was windy. Somewhere there is a picture of Dad holding the skirt of my wedding dress out as it flapped in the wind like a sheet on the clothesline, just waiting for it to settle down so we could take pictures…

And I tell him about that day when we stood before our family and friends and God and made a promise to love each other forever. And when I return back home I get out our wedding album.

Oh, love, how could we have known on this day twenty years ago all God had planned for us?

We got married outside, at the farm, I told Jeffrey. Because Dad and I weren’t going to church at the time. I was still confused about my past. And Dad…Dad did not believe the God-story then.

As I look at our shining faces—twenty years younger—I think about that.

Dad did not believe the God-story then.

But he does now, Jeffrey had responded.

Yes, I said. In June it will be seven years.

Seven out of twenty years. Thirteen years of prayer.

What I didn’t tell Jeffrey was how we almost gave up. How you told me you didn’t think you could be the man I wanted you to be. How, because the differences in the way we believed, you thought maybe it was best to divorce.

Remember that, love?

And isn’t the way love endures nothing short of a miracle? A miracle that takes hard work. And not giving up. And a whole lotta faith.

I look at our shining faces—twenty years younger—and I see how our love story is really the story of God’s love. The way a marriage shapes a person is the way His hands mold—making us more beautiful with the lovely patina of time; conforming us to His image. And I could say a lot about the bride of Christ and the way marriage emulates His love for us and how a man should love his wife the way Christ loves the church…

I could say all those true and beautiful things about our love. After twenty years and in the looking back I can see how this story tells the Bigger Story. But I sit here in humble gratitude as I consider the way the pages have unfolded and I feel too tiny to set down words like that.

You have been God’s gift to me. He has etched his Love into ours.

Later, I will go to the jewelers and pick up my wedding band. I finally had it resized this week. Those few extra pounds and the stretching of this body from carrying our babies made that round gold circle squeeze a little too tight on my finger. Kind of the way it does around my heart. And to me it seems—this adding on to the golden promise you gave me—a sign of the way love grows too. It can be costly, but in the end—it results in more gold.

I wanted to write you a poem, but you said you would come home from work early so we could be together and I have a million things to do while I wait. Besides, Wendell Berry says it best. He wrote this poem to his wife on his sixtieth birthday. Pretend it says twenty? It captures my love.

To Tanya on My Sixtieth Birthday

What wonder have you done to me?
In binding love you set me free.
These sixty years the wonder prove:
I bring you aged a young man’s love.Happy anniversary, love. I would marry you a thousand times more.

A Psalm for Palm Sunday

We’ve been sleeping with the windows open at night. When morning begins to spread her skirt of light, it’s the song of the robins that coaxes open my eyes. Last week I planted my garden greens and yesterday I noticed their sleepy faces poking up from the soil bed. Tomorrow the weatherman calls for snow.

I think the robin song is the most hopeful of all songs.

Since I returned from Refine the Retreat, I have had my own retreat, of sorts. I’ve been quiet—curled into family and the moments as lived. Presence has been nourishing me, the slow-going through the days. I’m slowly getting back up to speed with life.

Yesterday I gave a short homily for a Lenten luncheon series at the church of one of my mentors. I thought I’d share a slightly edited version of that message here. As we prepare to enter Holy Week, may you be blessed, dear one.

::

I spent my 48th birthday with a group of about 45 women at Refine the Retreat. We were at a retreat center called Our Lady of the Pines—a beautiful, former girls school turned nunnery turned sanctuary—where our hearts were primed to hear God’s voice. Each morning I led the women in lectio divina. We walked a prayer labyrinth on the property and prayed under birdsong mingled with the voices of tall, limber pines singing in the wind. When the time came to give my message, I was changed. I felt close to these women—safe—and God kept nudging me to give a different message than the one I’d prepared. I felt the urging to share more deeply and allow myself to be vulnerable.

So I did. In the context of scripture, I shared the story of a difficult experience my family had just been through. Something that had caused great pain that still touches us in many ways. And as I was speaking the words out loud, I was taken by surprise. I felt a sob well up in my throat and there was nothing I could do to suppress it. I had never spoken about this story publicly and my emotions took me off guard. But when that sob escaped, something beautiful happened. Every eye turned unblinkingly upon me. The tears had captured their attention. This is something they all understood so well: sorrow; grief; the deep soul disappointment that life hands us sometimes. I looked out over the faces of the women I was speaking to and I saw only love.

After a time of worship, as we clustered in small groups sipping coffee and nibbling sweets, woman after woman approached me. In hushed tones, they shared similar stories of darkness. Times of despair and pain. With few exceptions, these women told me how they kept their pain a secret, held it tightly to their hearts, locked behind cut-flower words and plastered on smiles only gum-deep.

My heart broke as I listened and the realization sunk into me: We do not feel safe to share our pain, our brokenness—our humanity—in our churches.

Eugene Peterson says the Psalms are where we go to learn our language as it develops into maturity, as it answers God. The Psalms are fraught with humanity, giving breath to a plenary human experience. The Psalm on the lectionary for this Palm Sunday is chapter 31:6-19.  It’s a typical lament; a cry for help and complaint that moves through petition and toward a statement of trust and praise. In fact, a large portion of the Psalms could be categorized as lament. The estimates are from one third to one quarter of the Psalms falling in this category. And that word—Psalm—the Hebrew word for Psalm means “praises.” Does it seem odd to you that a book of praises would hold so many laments? Or do we need to change our definition of praise?

 And why is this Psalm a companion to Palm Sunday? It certainly lends very little triumph to the triumphal entry. But what it does do is boldly hold that tension that often so colors the human experience. A lament does the unthinkable—it holds anguish and hope side-by-side; revealing the depth of the nature of human life. The Lenten season is a time when the humanity of Jesus calls out to our own humanity.

When I read the story of the Triumphal entry, I cannot help wondering what was going through Jesus’ mind as he wrapped his legs around the soft underbelly of that donkey, the noise of the crowd ringing in his ears.  He knew what he was going to. He’d already tried to explain to his disciples on two different occasions that he was going to his death. No heavenly army swooping in, no Roman defeat, no redemption of all the years of oppression his people had faced. What was he thinking?

Jesus was fully human. It was Pilot who said it: “Behold the man!”

But do I? Behold the man? Too often I want to impose upon Jesus some kind of superpowers, but Jesus was a man. Fully God, yes, but fully human as well. How could one made of flesh and bone, one whose blood ran as hot and cold as ours, how could he withstand such horrors? How could he plead with God to take away this cup and still end by saying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will”? Jesus felt the full range of human emotions. Yet he was as close to the Father as any human could be. Anguish and hope held side-by-side.

Writer Dan Allender reminds us that “the poetry of the psalms were the hymns of the people of God. It was their song book,” he says. “it was what they sang in the temple at their worship services. The psalms are often thought to be the private poetry of people who struggled with God … [but] God intends for lament to be part of worship; and he intends for it to be done in community.”

How many times must our Lord have sung the Psalms, given his voice to lament?

Lament cuts through insincerity, unveils pretense, and leads to trust and wonder. Because true worship involves bringing every aspect of our lives before God—not ignoring the hard stuff of life, but worshipping in the midst of our struggles.

Jesus prayed a portion of Psalm 31 from the cross: Into your hands I commit my spirit … Such a beautiful statement of trust. But don’t you wonder, if he had sung this Psalm before … don’t you imagine that the rest of the Psalm was on his mind as well? And the hard stuff comes after that sweet statement of trust.

Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief …

 Jesus knew the power of lament. He knew the power of sharing sorrow publically.

At the first Refine the Retreat, one of the ladies who is an artist told us about the Japanese art of Kintsugi (or kintsukuroi). It’s a 500-year-old method for repairing broken pottery. You see, she said, in those ancient times, most families only had one good bowl or platter.  If it was broken, repair was necessary. Over time, artisans began repairing the cracks with a special lacquer mixed with gold, so that a bowl highly valued by the family may have many gold-veined lines through it. The golden seams became a sign of value, instead of disrepair. The cracks a vehicle to appreciate beauty in brokenness.

We are a flawed people living in a fallen world. But we have been healed with something far more precious than gold lacquer. We are washed in the blood of Jesus. But we remain in this in-between time—redeemed but waiting. Broken, but beloved. This is our reality: in this life, we will have troubles. If Jesus did not shy away from lament, why should we?

Our times are in your hands, O LORD. Let your face shine on your servants, save us in your unfailing love. Amen.

Blues Evangelist

We’ve returned from Memphis blues-soaked and soul-bare, stripped of all pretense. The blues can do that to you, what with roots so deep in the hard truths of human suffering. But any time I find myself poured into a sea of humanity I always emerge with a greater awareness of my own frailty. Something about rubbing shoulders with so many strangers up and down Beale Street left me with a question written on my bones.

Beale Street is a mess of neon, a seduction of the senses with all that color and noise and scent of barbeque. Music drifts from every opened door and tramps compete to charm wallets open. The air quivers with living breath, the concrete pulses a steady beat. We stayed up too late every night, breathing that air, filling our eyes and our hearts and our stomachs. There were more than 260 acts from around the world playing on Beale Street for the International Blues Challenge—the best of the best all gathered together on one street. There was music, so much music, more music than we could ever see or listen to. Through each door we entered we found delight and surprise and a gift to the spirit.

A musician once told me that creating can be a dangerous place—so much of what our culture sees as sinful can be wrapped up in the offering, that moment when the lights go low and all eyes turn to the stage. And when he said that I felt the thrill of the danger; the way I can feel music beating inside me, the pull of all that comes in with the night air.

I guess that’s why they do it, those street preachers. You know, the ones with the signs and the sandwich boards. They must feel the danger too. It must make them afraid. One night, as we made our way down Beale with throngs of other people, one of those preacher men stepped up onto a box and made a little stage for himself in the middle of the street. Lifting a sign in the air declaring the fate of all sinners, he shouted out at passers-by to repent. People filed past him on all sides, barely giving him a glance. He looked over top of the people instead of at them. He didn’t reach out to a single one.

That artist who told me creating could be dangerous? He also said “art is a liminal space.” That word, “liminal,” it means “threshold.” He was telling me that art—all beauty—creates a doorway that, when stepped into, takes us to a new place. We get to choose what that place will be. Will it be darkness or light? I believe that when we have Jesus, music—all different kinds of music—opens a doorway to a sacred space. The Celts call this a “thin place.” It’s a place where the veil between heaven and earth is a thin membrane, and the holy is felt as close as a breath on the cheek.

One of our new friends was playing in the semifinals for the IBC that night I saw the preacher on the street. It just so happened there was a Garth Brooks concert going on that evening too. As luck would have it, the concert let out just as our friend sat down to begin his set. Just he and his guitar. People began pouring into the bar, bringing with them all manner of noise and distraction. These people knew nothing about the blues competition going on. They came to drink and hang out with friends. They had no idea how nerve-shattering and exhilarating it was for our friend to make it to the semifinals. The bar was so crowded we could barely breathe without disturbing our neighbor. They just kept coming, oblivious to this big moment, filing past him on all sides, barely giving him a glance.

It was a performer’s nightmare, but our friend handled it with such grace. “God bless you all,” he said, between songs, in gratitude to the blues fans who fought their way to the front of the crowd to cheer him on. He sat on that little stage and reached out with his voice, not looking over them, but inviting them into his story by sharing songs of his life—dripping with pain and joy.

Some of the people were converted. Several folks who came from the Garth Brooks concert accepted his invitation and were drawn into the spell of the blues. A few of them filmed him with their smartphones and stopped chattering briefly to listen.

We’ve returned from Memphis blues-soaked and soul-bare, stripped of all pretense. We have heard the invitation of the blues. We stepped through the door into the light, into a sacred place.

Inauguration Day

Yesterday, according to our local weathermen, the sun came out for the first time since December 26. When Jeff got home from work, we went for a walk. I’ve been having some trouble with my back, so I couldn’t make it very far without discomfort.  When I’d had enough, Jeff went on without me and I made my way back home alone.  The sky was a fair companion and the wind shifted daubs of cumulus clouds about, rearranging the geography of heaven as I walked. Patches of azure opened and closed here and there, like pupil-less irises in the cloud sclera of sky.

I passed a row of white pines and absentmindedly plucked some needles from a bough. I lifted them to my nose and breathed in their faint scent. It was diminished by the season—tired, old. I pressed the flimsy greens between my teeth and bit down: earthy, grassy, dry.

I walked on, mouthing the needles, wondering at the day. Further along I came across an evergreen I did not recognize. It looked out of place amidst all those white pines and I was pleased to meet it.

“Hello,” I said, to be polite. “How did you end up here?” I felt a kinship with this lonely traveler on this day of days. She was a testament to my heart, a splash of truth in all the pretense.

I bent and buried my nose in a cluster of her needles. Sweet and citrusy, she offered herself to me. Her needles were long, about four inches, and in clusters—like a pine—sprayed out abundantly from the twiggy branch. The cone was open, about three inches. I plucked a cluster of needles from her upstretched arm. No sooner were they in my grasp when my fingers were sticky with the scent of orange. I bit down on acidic brightness—a fruit basket in two small stalks of green. I chewed on the resiny goodness all the way home.

This morning, in my quiet time, I read part of Luke 4. The reading took me through the temptation of Jesus (1-13), to the beginning of his ministry in Galilee (14-15), to his rejection in his home town of Nazareth (16-30). I’m reading through an old lectionary commentary, and the writer had this to say about these passages:

Today marks the midpoint of the Epiphany season, a season in which we celebrate the revelation, the manifestation (epiphania)—of God. Primarily, we celebrate how Jesus is made known—revealed to us as God’s Messiah. But something else is also revealed in this season. In this text, we, too, are made known. And we, like the congregation in Nazareth, are revealed to be a people who like to draw lines in the sand—a people with a persistent ‘we-they’ mind-set. … We can easily turn all of life into a competition—who is better than whom. …
Sometimes we would like to peg God with a certain nationality, a political party, an income level. Yet in the second half of Luke’s work, we read especially about the impartiality of God. When Peter preached about the inclusion of both Jews and Gentiles through Christ, he proclaimed, ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality’ (Acts 10:34). Literally, this reads: ‘God makes no distinction between faces.’ God does not differentiate between peoples.
No, God is not interested in faces; God is interested in hearts. Not beautiful hearts, not pure hearts, nor perfect hearts, but hearts that know their need of God …”

This morning, the sun is still shining. And I’m trying to remember to stand like my new friend—beautiful in her distinctiveness, full of grace. The freshness of such a friend can make one almost forget the pain from a tired old back, and remind to look upon this tired world with eyes of love.