The Hallowed Corners of Life

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(a reprint from deep in the archives today. Because I needed a reminder.)

There are temples all over this place.

The dining room table, the kitchen sink, underneath the pear tree, the halls I walk at the hospital where I work…no tall arches or stained glass, no austere organ music or deep mahogany. Just these hands, this body, these people I weave in and out of every day.

I remind myself of this each day—each ordinary day: the ground I walk on is holy.

On this ordinary day, my two boys are home from school on a long weekend. I’ve taken the day off of work for their well-visits with the pediatrician. Here I learn we are behind on vaccines. And my eldest still has those big holes in the top of each eardrum. And today we find out his vision is impaired too.

The doctor shakes his head. And then he starts talking about surgery for the boy’s ears. Six shots and two flu mists later, we leave, armed with an order for blood work and a referral to a local optometrist.

We get home in the late afternoon and I do laundry, try to write a little, someone has stopped up the toilet, and I’ve promised a friend to stop by with dinner for a chance to hold her beautiful new baby.

These are ordinary things. Nothing particularly compelling in the going through them. They barely warrant a mention, let alone an essay. They are the stuff of life. Ordinary. And if I am not careful, that word ordinary can trip me up—give me excuse to assign little value to these passing moments.

But here the church gives me a good model of how to view time. The liturgical year is divided into the seasons of Lent/Easter, Advent/Christmas, and Ordinary Time. In this case the term “ordinary” does not mean “usual or average.” We get the term from the Latin word ordinalis, which means to be numbered in series. Therefore, Ordinary Time is called “ordinary” simply because the weeks are numbered.

But here’s the thing: in Ordinary Time, we are not focused on a specific aspect of Christ (such as the Nativity or the Passion). Instead, we celebrate the mystery of Christ as a whole—his life, ministry, miracles, and teachings. These days are no less holy, no less important for this lack—rather, they remind us to view all of life through the lens of holy. When God took on flesh and became one of us, didn’t he elevate the dignity of human nature for us all?

We are still in Ordinary Time now, but soon, Advent will be here. I turn a sock right-side-out on this dreary afternoon and think of this: that even in the high holy seasons, the moments of my life resonate ordinary. Doesn’t Jesus touch these ordinary moments too?

… Listen to your life,” Frederick Buechner tells me. “See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” (Buechner, Now and Then)

Life itself is grace. How else could we handle the news of the pediatrician? How else are we to handle the sick parents, the loss of that job, the dream left unrealized, or the plodding through of the same?

There is holy in the everyday moments; there is worship in the hallowed corners of my life. And there is nothing ordinary about that.

A variation of this article originally appeared at The High Calling.

The Loneliest Star

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Yesterday was the first day of autumn and I can feel the way the earth is moving. Our two hemispheres receive the sun’s rays equally for a spell—night and day stand side-by-side, neither one outreaching the other. We call it the equinox—from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). Only it doesn’t feel equal to me. The morning is slow in coming and evening slips down over the horizon too quickly. The sun is stingy with her light and the days bleed moments before we can wrap them up.

There was a time when people were more in tune with the rhythms of nature, when the sky was their clock and calendar. We see this evidenced in ancient man-made structures such as the Intihuatana Stone at Machu Picchu in Peru. This unassuming stone structure has been shown to precisely date the equinoxes and other celestial events. The word intihuatana means “for tying the sun.” The shadow the stone casts tracks the journey of the sun across the sky throughout the year.

The night sky, too, announces autumn, with certain constellations moving into prominent view. But also, there rises in the southern sky what some call the “Loneliest Star.” This star, also known as the “Autumn Star,” or the “Lonely One” is thus called because it is the only bright star in that part of the sky this time of year. Its formal name is Fomalhaut, which comes from the Arabic Fum al Hut, meaning “mouth of the fish.” Fomalhaut, the Lonely One, is the brightest star in Piscis Austrinus (the Southern Fish).

Last night, I went outside and stood facing south and searched the horizon for the brightest star. Fomalhaut did, indeed, look lonely in the broad expanse of night sky. As I stood under that twinkling canopy, I felt a kinship with the Lonely One. I have spoken before of the longing that autumn evokes. That sweet yearning pulled at my heartstrings urgently as I stood alone among the song of cicadas and crickets. Sometimes this feeling of emptiness can feel big enough to swallow me whole. The urge to fall into that well of darkness is strong at times.

In Romans chapter 13 the apostle Paul says, “The night is nearly over. The day is almost here. Live in the light.” He is telling us we have a choice to make. Spiritually speaking, in this tired world, it’s not yet day, and it’s not quite night: both are right here, within our grasp. Two ways of life. And even though we may have chosen the way of light, the darkness is still very present—clings to our skin like the damp air of night.

I think the ancient people, with their keen awareness of the rhythms of nature, understood the dueling forces of dark and light much better than we. I’m trying to notice the rhythms built into this good earth more. I feel the lightness of each leaf I see fall from my maples in the back yard. I study the way of the honeybee, knee deep in the goldenrod. I watch the birds and butterflies shed a new season as they flock southerly.

But I am earthbound—no winging out of this for me. Still, I make a choice. A choice to see this longing inside of me as something good, something made of light. A longing for life the way our good God intended it to be.

Autumn

on the bright wing
of morning
I touch the hem

of dawn;
soar through stardust
and dew as light

spreads like
spilled milk, slowly
blinding the eyes

of heaven, light
upon light,
trembling like

a bird preparing
for flight. my body
blooms until all

the sky and I are
one diaphanous
blue wing.

Garden Notes: A Harvest to Remember (and a winner!)

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If he was still alive, my Grandpa Phillips would have turned 118 today. Born in 1898, he died in 1999 just before his 101st birthday. Our Jeffrey, who carries Grandpa’s name as his middle (“I want to name the baby after you,” I told him. “What’s your middle name?” He laughed and said, “I wasn’t important enough to have a middle name.” So, Jeffrey Ray it is.) wasn’t quite four months old when this part of his namesake passed. They met only one time before Grandpa fell ill. I have a picture of Grandpa beaming, a bundle of baby in his arms. Grandpa was a stubborn, independent, loving soul. He lived alone until the last year of his life. Even when arthritis and vertigo plagued him, he resisted moving in with my aunt as long as he could. He lived life on his own terms—farmer, father of nine, lover of automobiles and babies—I still miss him sometimes. His wife—my Grandma—died when I was five years old. He lived another 25 years without his beloved. One time I asked him why he never remarried. “I didn’t want anyone but my old woman,” he said, tears in his eyes.

When I was a little girl, Grandpa had the biggest, most beautiful garden. I remember staring wide-eyed at his strawberries every summer; I remember Grandma’s well-stocked pantry of home-canned goods.

Last night, I pulled up what was left of my pole beans. They were still producing, petite white blooms speaking promise here and there. But the Mexican bean beetles had made lace out of every heart shaped leaf on the vine. I spent two hours pulling up the beans by root, searching out the beetle larvae and destroying it. Then I cleared the bed of any leaf debris, hoping to deter any overwintering beetles.

It’s been a bad summer for my garden. As I looked out over my little patch of land I wondered if Grandpa ever had such a sad harvest. Something inside me felt like I’d let him down. I’ve had little energy to nurture the tender shoots of growing things these past few months. I’ve had little energy for much other than what is required.

This week our women’s group begins a new Bible study on the life of Nehemiah. In preparation I’ve been reading through that book of the Bible, freshening my memory to the details of Nehemiah’s story. Nehemiah felt moved to leave a prestigious position in Susa to lead the Jews in rebuilding the city walls of Jerusalem. At one point, in fear of attack from their enemies, Nehemiah says,

From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried material did their worked with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. … Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.” (Neh. 4:16-18, 23)

How does one rebuild a thing while constantly standing guard? When you can’t even take a drink of water for fear of being ambushed by one thing or another?

Did my grandfather ever stand looking out over the garden of his life and wonder if what he was building would ever hold up? He lived through the Great Depression, two world wars, the struggle for civil rights, free love, and raising nine kids. His oldest son was a prisoner of war during the Korean Conflict, for Pete’s sake. His youngest son married at age 18—to a 16-year-old girl (my mother). He lost his wife of 53 years to cancer. And remained faithful to a memory for another 25.

And yet, in my memory he is always smiling.

The word remember is mentioned frequently in the book of Nehemiah. I’m paying attention to that. Today I’m remembering my Grandpa—Ray Phillips. And remembering feels like a rich harvest.

The winner of Laurie Klein’s beautiful book of poetry, Where the Sky Opens is Dolly! Yay, Dolly :). I’ll be in touch soon :).

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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.