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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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.

A Downy Epiphany

I awakened this morning—on Epiphany—with my lower back in full spasm. This has never happened to me before, so in ignorance I did not let it slow me down. The more I moved, the better it seemed, I convinced myself. I stretched and massaged and applied heat. I hauled baskets of laundry from the upstairs to the down. There was snow on the ground for the first time this season so I took my camera outside and snapped some pictures in the cold.

As I stood in my pajamas and boots in the snow, a downy woodpecker kept fussing at me from the Maple tree. She was trying to make a meal of the suet brick I had hung there weeks ago, but the thing was frozen solid. I watched as she pecked furiously with her short, sharp beak, to no avail. I went back inside and lugged the large bin of sunflower seeds out to fill the feeders, hoping she would indulge. I took to moving about stiffly, like a robot, and thought I was doing fine until I moved a certain way and the pain of it caused the whole of me to lock up.

I talked to my doctor and he ordered me to take it easy. Take some ibuprofen, he said. No lifting or vacuuming. I sat at the kitchen table watching the cardinals and snowbirds dip in and out of the feeders, trying to ignore the mountain of boxes stacked neatly at the bottom of the stairs—all the Christmas decorations waiting to be carried back up to the attic.

Epiphany. It means, “a sudden insight into the reality or meaning of something”. Its significance for the church is that God revealed the identity of Jesus as Messiah to those Gentile magi, instead of someone of prestige in the Jewish nation. We believe this was God’s way of showing that Jesus came for all—not just for one people—and really, this is the meaning of Epiphany—that the Lord of Lords reveals himself to each one of us in a unique and personal way.

The story of Epiphany is the story of us all—each on our own long journey through life. So this morning it seemed perfectly fitting that I should be down-in-the-back on this holy day. Forced into immobility, I was faced with the vulnerability and weakness of this body, my humanity—the very thing that Christ took on himself when he came into this world and lived among us. He came as a babe—weak and frail, vulnerable in every way. The wonder of it all fell fresh over me like the light of a new star in the sky, like the fresh-fallen snow in the back yard.

I sat at the table and I wondered and my back ached and I watched as the little downy female clung to the side of the feeder and filled her beak full of sunflowers.