Manna (and a giveaway)

The poplars are yellowing and turning brown around the edges. Soon the rest of the trees will follow suit. Chaucer is credited with saying, “Time and tide wait for no man” but I’m sure he must have been paraphrasing the wind. How long has mankind lamented the quick passing of the seasons? Moments disappear so rapidly these days that I celebrate the tiniest of accomplishments.

When we were in New Orleans on our family vacation back in July, Jeffrey wanted to go to The Museum of Death. I know, right? Morbid. He’s always had a curious mind and since we encourage him to stay curious, his dad and I consented. We walked our two sons up to Dauphine Street where the museum was but declined to participate in the tour. As Jeff and I strolled back to the hotel, we passed a little gallery. All the colorful paintings caught my eye and as I window-shopped, I noticed some movement behind the locked door. Before I knew it, a Boston Terrier approached the glass front where we stood gawking and tilted his head to the side, questioning our interest in his space.

Well, you know how I feel about Boston Terriers.

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Enough said.

We did what we call “Scooby talk” extensively to this gentle sir through the glass. Finally, his owners came into the room and unlocked the door so we could make over their boy in person. His name was Tyson and he was a rescue dog. He was recovering from a terrible case of heartworm disease, but he seemed healthy and happy during out little visit. Long story short, his daddy was the artist in residence of the little gallery, Martin Welch. We loved his work so much we ended up buying three prints and some notecards.

Since my father-in-law’s death, the prints have been sitting on the kitchen counter—waiting to find a home on our walls. I mentioned recently how I’m working on my imagination. I’ve been taking a poetry class online. I made a new friend, who is also a poet and her words have become part of my morning prayers. This song has been singing to my heart. I’ve recently dusted off my water colors. And these prints now grace my walls.

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This is the tiny accomplishment I celebrate today.

I once heard an artist say that “The purpose of art and religion are the same: Transformation.”

“Art creates space,” he said. “Effective art creates a liminal space …”

That word, “liminal?” It means “threshold.” This friend was telling me that art—beauty—creates a doorway that, when stepped into, takes us to a new place where transformation is more likely to occur. 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.

As I listened to him talk about the ways the arts make a space for transformation, I realized how mysterious this process is. Who can name the many ways a heart might be moved? We were created in God’s image, and thus, creating is part of who we are at the deepest level.

For me, art is manna. My daily bread.

I want to celebrate that by giving away a copy of my friend Laurie’s book of poetry: Where the Sky Opens. Leave a comment by Tuesday evening, September 20st for a chance to win and I’ll announce the lucky one Wednesday morning.

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.

 

A Gentle Return

 

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At dawn our little valley sleeps under a fog-threaded blanket, hidden in folds of white and gray. The hills surrounding my home drift in and out of sight, rolling over in their forested bed before opening to the day. I return from taking Bonnie out with dew-stained cheeks, kissed by the morning.

This past weekend I met up with a group of poets and writers—musicians, friends, beauty-givers—and am still mulling over our time together. We read poetry out loud, danced, and found a home inside words and laughter shared.  We were staying at a place once called the eighth wonder of the world and even the ground we walked on held stories. It was a safe place, though not always a comfortable place for this solitary spirit of mine, and I let the hard questions linger on the edge of my mind longer than I usually do. I had a tough conversation with a mentor, the woman who probably did more to help shape my writing voice than anyone. I left our talk unsettled, with no answers, only these: (1) the knowledge that sometimes life sets us in hard places and (2) the feeling that I had been seen. Wisdom challenges me to stop whining and start following my bliss in every moment. It sounds so simple, does it not? Perhaps it is when one is surrounded by artists and soul-friends. The bravery is carrying that inspiration into my every day.

During one of our conversations this weekend I shared some thoughts about this TED talk. It’s one I frequently watch with the patients I counsel at the hospital where I work. The speaker is Aimee Mullins, a champion athlete, model, actress, and advocate, who just happens to be a double amputee. The talk is entitled “The Opportunity of Adversity.” In it, Aimee says, “Everyone has something rare and powerful to offer our society.” And,

… Implicit in this phrase of overcoming adversity is the idea that success or happiness is about emerging on the other side of a challenging experience unscathed or unmarked by the experience. As if my successes in life have come about from an ability to sidestep or circumnavigate the presumed pitfalls of a life with prosthetics or what other people perceive as my disability. When, in fact, we are changed. We are marked, of course, by a challenge. Whether it is physically, emotionally, or both. I’m going to suggest this is a good thing … Maybe the idea I want to put out there is not so much overcoming adversity, as it is opening ourselves up to it, embracing it, grappling with it … maybe even dancing with it …”

Times of sharing soul-thoughts and deep conversations have a way of tenderizing the heart, heightening the senses, and opening us up to possibility. This morning, the things I have chafed up against in this one wild and precious life feel less like obstacles and more like dancing partners. In the past couple years, we’ve navigated Major Depression, the loss of treasured work, sending our eldest son off to college, an increase in the demands of other work, the illness and subsequent death of a loved one, a book release, death of beloved family dog, and a change in career paths for the major bread winner in the family. Our life is not uncommon, but it is uncommonly ours. We have been changed. We have been marked. This morning I feel the truth of this settle into my skin as surely as the fog moistens my countenance. And I am opening my heart to the possibility that this is not a bad thing. I am beginning the first slow steps of the dance.

The way the fog slowly unveils the day feels good, a gentle return.

Everything Over the Sun

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Every morning I look out the kitchen window to the clearing in the meadow. I long for a glimpse of the spotted fawns we saw frolicking; I wonder about them: where are they? Are they safe? Will their spots disappear as quickly as the baby fat on my boys? Will they snack on the tenderettes in my garden tonight? I watch the golden rod bend over, heavy with nectar, and for the bazillionth time puzzle over how quickly time dissolves—like sugar in warm water—until all that is left is the memory of sweetness.

Last night, I took my son out shopping for some things he needs for his dorm. He begins his second year of college next week. Second year. When did that happen? I’ve grown used to having him home again. I’ve grown used to sweeping up his long red hair from the kitchen floor, to his shy smile greeting me when I return home from work in the evening.

So I wanted to buy him some better towels this year—fluffy towels to hug his body in softness when I cannot. He needs a new shower caddy and desk lamp, some underwear and perhaps a smarter pair of shoes—if I can talk him into it. So we set out on our quest only to be foiled by a terrible accident on the interstate. A semi hauling Resees cups east crossed the median and ran into another semi traveling west, erupting into a ball of flames. One truck driver was killed and several others injured. The interstate was closed for hours and traffic poured into our little valley—people trying to find an alternate way home. We were trapped in gridlock, stuck in a sea of vehicles along our little valley road. Instead of shopping, we pulled into a local restaurant and dined together, hoping the traffic would be cleared when we finished. As we ate, I prayed for the victims of the accident. I prayed for the truck drivers and their families, for those stuck in traffic. As I prayed silently, the sky opened up and rain thrummed the roof above us, poured down on the firefighters trying to extinguish the flames of burning diesel, on the people waiting in long streams of traffic, on our little valley that stood witness to it all.

We decided to try to find a shower caddy another day.

This morning, when I drove to work, all that was left of the accident was a mangled guard rail and some heavy equipment that must have been used to remove the debris. All along the interstate, for miles and miles, semi-trucks were parked along the side of the road—the drivers forced to sleep where they were due to a closed roadway. As I passed the site of the accident, trucks behind me and trucks before, I felt I was entering sacred ground. And these brother truck drivers stood sentinel, a testament to the fragility of our human lives.

In my Bible study this week, the author talks about how King Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun” a lot in the book of Ecclesiastes. As in “there is nothing new under the sun” or “the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.” Wiersbe says, “It defines the outlook of the writer as he looks at life from a human perspective and not necessarily from heaven’s point of view.” Solomon was so wise and gifted. And I wonder if he was really saying that it is only when we take account of that which is over the sun can we fully live into this life we are given.

So many things under the sun can discourage and disappoint. A tragic accident, the way time slips through my fingers, saying goodbye to my boy again … All of these things matter. The things that happen in this life matter. They matter to the world; they matter to God. This life matters. We are not simply here to wait for a better way. Scripture tells us Jesus came so that we might have abundant life. But this life is nestled into a bigger story. These hardships in this life, when taken in context of the bigger story, allow our hearts to be prospered—to grow richer and deeper and abundant in love. But only when I am able to keep an eternal perspective—to think on things over the sun—am I able to feel the fullness of the sadness but also of joy.

When life feels meaningless, I will remember. There is a bigger story. And I am a part of it.

West Virginia Morning: Everything Under the Sun

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This morning, before the sun burned the dew off the grass, we saw three little spotted fawns exploring the meadow behind our house. Last night, our neighbor cleared out a small patch of brambly mélange and mowed down the unruly mess of goldenrod, queen Anne’s lace, and ironweed into a smooth bed of grass. The trio seemed to delight in the freedom to feel out their gangly legs, leaping about and staring over the fence at us in curiosity. I was reminded of the Cultural Mandate—God’s call to us to cultivate the earth, to make it more beautiful. Even our little deer friends appreciate the bringing of order to chaos. Who knew these dear ones were hidden in such a mass of brush?

Meanwhile, I still struggle to bring some order to my own tiny world, internally and externally. Our little town is having a city-wide yard-sale tomorrow and the band boosters are collecting donations for a fundraiser. So I’ve been picking through the attic and basement, looking through twenty years of “oh, I may need this one day” and “I hate to throw this out” items. Items I haven’t given a thought to until this moment. Strange how we hold on to things, is it not? And funny how a little time can give the distance needed to open the hand.

This morning, I started a new Bible study on the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s called Be Satisfied. I was scrolling through my kindle library and it caught my eye because … well, because I haven’t been. Yesterday, in conversation with a new friend, I found myself saying some things that surprised me when describing my life to her. Later in the day, as I reflected on our conversation, I knew I needed some good medicine. The kind of medicine only Truth can give.

Author Warren W. Wiersbe tells me that when Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes,

“he called himself ‘the Preacher’ … The Hebrew word is koheleth (ko-HAY-leth) and is the title given to an official speaker who calls an assembly … . The Greek word for ‘assembly’ is ekklesia, and this gives us the English title of the book, Ecclesiastes. … The word koheleth carries with it the idea of debating, not so much with the listeners as with himself. He would present a topic, discuss it from many viewpoints, and then come to a practical conclusion. …”

Solomon is arguing with himself. I’ve been doing a lot of this lately myself. It doesn’t make for good sleep. I heard a thunderstorm rush through this morning at five a.m. My heart and body were stirred enough to bring me to rise and watch out the window as our little valley received a good scrubbing. An hour later I grabbed my camera and tried to frame up a memory of rain. My lens kept fogging up and the heat was already creeping down my back and my feet quickly grew soggy in the wet grass. These days, nothing seems to go as I hope, nothing seems to measure up to the pictures I paint in my mind.

Dissatisfied.

In the introduction to Be Satisfied, Pastor Ken Baugh gives three principles echoed throughout the book of Ecclesiastes:

Principle 1: I will be satisfied to the extent that I see everything I have as a gift from God.

Principle 2: I will be satisfied to the extent that I notice what is going on in the lives of others.

Principle 3: I will be satisfied to the extent that I trust God during times of distress.

It’s too early in my reading to recommend the study, but I feel hopeful. The lesson this morning was only on the first three verses and already I’m encouraged. I’ll try to keep you in the loop about what I’m learning and reflecting on as I read and examine everything “under the sun”.