Exile

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This morning I awakened in the kind of pain that makes it difficult to move. I knew what it was, knew what was needed, and so for the second time in ten years, I called in to work to let them know I would be staying home today. I’ve been resting, using ice, and stretching. I am doing better—still moving gingerly, but better. My friend Shelly says that if we neglect our Sabbath time, sometimes we will enter into a time of forced Sabbath. I must admit this feels good—to stay in my PJs late into the morning, listen to my body and heed its call.

The truth is, work has been hard lately. Just yesterday I suffered a bit of disillusion after an exchange with some of my colleagues. Sometimes a system can feel too big to change unless we work together, and often the people we serve take the brunt of this kind of stagnation. Sometimes a system can feel so big that individuals get caught up in their own agendas and resist working together for change because it might require much. I feel myself being pulled toward this way. Yesterday, in a very small way, I felt like Jeremiah—my voice falling on empty ears. It was a hard place to be and I didn’t like it. So, this morning I am resting my tender heart, collecting the manna of this moment.

Eugene Peterson defines exile as “being where we don’t want to be with people we don’t want to be with.” Of course, he was speaking of the Jewish exiles in Babylon at first, but he is skillful to draw a quick parallel to our lives today. That’s how I felt yesterday. Like I was in exile.

When the Israelites are in Babylon, Jeremiah sends them a letter from Jerusalem. “Build houses and make yourselves at home,” he says. “Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. Marry and have children. … Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.”

“The aim of a person of faith,” says Peterson, “is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love.”

Today it feels like I am hiding from the reality of life. But tomorrow? I pray I will be able to jump back in, to “discover truth, create beauty, act out love.” I will continue in this discovery of what it means to belong to God in this place I do not want to be.

Exile.

 

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.

 

Thoughts on Work, Sabbath, and Eugene Peterson

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Outside my window the world glistens, all shined up by an early morning rain. And Jeffrey is singing as he gets ready for school. It’s a melody I can’t quite make out but one I know well. Band competition season is over and he feels lighter, freer, excited about the opening up of time before him.

This past weekend, the high school marching band traveled to Hershey, PA (the sweetest place on earth) for their last big hoopla and the homecoming was a deep sigh of satisfaction. Job well done.

Yesterday, he went to get his hair cut.

“It’s a new beginning,” he said to me, practically floating off the ground.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Sabbath in these recent weeks. Our little Bible study group has been reading Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton and last week our chapter was on keeping Sabbath. One thing Barton talks about is the shift Christians made from the Jewish Saturday Sabbath to Sunday.

In the Christian church we have shifted our day of worship to Sunday in order to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection weekly; it’s a great idea, but something has certainly gotten lost in the translation. Most Christians don’t even think about the resurrection on a normal Sunday…”

This struck me as a hard truth and I wondered what would happen to our ideas about Sabbath if we held the resurrection nearer and dearer. I wondered what that might look like in our busy, workaholic, secularized, excessive, stuff-drenched lives.

Jeffrey’s simple joy at a job well-done convicted me of how little I set aside time to contemplate my own work. How often do I use my slow time to thank God for the work he has invited me into?

I wrote a chapter on Sabbath in my own book too, and the words I penned are still taking root in my soul. In Playdates with God I quote Eugene Peterson from a Q ideas interview with Gabe Lyons. In the interview, Peterson says we struggle to set healthy boundaries in our work because we want to be like God.

Work is not a bad thing. God appears in the pages of scripture as a worker, and he works for a whole week before he takes a break and rests. … Work is a great gift and is part of the whole business of living the Christian life. Jesus was a worker and grew up as a carpenter. So one of the things we can do as Sabbath-keepers is give dignity to work.”

But we conveniently forget that an imitation of God involves resting.

“Every day is a Sabbath day,” my pastor said in Bible study last week. “If you look at scripture, you see that God ended every day but the Sabbath.”

What does that mean for my life?

What if I saw Sabbath not as a break from work, but as a part of it? What if I saw work as a part of Sabbath? What if these two things that appear so separate are really two sides of the same coin? When I set aside time to consider my work, it gives room for that deep sigh of satisfaction, the joy of beginning again each week.

This gives new meaning to the work I do. It opens the eyes to the unfolding of all moments as holy.

And it fills me with joy. In fact, I might just get a haircut today.

Each day a new beginning.

 

 

What Does a Writer’s Retreat Teach? Or, Hobnobbing with Madeleine and Eugene

We were sitting around a table overlooking the Frio River, listening to Jeffrey Overstreet talk about how artful story invites the reader inside—invites the reader to discover what the story has to say to them—when he paused and had us go around the table and introduce ourselves.

My friend Marcus was seated to my right, Claire to my left, but the others were new faces. There was a retired photographer, two persons of the cloth, a young college student, an elderly woman, and Jeannie.

When it was Jeannie’s turn, she spoke about the nonfiction books she had written over the years, about coming to Laity Lodge to write, and about her dear, dear friend Madeline L’Engle. Immediately, my shoes felt too big.

We all tried to pretend like it was nothing but all the while, I’m thinking…Madeleine L’Engle! When I was a girl, this dear woman’s books opened up a whole new world to me. A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet … Jeannie’s casual namedropping sent me into a reverie of wistfulness, remembering the joy of discovering a series of books that aroused a deep awakening in my young self. How I loved Charles Wallace and Meg. They taught me through their story that anything is possible. And who wrapped science around fantasy in such a way? I’d never read science fiction before. I didn’t know people wrote like that.

We took a break and I went to the restroom and was startled to find Lauren Winner washing her hands and Ashley Cleveland exiting the stall. What’s more, they greeted me casually, engaged in a bit of small talk before going on their way. Back at our open-air table, I tell Marcus.

“I can’t believe she referred to Madeleine L’Engle as her dear, dear friend!”

He shrugs his shoulders.

“And Eugene Peterson writes here all the time.”

“Eugene Peterson? Really?” I am a bit star-struck. “But that makes me feel so … small.”

Marcus laughs.

Why? I don’t understand that. That should make you feel special not small. You’re here too. Laity Lodge is for everyone.”

I tell him about running into Ashley and Lauren in the restroom.

Right,” he says. “Because they use the bathroom too.”

We laugh but I am quieted a bit inside. Later, I walk down the road with my friends Verbieann and Ann (who has since become a New York Times bestselling author) and tell them the story. I turn Marcus’ words around in my mind.

Am I special? I mean, just because I haven’t held court with writers like Madeleine L’Engle or Eugene Peterson…does that mean there is no value in the words I share? My friend Elaine was recently at a conference in which the speaker posed the question, How do your words help solve the problem of pain? I’ve been thinking about that. Wondering. And I remember the young girl I was—wrapped in the pain of a broken family, uncertainty of self—and I know the question goes deeper than it appears at first glance.

Though Madeleine L’Engle’s story about a young misfit girl and her brilliant little brother and how they rescue their father using a tesseract and all the amazing things they encounter in the process…though these words may not appear to address the problem of pain directly, they surely helped to save a young girl who was drowning in it when she first encountered them.

I think about these things all these months after my conversation with my wise friend Marcus. I am learning to embrace myself as word-giver. It still feels fragile—I’m still self-conscious and clumsy. But when I look back, I see that time at Laity Lodge as a pivotal step in this acquiescence. Because Laity Lodge is for everyone. My time there was like a warm embrace; I was cradled in that canyon. Everyone there was someone special. This is because that riverbed and those canyon walls are saturated with the presence of God. Dan Roloff told us that the place was built to provide a place where people can encounter God. While there, I felt the breath of my Creator, I felt loved as a favorite child.

The truth is, we should feel this way no matter where we are, no matter what we do. But sometimes, gravity gets in the way and our earthbound nature blinds us to who we truly are. Laity Lodge is a place of transcendence for me.

We are gearing up for the retreat again this year. I’ll be there. Won’t you consider it too? There is a chance you could go for free. I’d love to meet you there. Would even share that table overlooking the Frio with you.