Where are you going to. . . . Do you know?

In the days or perhaps months before the roaring fire sacralizes those golden crimson, eggplant-purple feathers, how does that gorgeously plumed flier feel after 500 years in one location?

Nervous? Excited? Sad? I vote for sad. No matter what joy may come from loss, loss is still not gain. First, it is just loss.

But I still prefer to build my own nest of twigs.

And because I flex my invisible wings deep down, where the heat of new life lies sleeping, after some time of living in one place, my nest and I ignite, and both of us become Ash Wednesday,

that hushed, sooty first step to Easter Sunday,

and anyone who has known the pain of individuation has stumbled over that uneven ground through the extinguished light of crucifixion, all the while tasting the bitter, black grieving of many Good Fridays.

There are always choices. We can choose the honesty of true blindness that is the birth of new sight.

We can choose to lose Our way in order to find the Way.

We can say, “No,” to those who (unaware of our favorite color or how we take our coffee) think they know what is good for us, and who request we follow them because they are convinced they are right, and instead we can say, “Yes,” to the only Good, God, whose beauty and love are irresistible, especially incarnated. We fall in love with this handsome, charming, utterly reliable, totally original, exceptionally kind, thoroughly loyal, amazingly wise, sometimes angry, abruptly truthful, and wonderfully sensitive Man.

I drop the nets of how I like to fish for security. I welcome the Holy Spirit with his matchless ardor into the home of my own soul.

Perhaps the Phoenix learns every 500 years how to better nourish herself. Embracing the liberating experience of feeding her own soul, she can befriend her own heart, she can happily accept gifts of love from those she flies close to, and she marvels to feel the peace that she always wanted.

God loves you. God loves me.

God says, “Come to me, all you who are weary.”

To learn something new about flying is what every day is for.

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Vision: “The Faculty or State of Being Able To See”

I have been thinking about vision. Today in my Ford F-150, I drove past four deeply red maple trees, and as it was raining and gray-skied, the view of those trees out my rain-washed window was like a gorgeous abstract painting.

My mother-in-law is a painter, a published poet, and an excellent cook of curries and steamed jasmine rice and homemade chicken pot pie and warm scones that invite butter, real cream, and strawberry jam. She paints as deliciously as she cooks, and in diverse styles, creating some wonderful paintings of our family, and also her beautiful abstract paintings linger in my mind like lines from The Four Quartets. Two of her paintings hung in the Royal Academy in London.

Mum’s painting convinces me that seeing is to looking the way listening is to hearing. In both instances, there is the difference of attention. I love that word attention. It creates an image in my mind, of someone “stretching” (tendere) “towards” (ad-) another, the way a husband or friend or student or counselor will do, closing the gap, by listening.

What I have for some time been reflecting on is how each of us has different ways of seeing the world. Each of us has various filters through which we view our days. When we are anxious, as so many of us are, our vision often narrows. When we are feeling loved and are making supper, wild rice mix from Harry’s in water in a steamer pot can be a vision of beauty with its various colors, brown, black, gray, and some little unidentified but healthy-looking green and also white pea-shaped spheres.

I was thinking how depression is one filter, the death of someone we love is another, a physical injury or a bodily illness is another, a broken or strained relationship is another lens, abuse is another, a childhood of abandonment is another, being bullied is another, being rejected is another, and poverty is a lens; while being in love is another (all those kisses and sparkly rings and new-love holding-of-hands), graduating is another, having a baby is another, closing on a home is another, and traveling is another; and losing a job is a filter, betrayal is a filter, a promotion is a filter, and even a good night’s sleep or a bad case of indigestion alters our point of view.

I am trying to remember that the person loading sixty-six items onto the conveyor belt in Kroger in the “15 Items or Less” line may have a filter of some kind of hardship that I cannot know just by looking at him or her.

One semester I had a student for whom I often prayed, saying, “Lord, what do I do about this student?” for this student was often late, often had a flimsy-sounding excuse, and was often offering work that I thought could have easily been much better. But I prayed, and without knowing why, found the patience to encourage this student. Recently, out-of-the blue, I learned something heartbreaking about this student, and I was thankful for the patience given me to be kind to him/her.

I remember how in Mr. God, This Is Anna, Anna tells Fynn that God doesn’t have a point of view but points to view.

But the rest of us, mere mortals, do have points of view that are constantly shifting, a kaleidoscope of views over a lifetime, or even on any given day. May we find the moment-by-moment mercy for each other that we wish others would feel for us.

And another prayer for my own life is that my filter of gratitude might grow each day so that I become an increasingly kinder and more thankful person.

Soðlice.

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‘Tis a Gift To Be Free

My friend Cathy Griffin had an interesting status update this week on gratitude. Challenged by her pastor to make an alphabetized list of thankfulness, she wrote: “I am thankful for air-conditioning, babies, Christmas, dancing, ears, family, grapes, hydrangeas, imagination, Jesus, knees, liberty, miracles, nuts, otters, prayers, quiet, rain, sympathy, tilapia, understanding, violets, watermelon, xanthous, yogurt, and zinnias.”

In my experience, being grateful is a discipline because I would sometimes so much rather wallow in my own anger or outrage or sense of injustice or hurt or confusion rather than thanking God for, well, existing and for loving me and for the fact that I, too, have the great miracle of existing. While the first half of my life was spent trying to learn how to pray without ceasing, the second half of my life is about learning to praise God just for being God.

As a child sitting on one of those hard wooden pews, I first heard a preacher exhort the congregation to take 1 Thessalonians 5:17 seriously, and somehow those three words: “Pray without ceasing” caught my childhood imagination. Even though the notion seems impossible, the impossible challenge has always seemed the most worthwhile to me because even if you don’t reach it exactly, you get so much in the trying.

Along the journey that 1 Thessalonians 5:17 began, other verses became prominent–especially Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God,” and Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”

I have spent countless hours obsessing over these verses (I think the more uplifting term is “ruminating”), but what I mean by “obsessing” is “redirecting my obsessing mind in a good way towards Scripture,” making me a struggling (ongoing) example of how God can turn a human weakness (obsessing mind) into a strength (ruminating heart).

I lived with these verses (about ceaseless praying, resting in God, and coming to Christ) during hard days growing up, and eventually it seemed to me that praying without ceasing, being still, learning Who God is, coming to Him (weary and burdened), and yearning for His rest became all one and the same activity.

I cannot say that I ever learned to pray without ceasing, but the desire to pray without ceasing has not left me; and that desire means a lot to me because in it I feel God’s loving presence. And when life overwhelms me and when I do not feel God’s presence, the discipline of listening for God in the Silence of Scripture rumination has helped me know that God never leaves me, whether I can feel Him there or not. It is the comfort of trust, born of the practice of turning my emotions and thoughts over to Christ.

I do not even have to be especially good at this, which is a great relief for someone as type-A as I was and still sometimes am. All I have to do is to turn to God when I feel at the end of my abilities to handle some dark situation or painful problem or when I am unable to express my happiness in so many ineffable blessings; so in the middle of my messiest messes, deep-seated anger, penetrating hurt, soaring joys, confusion, and wonder, I turn to God. Sometimes my “turning to God” is the merest desire; sometimes it is a large, loud cry of help or joy. But the only thing that counts is that desire. Even when it is weak or disordered by panic, it counts; God hears me, even when my soul’s voice is reduced to a whisper by pride or anger or hurt. My inner life has begun to resemble the Psalms, that kind of unvarnished dialogue with God.

That early desire to learn how to pray without ceasing keeps me talking with and listening to Christ, and it keeps me in the Scripture. Most of all, it keeps my soul ruminating on the same words on which Christ ruminated in the Old Testament, and it keeps me steeping in the Gospels also and in the other writings of the New Testament.

Although gratitude is a sometimes hard, often wonderful, always essential exercise to me, I’m not talking about embracing a Pollyanna kind of denial, which habitually cannot accept the difficulties of life and so ignores them in an attempt to cope, putting a smile on any hardship without actually acknowledging reality. I am talking about the kind of gratitude we find in the Psalms that often arises out of the honest struggle to understand life’s unfairnesses, suffering, and doubt and that always does so by dialoguing with God.

Praising God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the Bible’s main theme, or so it now seems to me. Praising God is also the leitmotif of Hildegard of Bingen and of nearly all of the medieval and ancient Christians whose writings captivate my soul. Yet Hildegard did not have an exactly rosy life. She was often sick. She likely had ocular migraines and other medical issues; perhaps she suffered from depression, too, although if so, it did not slow her down much. She found the strength in Christ not to be immobilized but instead to be one of the most dynamic followers of Christ that has ever lived.

Hildegard had something I want. An authentic walk with Christ, a real friendship with God, a vibrant dialogue with the Holy Spirit: that is how Hildegard lived.

Craving authenticity as a human being who is a follower of Christ, I question (on this quest) if the discipline of praising God might be synonymous with true freedom. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing said that God wants to be loved and praised for Himself alone, not for the blessings for which we give Him thanks. That is not unlike the way I love my husband because he is who he is (and this who he is forever is an unfolding mystery to me). My husband is very kind to me and loves me through and through, so I could also list the many wonderful, concrete ways that he enhances my quality of life; but I love him above all “just because.”

So during the journey that is the second half of my life, I’m giving myself a few decades to chew on these words of Scripture as I am pleased to continue my lifelong dialogue with God: “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting” (Psalm 118:1).

Selah.

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Dreams Unwind

I feel very fortunate to do what I do. Students teach me so much every day. The challenge of communicating from my perspective to theirs and back is one of the greatest joys I have ever known. They say I am a teacher, but really from my view, I am a listener. Or I try to be. Listening to students is what I remind myself to do every day. I also remind myself throughout the day that listening requires not-talking, and I pray not to form opinions too quickly but to listen just to listen first. Non-utilitarian listening is an adventure, something new every day. It is like a perpetual springtime for the ears and heart.

Listening is hard, and it is worth it. Always.

I am also fortunate to be able to write. My first essay in a freshman Honors English course got a D-. I wasn’t sure what was worse, the D or the minus. I had never made a D, much less one with a – attached. I was understandably crushed and then mad, at first, but even more terrible than the grade was that when I read the professor’s comments on my essay, I could see that she had actually been quite generous in the grade. I began to be grateful for her honesty, though I had no idea how I would survive the course, until I heard she graded largely on improvement, and I reckoned that no matter how bad my essays were, I could improve them if I worked hard enough.

I have always loved to read; it saved my life in many ways. So writers were heroes to me, even when I was a child.

That joy in reading did not, however, translate immediately into joy in writing. Someone wise once said that often it is more pleasurable to have written than it is to write. I used to feel that way, too.

Whoever first compared writing to carpentry was brilliant. I have hammered and sawed my way through enough home projects to know that writing is just like that. But for decades, in my writing experiences I missed the nail. I kept hitting the thumb or the forefinger of words and nicking my own hand instead of slicing a clean edge across the grain of my thoughts. Words pushed me around.

There were so many of them I didn’t know. Reader’s Digest word tests were overwhelming then. But when I discovered etymology in college, words started becoming my friends. When I learned words had stories, just as people have stories, all words lost their scariness for me and became fascinating treasures. I learned that no matter how long a word, it merely usually held many smaller words.

And slowly I gave words their space and their boundaries, and writing changed for me. It stopped feeling as if words pushed me around because I no longer thought of writing as making words do what I wanted. I thought how in writing I wanted to dance with words. Dancing is never about one partner dominating another but is about joy in movement, joy in companionship, and joy in music.

So one day I realized in the marrow of my own fingers that, like everything else important in life, writing, too, is about relationships. Writing is relational, even though the actual writing itself takes place in a rather solitary fashion. Writing is about the relationship between the writer and words, between the word and various dictionaries, between the word and its different historical meanings and uses, between this word and that word in a paragraph, and between the reader and words.

Friends don’t push each other around, and slowly over time my new friends, words, and I began to dance.

Next, I thought that one day when I really knew how to write, I would get each sentence right the first time. But that has never been true for me. I was thinking how authentic, thriving intimacy is always undergoing revision. Relationships flower in the soil of forgiveness. This is where revising comes in strong. Revising is often considered the process by which the writer takes the flaws out of his or her work, as if flaws are something odd to find in writing (or in a relationship). But revising is not a separate act from writing.

Like forgiveness in any intimate relationship, revising is the very essence of writing. For who is not flawed? What relationship is not flawed? What writing is not flawed? There is much freedom for me in embracing the truth that being flawed is part of the human condition. One can focus better on the joy in relationships (and the joy in writing) when one is not obsessed with one’s own weakness; at least that is my experience. Also, I am freer to be open to changing when I know that being flawed doesn’t make me wrong. It makes me human.

Also, in a friendship of many years, trust develops, the way a writer begins to trust the process of writing. I remember the day when I realized that feeling smart of even feeling writerly was not the needed ingredient; they were inconsequential. It did not matter how I felt. What began to matter is that I had dialogued with writing so often (had smashed my thumbs and all so often) that I began to relax into trusting the process. I felt in my fingers that if I turned up (even if only to write all day and decide that none of it works), the process of revision/writing would eventually triumph.

My relationships with those I love are not unlike this process, really. I want to love them in a real way and so try to be there for them, to read them, to read our relationship, to read who I am in it, to change, to be changed, to ask for forgiveness, to give forgiveness, and to know the joy of communicating. It turns out that life is not about being right, as I once thought, but about communicating.

And there was one summer spent working long, glorious days on a book about an amazing German woman who lived so long ago. I translated her Latin many hours every day until my weary eyes had to be checked into the ophthalmologist for a permanent pair of much-needed glasses. I kept thinking the Latin of this polymathic Benedictine artist, counselor, writer, musician, teacher, and abbess would never be untangled and could never be translated into what I heard in my head.

But I showed up. I loved working on this book on Hildegard of Bingen, it was challenging, but the process did see it through. Now Hildegard is being made a doctor of the church, and so my publisher called me yesterday to ask would I like to make some additions to the existing text, they will put a new cover on, they will add a cool new ending, and then we can celebrate Hildegard in that way, with a new edition. That made me very happy indeed.

I thought how lucky I was to get a D- in Freshman English, how lucky I was to discover word histories, and how lucky I was to have the time to become acquainted with how usual and expected revision is.

I thought how blessed I am to love and to be loved.

It’s all about revision. It’s all about forgiveness.

And listening.

And turning up.

I pray to remember the humility of listening and of turning up.

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Gninetsil

Listening . . . Gninetsil can be a powerful mirror.

Robert Bolton tells the story in People Skills that one day he said to a friend, “You’re not listening to me!” and that his friend then repeated every word back to him; Bolton comments: “He heard exactly. But he wasn’t listening” (32).

Then Bolton adds this point about the etymology of listening:

The distinction between merely hearing and really listening is deeply embedded in our language. The word listen is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words. One word is hlystan, which means “hearing.” The other is hlosnian, which means “to wait in suspense.” Listening, then, is a combination of hearing what the other person says and a suspenseful waiting, an intense psychological investment with the other. (32)

As my awesome students know, I love etymologies, and Bolton’s point is a good reminder to me. Old English does have those two fascinating words for the act of paying attention, and I love hlosnian. It can also mean, “to listen, to wait, to be on the lookout for,” the way the father of the prodigal son stood at the end of the drive and “listened” for his beloved son to return; the patient father was “on the lookout for” his son.

I once went to a prayer gathering, a small one, where we few who didn’t really know each other read from the Bible and from Thomas Merton and then listened only to what another would say. We were not to comment on each other’s remarks but just to take them in.

Of course, I immediately noticed that when a group member made a point, I began thinking of how that person’s comment related to me and my life and what I had experienced that was similar. It took me a good fifteen minutes of listening to calm down inside and to settle in to listening to what each person had to say.

It is a hard discipline for me, but a joyful one. I pray to listen to those I love most. I pray to listen to my students. I pray to listen to all those whose lives are shared with mine.

My combustible temperament is not naturally a good listener. This discipline takes constant attentiveness, and of course sometimes I rattle on and on. But I have also learned that I am to listen to my self. In this way, I honor that God made me and loves me very much, that I am God’s daughter.

I am still a beginner at listening, but each day I have the chance to try anew. Listening turns out to be a grand adventure!

I also pray to listen to the Bible. In its pages, I meet God meeting my self, and in the almond-shaped vesica piscis that results, I can find where to stand (or kneel) internally so that the Holy Spirit can transform me through my listening to . . . waiting for . . . being on the lookout for . . . and waiting in suspense for the awesome sound of the most loving and healing Silence.

I love this verse because it reminds me that I am God’s student, with much of joy still left to (thankfully) learn, surrounded and empowered through the gift of Christ’s grace: “Do not be quick with your mouth. . . .[L]et your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

Selah.

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Random

Perhaps our thinking exemplifies a selective system. First lots of random scattered ideas compete for survival. Then comes the selection for what works best—one idea dominates, and this is followed by its amplification. Perhaps the moral…is that you never learn anything unless you are willing to take a risk and tolerate a little randomness in your life.

—Heinz Pagels, The Dreams of Reason

If we go back far enough in the English language, random likely comes from the Old English word rinnan for “to flow, to run.” Isn’t that something? Because if I want to break out of my usual way of thinking or out of my usual way of behaving, I might tell myself just to “go with the flow,” and, yes, even though I am a middle-aged woman with a list (typed, even; and very, very long; covering many, many months) and with a permanent but changing-daily yellow sticky note made by consulting The List and then stuck to current books being toted from here to there to remind me of this day’s important things, I still value The Random.

I think this is what the twentieth-century American physicist Heinz Pagels is saying–we need the random things that are not already included on our lists, not on my mental list (my brain’s usual way of thinking) and not on my physical list (my body’s usual way of behaving).

(I think of how Richard Feynman was just flipping something up in the air when something about how it flipped helped him see the potential O-ring problem with the Challenger. He went and put the O-ring material in some ice water. I don’t remember the details. I’m no physicist, duh, but I heard Feynman talk about it on TV once, how a simple random act led to the thought that perhaps ice-cold temps could make the O-ring material less resilient and more likely to result in seal failure.)

Feynman’s mind was not fossilized, nor was he given to ego-driven thinking. Instead, his mind was resilient and spirited and open to The Random.

It is this kind of thinking that I pray for in my minute-to-minute living.

I am such a creature of habit. I find what I like, I find what helps me cope, and/or I find what is the best way (so I think), and I stick with it.

Sometimes, the only way I change is for my “best way” not to work anymore or for my coping behavior to start failing. I have a good friend in Paradise Valley, Arizona, who is a spiritual director and a wise woman, and she says, “Don’t waste a good crisis.”

A crisis is not really synonymous with randomness, but a crisis of any sort does open me (anyway) up to new ways of being that do often drop into my life “randomly” and then instead of zipping blindly right past them because I’m in my rigid “groove,” my falling-apart has allowed those random seeds to slip into my life.

I remember being in complete agonizing bodily pain for many years and trying this and that until finally hearing about deep-tissue massage; so while living in California, my pain opened me up to try massage (not my cup of tea initially). So I spent several years being rolfed by the amazing Karen S. Price, and one evening after getting rolfed earlier that day in Palo Alto, I went to bed and noticed as I lay there that my head was in a slightly new angle. That may sound small, but for me it was a huge sign of other changes yet to come.

Another fairly direct (but wonderful) route into randomness is falling in love. I tried restaurants and plays and movies that were totally random to me, and I know that Sean did the same. To this day, I see movies he suggests that would never occur to me, and these stretch me and enrich my life (when I absolutely love them and when I don’t).

Children also provide randomness. My daughter decided a few years ago that I was too dowdy to be seen with in public. Now, I see what she meant. But I am an English teacher (I used to say to myself). Dowdy is what I thought was represented by the “D” in Ph.D. You know–firemen wear protective coveralls, helmets, and masks to extinguish fires; I wore frumpy clothes to stamp out comma splices. Same thing. Each profession has its clothing requirements.

But to avoid a daughter-submitted appearance on What Not to Wear and to stop her constant and articulate critiques of my clothes, I started allowing random new items of clothing to drop into my wardrobe while I moved others out and gave them away.

Meanwhile, my son has introduced me to any number of random facts from Star Wars and Star Trek and Minecraft, to name just a few.

And sometimes I just sit and watch the traffic go by. That is a good way to catch The Random. Or I read a book. Another good way to spy The Random. Or I listen to my daughter’s music or to my favorite music (but really listen). Or I get on google after I’ve heard an interview on NPR, and I look up an author’s books and read all about her life and suddenly find I am reading a book by her first husband, the physicist quoted at the beginning of this blog.

The Random used to scare me.

But as I grow as a person, my boundaries become healthier. Well, let’s say that first I had to discover that I have boundaries, and now, yes, they are becoming healthier. And as I embrace and love my boundaries, I find that more and more I let the random in, and it appears in my life rather like jonquils and forsythia growing in spring, yellow and soft and fragrant with the perfume of hope.

So my life has fewer and fewer interruptions, as I become more willing to embrace that which I did not anticipate.

I am learning to rest in the certain joy of “going with the flow.”

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I love that it’s trash night because. . . .

it causes me to go out, feeling lighter from the knowledge of a cleaner house, with a white trash bag slung over my back like Santa, out, leaving my comfy black sofa, out, into the crisp, clear night with a few scattered clouds scudding overhead illuminated by the bright round disc there, the almost full moon. Tomorrow night is the full moon. I looked. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a Moon Phase Calendar, and I checked it.

I love that I vacuum at least twice a year (religiously) because it gives me a chance to get reacquainted with my floors and with the tribes of dustbunnies who live there peacefully in the corners.

I love beginning a new book because there is nothing like it for feeling sheer terror. I felt that way when I was twelve, right before the Scream Machine crested that tall hill of metal and then plummeted down, down, down, at incredible speed. Same thing, it’s the same thing. You can lose your hat writing a book, for the rushing wind of words and thought and looking for truth and for the way you are seeing and moving in the world in a new way and are not, also, quite sure what you are seeing. By the time you get off, meet the deadline, turn it in, climb out, you are breathless, and smiling, a little sore at the shoulders for the hard curves and the inevitable jolts and sudden stops, skin still stinging somewhat from the rushing wind, but pumped, happy.

I love that my husband buys me books I’d never probably think to buy for myself and then doesn’t harangue me to read them so that when I start London a year (or more?) after he gave it to me, he’s like, “Cool! You like it?” And I do. I love every 814 of its 1124 pages that I have so far devoured.

I love the simplicity of making vegetable soup. And I love the white every grainness of rice I steam to go with it.

I love that insurance claims go wrong and that my kitchen floor is always in need of a wipedown and that sometimes (as today) my vacuum cleaner motor burns slap up and starts bellowing smoke and stinking of rubber and singed hair.

I love that things are always careening towards a mess. I mean that dishes get dirty, desks get dusty, computer screens film over, fridges get sticky, and trash piles up. It reminds me that the nunc fluens is not the antonym to the nunc stans but that the ever-flowing, ever-changing time we live in is short and so precious and that eternity is shot through each moment, if I stop to listen to the yellow of the jonquils.

I love that it all means I am alive, and singing with the yellow jonquils that some call buttercups, but, I just learned, not quite correctly, but, truly, who cares. A jonquil by any other name would still be yellow.

That’s why I love that it’s trash night. The white trash bag I carry out, bulging, lifts my eyes up to the mystery of that almost full moon, and the crisp air is the reward for my taking care of my soul by enjoying the nunc stans-ness of this weekly habit.

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Christmas Gifts

Spinning my silver grocery cart through Kroger yesterday searching after plain frozen spinach and garlic and onions and fresh white mushrooms and tapioca flour and eggplant for my daughter’s Torta Rustica, gliding past bright red and green poinsettas stacked up in cheerful pyramids, I passed by a person singing along with the Christmas carol playing in the store. I smiled to myself and then wheeled into the next aisle where I hoped to find tapioca flour, and I passed by an elderly gentleman singing the next lines of the Christmas song to himself, too, as he searched the shelves for cornmeal. It was a Christmas gift to overhear the melody of my two fellow-shoppers’ lives.

***

So many beautiful cards have come in, even in this age of Facebook. I’ve put them all up in a special place in our breakfast nook. They are several deep on a shelf, and some are above it, propped on the wings of three sculpture angels, yellow, red, and blue, hanging there. Every day or so I rearrange them so that I can see different ones up front. They give an overall impression of gold and glittering letters that wish a soul good cheer. I read the Christmas letters they bring, and I look at the photos carefully and reflect on their Bible verses. I appreciate cards now in a way I didn’t always. Someone took the time to address an envelope, buy a stamp, and write a note. Each one brings joy to my life. These cards are true Christmas gifts because they nourish community.

***

One of the cards came from our son’s cousin in England. Tristan speaks several languages because he has a British dad and a Swiss mom. In English, he sent this joke: “Why is a Christmas tree like a bad tailor?” Answer: Both are always dropping needles. Such humor is always a gift!

***

Today I made a new friend, the best gift of all! Author Barry Hudock sent me an e-mail to ask could we have a phone interview for an article he is writing, which is kind of like asking a ten-year-old boy if he would like to play Minecraft. “Yes!” was the answer to that question. So he called, and we talked about that amazing twelfth-century woman Hildegard. Then he mentioned that he has been reading a good book on her Gospel homilies, published in August of this year by his press, Liturgical Press, and it’s by Beverly Kienzle. After we hung up, I clicked over to Amazon.com and bought a copy for my Kindle. A new friend, a book recommendation, and a Kindle version go together the way graham crackers, marshmallows, and Hershey’s chocolate do!

***

So, Kienzle’s book is awesome! I’ve heard that academics are not meant to be so enthusiastic, but then I live, after all, under the lighter and more flexible label of “happily gray-haired-but-dyed-soft-black student.” As a student, I may be as excited as I wish over the discovery of a wonderful book! I won’t say more about it because I must get back to reading it AND to eating warm homemade chocolate chip and walnut cookies, just now taken out of the oven, Kate’s gift to us!

***

Merry Christmas to all!!!

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The Baby of Love

This week, I got to spend time with a two-month-young baby. At lunch with her parents, I asked and was handed her like a gift and got to walk around with her to the oohs and aahs of the restaurant owner and servers. Her mother said she likes to bounce, so I did that gentle bounce thing one does with babies; and then as I stood still with little Susan, just 60+ days old (gently bouncing her up and down still) and as I watched her become mesmerized by the sparkling golden Christmas ornaments and Christmas tree lights, I stopped bouncing and she stopped bouncing with me as I got that special I’m-holding-a-baby-feeling that comes with witnessing the miracle of new life. She became wholly still before those awesome Christmas tree lights and the ways they shone in the sparkling golden ornaments, while I became wholly still inside and out before that yet-again awesome realization that a baby comes to earth trailing God dust.

That is what Emmanuel is all about. God is with us.

I held little Susan and realized not for the first time how dependent babies are on someone to take care of them and not to drop them, neither literally nor figuratively. Yet God came to earth that vulnerable?

So, having recently held a precious baby; having felt the joy of soul that comes in this very simple, very profound act; and having considered in the stillness of my heart that the God of Compassion sent not a legion of soldiers nor a famously eloquent orator to deliver the divine message of love to us, but the smallest and most helpless earthly miracle possible, a little baby, the devotional this morning in A Little Daily Wisdom meant a great deal to me:

December 14

Get up, open your eyes, and pattern your life after the unlimited goodness and love God has shown to all creatures. Then you’ll know perfect joy of soul, and you won’t be so small-hearted that you have no room either for yourself or your neighbors. Don’t forget that the Holy Spirit’s law is amazingly different from ours. Imitate Saint Paul, who was completely in love with God. Be a servant of affection who bears and proclaims the name of Jesus. Saint Paul looked into this Eye and lost himself in it. He was given such a joyful soul that he was willing to be an outcast for the sake of his brothers and sisters. Above all, the Apostle Paul was in love with whatever God was in love with.

Catherine of Siena, Letters

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Martin Luther and Mother Buschbeck

In a corner of my desk at Shorter University, I have this old, red New Testament that, because it is small, is easy to carry around. The red color of its hardcover makes me cheerful because it reminds me of Jesus’s kind, welcoming, wise, healing, and transforming words in my very first Bible, which was the King James Version.

I have had this New Testament for at least twenty-five years, even losing it once and having it returned to me by some kind soul who tracked me down. Its text is set in Fraktur font, with the long elegant s (ſ) and with the upper-case S that reminds me of the Ouroboros.

This New Testament was published in 1966 in London by the British and Foreign Bible Society, and I wish I could remember how it came to belong to me. Did I buy it? I have no idea. I’ve looked in it for possible clues and found none.

This New Testament does carry marks of my life journey, however. My University of Georgia graduate school address is in it from the mid-80’s, when I was single and lonesome and living at 608 Lyons Apts., 1050 S. Lumpkin St., Athens, GA 30605, and my old phone number is also scrawled inside the front hardcover in black ink as (404) 546-7648. That was in pre-cell-phone days. Across from that old address, I also wrote in black ink the address for the tiny apartment in Austin, Texas, where my husband and I lived in 1992, two years after our marriage: Aspenwood Apartments A209, 4539 Guadalupe, and our phone number: (512) 451-0335, also a land-line.

On one of this testament’s first pages I also drew the different Fraktur fonts by hand, along with what they signify, as a reference, to help me read this Bible. I was once quite good at deciphering Fraktur font. An eighty-year-old German widow taught me how in 1983, when I was a student at Ruprecht-Karls Universität in Heidelberg, and our paths crossed in God’s grace. Her own large and imposing black Bible, printed in the early part of the twentieth century, in Germany, featured this swirly font as a matter of course.

Maybe, in fact, Mother Buschbeck gave me this Bible. She could have. She was my guardian angel when I was a student at Heidelberg University, only twenty-two then and abroad for the very first time. I was so homesick then for America and my familiar old life, thrust instead into a new and confusing language, a new and baffling culture, a new way of eating, a new diet, a new frozen climate, and all new friends.

How I came to meet Frau Sophie Buschbeck was providential. The Dean of my undergraduate college met Sophie Buschbeck during World War II, when she was a middle-aged German refugee living in Silesia with eight children and married to a Lutheran minister then an army chaplain, who was imprisoned in Russia for what would be five long war-fractured years.

Nuns took care of her and hers, and so did some Baptists from Mississippi, who sent Sophie and her family shoes and food, only to receive in return the priceless gift of a life-long friendship that became more like an integrated family of Americans and Germans.

So when I received a Rotary International Graduate scholarship to study in Heidelberg, my dean said, “Here is Mrs. Sophie Buschbeck’s number. Look her up.” I did, and we soon became companions and fast friends. She gave me wool sweaters, warm and delicious home-cooked food, long-lasting conversations, and lessons in growing up.

I watched the joy of Mother Buschbeck’s long, war- and grief-torn life and saw that it depended entirely on her friendship with Jesus. I knew that she had had serious hardships and loss, and yet here she was at eighty, joyful, loving, alive, learning, listening, and vibrant in every way. We had daily devotionals together, at her invitation. That is where I was asked to read the huge, black Gothic-print Bible to her in German. And we sang at devotional time. Mother Buschbeck belonged to the Let-Us-Thank-God-for-Every-Blessing-and-Love-Others school of Christian discipleship.

If Mother Buschbeck did give me this handy red hardcover Bible or if some other kind soul gifted me with this treasure, in my heart I deeply thank the long-forgotten presenter, whoever he or she was, because this New Testament is, I just noticed, “nach der deutschen Übersetzung D. Martin Luthers,” a copy of the Luther translation of the New Testament.

I probably knew that salient information once upon a time, but I had forgotten it until today, when I was searching for clues of origin, and that is saying something because I am an enthusiastic student of Luther; so this memory lapse says more about my being fifty than anything else can.

The reason I suspect Mother Bushbeck gave this red Luther New Testament to me is because I found as the sole bookmark in it my typed-up version of something Mother Bushbeck wrote to me in air-mailed blue ink that I was afraid I would lose (or forget), so I typed it up. I don’t know when I typed it up, but I’m glad I did; I also don’t know now whether I even saved the document or if this was during word-processing days and this is my only remaining copy. I put this quotation from wise Mother Buschbeck here in cyberspace to share with others who might find its light helpful.

So here it is again, a reminder that even the fragility of my human memory for dates and people and events cannot erase the memory of the profound, life-changing love that Mother Buschbeck gave me in 1983 and for nine years afterwards, through regular letters, calls, and a visit.

A kind and wise friend of mine once told me, “We may forget what someone else taught us or did for us, but we never forget how someone made us feel.”

Mother Buschbeck made me feel loved. She made me feel like a child of God. Here are some of her nourishing words from 1983, sent from Germany to Georgia:

Wenn wir in der Bibel lessen, um mit dem Wort Gottes zu leben, hören wir immer wieder, wie Gott den Propheten und seinem Volk seinen Willen kund getan hat. Jesus hat uns vorgelebt, den Willen des Vaters anzunehmen auch wenn es schwer war. Vor allem hat er uns die Liebe des Vaters zu uns kund getan, dass er uns unendlich gut mit uns meint. Wenn wir dafür immer wieder true danken, bleibt unser Herz offen für das, was Gott für uns will, wo wir ihm dienen und nahe sein können. Der heilige Geist ist uns also Tröster und Helfer gegeben und hilft zum rechten Hören und Verstehen.

When we read and study the Bible in order to live out God’s Word, over and over again we hear how God revealed His will to the prophets and to His people. Jesus lived out God’s will before us, showing us how to accept the Father’s will, even when it was hard. Most of all, He showed us the Father’s love, how God always and forever wants what’s best for us. When we remain faithful in thanking God for His love, our hearts stay open for all that He wants for us, so that we can serve Him and stay near Him. The Holy Spirit is given to us as our Comforter and Partner, helping us hear right and understand.

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Red, White, and Blue

I don’t know about you, but I am weary of all the fighting.

More importantly, no jobs are being created while the arguing continues. It’s as if two people are divorcing, and they forget about anyone else in the family and what their bickering is doing to others. In such a scenario, the welfare of all people within their angry sphere is burned up in their caustic arguments. When emotions run wild and people feel overwhelmed with protecting their own egos, narcissism rules the day.

And narcissism sings only one song, “I only have eyes, for me. . . .”

In this case, the fighting up in Washington is not creating one job. Where there is much fighting and much blame-making, nothing much positive gets done. Think of the Garden of Eden. Each person there blamed someone else for the problem. That is the American political scene at the beginning of the third millennium.

What if just one person arguing vehemently in those hallowed chambers on Capitol Hill would close his or her mouth for a minute and dare ask, “How will this policy affect the American on the street, in the dorm, in the suburbs, in rural areas, and those without jobs?”

I remember days of Cocoa Puffs and putting my right hand over my heart and every morning saying in school: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

This rising and pledging happened every day, and there was solemnity about it. Without knowing words to describe this feeling, whenever I pledged allegiance to the flag, I deeply cared for and respected this “one nation under God, indivisible.”

Then I traveled. I met and married a British man. I became part British. Our daughter is part British, part American, and part Cuban, my heritage. Our son, whom we adopted, was born in Korea to two Koreans, so he is part Korean and part American, as a citizen of the US now. He proudly calls himself an American.

So over the years, many flags have been planted in the soil of my affections. I am a globe-loving American citizen who vividly remembers rising, hand over my heart, and pledging to the red, white, and blue flag all through my elementary school days in the sixties. It’s one reason I love sports events. We get to pledge allegiance before the kickoff or tipoff or first pitch.

Didn’t a good many of our politicians grow up doing the same, rising and pledging? Why can’t they rise to the occasion now then? And how can we explain that their loyalties, left and right, seem to be to themselves first? What happened to looking out for the interests of others as a true test of a national politician?

Could we ask ourselves, “Is there ‘liberty and justice for all’”? Since the late 1800’s, we have been affirming that we are to be a united nation that offers freedom and fair dealings for all.

I love my country, the U. S. of A. We have much in which to take great pride and an endless list of things for which to be grateful; however, country is more than an abstract concept. Country is one individual and another individual and then another. And many of those individuals are hurting badly these days.

They are being buried under the avalanche of ill-will up in Washington.

Still, I am always looking for bridges, daily and everywhere, and please note that this blog doesn’t talk of Democrats and of Republicans. I do not see the political landscape in neat, easy-to-arrange boxes of affiliations. We are all Americans, and the people hurting in this country are Americans.

Could we start saying please and thank you again? Could we do away with vitriol and bring back civility? Citizens by their very definition should be civil. What we have instead is, sadly, another form of civil war.

Don’t we still teach our children to be polite? How did we supposed grown-ups miss that lesson ourselves?

They say on TV newscasts that Americans have lost their civility. Maybe our politicians could start modeling politeness for us? Maybe they could actually talk with and not at each other?

Could we even now bring back a consciousness of “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”?

I pray so.

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Simple Beauty

Sometimes life is simply beautiful.

Recently, I took a plane to Memphis, to do a retreat on Hildegard of Bingen. The spirit of the city enveloped me.

Here is my impression of Memphis. She is just my kind of gal, for she is sweet, interesting, self-rich, kindness-prone, well-read, and happy to take you to a place where you can get a good salmon and jasmine rice dinner.

And I stayed in a Victorian bed-and-breakfast on Jefferson. The high ceilings have such personality.

And the Mississippi with her barges floating by was there in the dark after dinner, and the lit-up “M” bridge.

And people really talk and really listen in Memphis.

I saw blue suede shoes in a window, for sale. I looked for Elvis, too, but he had left the building some summers ago.

And the women at the retreat were amazing. One was a judge my age who loves reading and whose demeanor was one of kind wisdom and much well-earned patience in listening to others and especially to God. One thirty-something was involved in cancer research at St. Jude’s. Several were in their seventies, yet who could tell. One of these women told me she has a perfect Bible verse that she says to herself when she rakes her yard.

One woman with a smiling soul and the sagacity that comes from oppression endured without a descent into bitterness, was wearing a bright orange head wrap and told me stories of the loosed dogs and strong-water hoses she and others knew when they marched for Civil Rights.

They were a diverse group. We met to celebrate Hildegard’s life and how she became good friends with Christ. To that end, we sang Psalm 34 together. We talked about eating the Bible. We talked about healing through lectio divina and other ways of praying in God’s Word.

I said and still think that we are starving ourselves in America. We have a choice. We can eat soul food and feed our God-given inner selves, or we can neglect the Bible, but that is like having someone cook us a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner and then saying, “No thanks.”

We prayed together. We asked each other questions.

I wore a Madonna mic. I loved its effortlessness. It was simply beautiful, too. That was Preston’s expertise, for the sound technician is always the most important person at any retreat.

We learned from each other. We talked about how we as women often “should” ourselves to death. “I should do this. I should do that.” We talked about how multi-tasking we are and how Hildegard was the same. We heard how this twelfth-century woman told off emperors and popes, and yet they adored or at least highly respected her.

Over and over we looked at how we can take seriously Christ’s saying, “I have called you friends.”

We had four sessions on Saturday, including some lectio divina, some journaling, and some Bible-rich contemplative prayer and silence.

Then I got on a plane and flew home. Then I drove the two hours or so to Rome from Atlanta.

When I got home, it was nine at night, but there was a plate of spaghetti waiting for me. Our fifteen-year-old daughter, Kate, had made one for me and for her. We ate together.

And as we ate, my husband, Sean, and our son, John, sat with us. Kate said, “There is some spaghetti on the ceiling.” We like to throw spaghetti at the wall on occasion, to see if it is done.

I thought Kate was surely teasing me. But I looked up at the high ceiling in the kitchen. I mean HIGH ceiling, as older houses are wont to have. And there, sure enough, was a piece of spaghetti, dangling down, half stuck there.

I had left home for Memphis and yet found home there in warm, open hearts.

I came back home to Rome and found my deepest self there in that plate of spaghetti made for me by our daughter and in that piece of pasta, long, dried, stuck, and dangling hilariously from our ceiling.

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Why I Read Christianity Today

In the July 2011 Christianity Today, its editor-in-chief, Dr. David Neff, asks Bishop Kallistos Ware, “If I were to meet you on a train and ask you, ‘What is the center of the Christian message?,’ how would you succinctly put that?” I liked his reply:

I would answer, “I believe in a God who loves humankind so intensely, so totally, that he chose himself to become human. Therefore, I believe in Jesus Christ as fully and truly God, but also totally and unreservedly one of us, fully human.” And I would say to you, “The love of God is so great that Christ died for us on the cross. But love is stronger than death, and so the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection. I am a Christian because I believe in the great love of God that led him to become incarnate, to die, and to rise again.” That’s my faith. All of this is made immediate to us through the continuing action of the Holy Spirit. (41)

A little later in the interview, Ware pointed out: “‘God so loved the world.’ That is what we should start from” (41).

***

Also in this issue Christianity Today listens “to the voices of Christians from the bottom of India’s hyperstratified society” (4) in “India’s Grassroots Revival” (28-36).

***

In another article, we learn about Dr. Catherine Clark Kroeger’s fight for the downtrodden who have known the suffering of abuse. I’d never heard of Dr. Kroeger before, the poorer I; in this article I learned of her biblical scholarship, her classical education, her death at 85 on February 14 of this year, her lecturing at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, her love for the Scriptures, her Women, Abuse, and the Bible (which I just ordered used, for $7.25), and her concern for those whose lives have been broken by domestic violence (42-45).

Dr. Kroeger was so concerned for victims of abuse and for their batterers that in 2003, at the age of 78, she started Peace and Safety in the Christian Home (PASCH). I am likely the last to have heard of this significant organization, which is a “loose coalition of Christian academics, social work professionals, researchers, clergy, and counselors affirmed [in their] desire to solve the problem of abuse in Christian families” (44). I went online and found PASCH and read its latest newsletter, too.

In this newsletter, I found the following disturbing information:

In “The Edge of Darkness,” a recent op-ed piece in The Boston Globe (10 September 2010), Nathalie Favre-Gilly and Deborah Collins-Gousby wrote that costs (compiled by the Center for Disease Control) of domestic violence exceeded an estimated $5.8 billion every year. This includes nearly $4.1 billion in the direct costs of medical and mental health care, and another $1.l8 billion in the indirect costs of lost productivity. As a result of the brutality they endure, victims of domestic violence lose a total of nearly 8 million days of paid work—the equivalent of more than 32,000 full-time jobs—and nearly 5.6 million days of household productivity each year. In this article, the authors raise the question: “What does it say about us as a society that we continue to view domestic violence as a problem that can’t be fixed?” The church of Jesus Christ has a long career of throwing itself against insurmountable evils. Only consider the abolition of slavery that was accomplished through the efforts of dedicated Christians such as Wilbur Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The church has spearheaded efforts to eliminate poverty, hunger, ill health, illiteracy, child abuse and neglect, and a host of other social issues. When will we take domestic abuse off the “impossible” list and apply our powers of prayer and persuasion, our God-given talents, and our conviction to stemming this evil? (2)

This CT article also referred to Tearfund and to Restored, two organizations that respond to and work at eradicating poverty and violence against women.

***

Then there is an article from which I learned that a certain author has sold well over 400 million copies of her work, “dwarfing all published works not written by God or Chairman Mao” (50), that these seven books contain 4,100 pages, and that this series has become the most successful film franchise ever, even more successful than Star Wars and James Bond. Of course this piece by Mr. John Granger “(no relation to Hermione)” (53) is discussing Harry Potter. From it I learned that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (sold in the U.S. as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) has 17 chapters, just as C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (52), and from there I read a terrific analysis of why Rowling’s “cultural tsunami” (52) is here to stay: (1) “a complex yet nearly invisible ‘ring composition’; (2) an alchemical drama; and (3) an engaging picture of the faculties of the soul” (52).

This article is a compelling look at Harry Potter by Granger, a writer “who has written and edited as many books about the Hogwarts saga as there are novels in said series” (50). Almost everyone in the world knows that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, opens in theaters on July 15.

***

There is so much more. I have only mentioned a fraction of the articles I read and enjoyed. I also enjoyed quotations, short updates on the latest world news in “Gleanings,” revelations about social media in “Briefing,” insights on other cultural phenomena, challenges to help a hungry world, reviews of books and music, and personal reflection pieces, such as Dr. David Neff’s sensitive, honest, and faith-strengthening article on his father, who died recently (67). Here is one memorable paragraph:

Fathers and sons often don’t see eye to eye. Dad listened to Rush Limbaugh. I listen to NPR. Dad played Alan Jackson on his stereo. I have Thomas Hampson on my iPod. But on this we agreed: The Christian faith is essentially eschatological (67).

***

My favorite “Worth Repeating” quotation was from Sue, who noted: “Clearly Jesus thought the problem was in the person doing the lusting. Why have we continually instead tried to put the blame and responsibility on the woman?” (62) (from Her.meneutics: “Beyond SlutWalk: A New Conversation about Sexual Assault,” by Katelyn Beaty).

Another good “Worth Repeating” quotation was from Rick, who asked, “Shouldn’t love, respect, and humility come quicker to Christians than judgment?” (62)

***

It’s been a great joy over the last years to write on occasion for Christianity Today and for its affiliated magazines, and everyone on the CT staff is such a joy to work with. It sounds trite, perhaps, but one would like to think that a magazine that works very hard to present an attentive, compassionate, Christian approach to living is peopled by diligent, kind writers, editors, designers, and many other amazing staff members.

And Christianity Today is just that.

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Intexticated

A week or so ago, the rain woke me up at 4:00 a.m. Usually rain doesn’t wake me up; but this rain was furious, and it unnerved me.

Days earlier and day-by-day, I had checked the weather forecast online, and there was nothing but little sun after little sun on each day of that week—it was not supposed to be raining on Thursday morning. Yet it was. It was raining as if it would never stop.

So I got up. I opened the door to our porch and peered out to see walls of dark water, sheets of rain. We had the kind of rain that makes puddles in roads and rivers in roads and a slippery mess.

It was the kind of day that would never dawn. It would stay gray and overcast and foggy and raining all day long. I love to drive, but this is not the kind of weather I enjoy to drive in.

And yet, in just three hours, our fifteen-year-old daughter would be out in that very rain doing her two-hour driving test for Driver’s Ed. So I stayed up and prayed. I told God that if I really had faith, that this situation would not make me nervous, that I could remain cheerful, but the thing was that we’d never had our daughter drive in the rain.

As I drove her through the rain that morning to the area where she’d start her driving test, I noticed something I’d never noticed before—when it rains that hard, you really can’t see out of your driver’s side window. It’s all droplets of rain and distortion. I did not mention that to Kate. I did not say, “Be careful of not being able to see out your driver’s side window.” I also did not mention how slick the roads get on a day like that or how there is the chance of hydroplaning.

No, I did not say so many things. As I drove through the non-stop raining and the constant road-slishing, I heard a woman who looked remarkably like me saying, “It will be fine. You’ll do well, Kate. I’m sure of it.”

She passed with flying colors.

But our daughter’s experience with Driver’s Ed has taught me so many things, the way our children’s hassling me about recycling has made me a wonderful recycler.

I learned that I stop too close to the car in front of me. I learned that I sometimes drift over to the left side of the road. I have also been reminded of the hazards of driving.

“Mom, they showed us this movie where a mother and her young daughter were walking along on a sidewalk beside a road. Her daughter was really sweet-looking. Her daughter was hit and killed by someone who was texting as they drove.”

Large silence.

I am very proud of how seriously our daughter has been taking learning to drive. I am not surprised, but I am very proud.

I will admit that when my daughter came home last year and told me that texting and driving was no longer a legal activity, I had to change my behavior. Fortunately, I had two children to chide me any time I was tempted otherwise.

My friend Jim Flowers kindly sent me a link to a June 30, 2011, AJC article, “Texting Ban, One Year Later: Behaviors Slow to Change,” and that is the source for this blog’s title.

I am currently working on not talking on the phone and driving. I do it rarely now.

After all, back in the 70’s when I was learning to drive, I had no problem not talking on the phone in the car as I drove. It was just me and my 8-track tapes, and John Denver filled my alternately black-and-white-smoke-belching, four-cylinder Vega with his mellifluous Rocky Mountain sunshine paeans.

I could not have been happier. I did not need a phone call to make my drive complete because in addition to Denver’s music, I had Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” on a cassette tape. That was really living.

So let me say that I am a reformed driver. Yes, I have driven up Horseleg Creek Road once with an escaped kitten and a small cardboard box that I had failed to secure properly at the top. I was not the best driver on that trip because the kitten kept running over my legs and into my lap and onto the back of my seat and then would leap to the back seat and meow, before leaping back into the front, onto the gear shift, and then start her I’m-Freaking-Out-in-the-Car dance all over again.

I do also on occasion eat a burger or drink a cup of coffee and drive down the road. But I have never farded while I drive and will never do so. First, I don’t wear enough make-up, and, second, I don’t wear enough make-up.

I am still concerned by drivers who drink any amount of alcohol and then get behind the wheel of a car or truck or a ferry boat.

My brother lost his best friend that way. They were en route to the local McDonald’s, a group of smart and alive, young college graduates, going to McDonald’s for the purpose of trying the new cherry Coke. That sounds odd now, perhaps, but in 1985, cherry Coke was all the rage.

Rounding a dark curve on their way there, my brother, his best friend, and two other young men were hit head on by a man in his sixties who had a history of drinking and driving. He came into their lane. He died, as did two of my brother’s friends. My brother emerged with a chipped skull and a broken back, and those were the visible injuries.

Then I remember practicing basketball for countless hours as a fourteen-year-old, in the turn-around at the end of my parents’ driveway. Every Saturday morning at the same time, a woman in a plain sedan would honk at me as she passed by on Highway 20, and I would wave at her. She was the librarian at the local high school, and her husband had hit and killed a woman in another car when he left a party, intoxicated. She drove every Saturday to visit him in prison. Her lone figure in that very basic car going without fail to visit him as far as I could tell every Saturday for years—that made a huge impression on me.

That is why when I saw a woman in a white SUV today driving up Horseleg Creek Road with her reading material on top of her steering wheel, I blanched. My friend Howard van Cleave suggested that a good, long honk might have alerted her to stop and to look carefully for bicyclists and other motorists, but I was too startled to think to do anything useful.

Horseleg Creek Road is beautiful and perilous, very curvy and narrow, not suitable for chasing a loose kitten in one’s car or for reading material set on top of one’s steering wheel.

Which driver has never done something stupid while driving? Yes, people living in glass houses do well not to throw stones.

But these days I sometimes think how distracting it is merely to turn on the radio and to change the channel.

As our daughter is learning to drive, I have gone back in time to when I first started driving, and I see once again the wonderful freedom driving affords and also its huge responsibility.

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Ununderstandable Peace

My whole life I have wanted incomprehensible peace. You know—the kind “that passes all understanding.” Paul writes about that in Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I LOVE that incomprehensible means “there ain’t no way you can understand it.” If we bend this lovely long word a bit and then snap it like a green bean where the curves are, we get the prefix in- for “not” and comprehendere for “to take together, to unite; to include; to seize (as with the mind or with one’s hand),” which itself breaks cleanly into com- for “thoroughly” here and prehendere for “to catch hold of, seize.” (I think of the way a rarely not-moving, not-swinging monkey’s prehensile tail can “seize” a yummy banana.)

I wondered what other words can pinch hit for incomprehensible, so I went to Merriam-Webster online. Its thesaurus is helpful. I found these synonyms for this transcendent peace: impenetrable, unfathomable, ungraspable, indecipherable, inscrutable, unsearchable, deep, and mysterious.

So let me rephrase my point. I have always wanted the incomprehensible, impenetrable, unfathomable, ungraspable, indecipherable, inscrutable, unsearchable, deep, and mysterious peace of God that will guard my heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

Mostly I wanted this peace because I am not a naturally calm person. The default setting for my temperament is more calibrated at “sizzle,” “sensitive,” “agitated,” and “worried,” that ability to lie in bed in the dark of midnight wondering, Did I really turn my alarm on for tomorrow morning? I am, however, good in a crisis, but afterwards I collapse off-stage, then get back up and go again. (One always prays that the gettings-up outnumber the goings-down, even if only by that very important factor of one.)

Peace is also an interesting word. If we go back far enough (and why not?), peace comes from the Pre-Indo-European *pak for “fasten,” and even though the asterisk here really means, “Some very smart, quite diligent linguists are making their best educated guess,” I believe their conscientiously reasoned, carefully researched supposition.

Isn’t it fascinating to consider that peace has at its very roots the notion of “fastening,” or rather, of “making something NOT WOBBLE.” I tell you. Not having a naturally peaceful temperament, I have known my share of inner wobbling.

So, I have always wanted and prayed for the ununderstandable peace (if ununderstandable is a word) that can give me a firm and joyful foundation no matter the shakiness or the difficulty of the circumstances, whether they concern my trying in every way possible to help my daughter when she was in extreme pain from dry sockets after a quite difficult wisdom tooth surgery (including making a super quick trip Memorial Day Eve to reach Harry’s to get some clove oil before the store closed that evening) or whether the circumstances are merely that I am tired at the end of the day and stuck in line behind someone who simply is moving as fast as a non-souped-up 1973 Vega chugging uphill. . . with the A/C on.

(And, well, I should know. In 1980, I drove a beat-up 1973 Vega, and, yes, to go uphill, I had to turn off the air conditioning, to give the engine a “boost.” I use that word loosely there.)

Peace is also related to the Latin pacisci for “to covenant or to agree” (see pact). Now this etymological fact thrills me because the root cause over the years of my lack of peace has been my inability to “agree” with my self.

I have been at war with my self.

That is the primary reason I am a Christian. That peace is promised, and I need it. Little did I know, however, when I first heard about this peace when I was a child how crucial it would turn out to be to open my self up to God’s grace—to open and to prayerfully try to keep on opening.

I am more of a batten-down-the-hatches person myself.

But now, not so much, for I have experienced a change inside, and it only took me fifty years to get here, too.

I’m almost afraid to talk about it because it was a very hard-won change, and yet the main thing that I had to do (ironically) was to submit to the Truth in a new way, to give up my hidden wobbly, always smiling self and to embrace the vulnerable, naked, needy, scared, scarred, quiet, sensitive, beauty-loving, mistake-prone, and worrying person in me who Christ loves through and through—my real self.

If you have spent your entire life smiling to be brave, you will know exactly what I mean when I say that I have smiled through many tragedies. I don’t mean that I laughed callously or made fun of shallowly or was Pollyannaish, but I put on my brave face, bothered no one else, and soldiered on. Actually, some of this sort of pluck would be good to come back into fashion, but too much of it (I speak from experience) can wear a person out.

My real self is quiet a lot. My real self doesn’t always know what to say. My real self is private. My real self has boundaries. My real self is the place where I can be with Jesus and just be and feel loved and accept that God loves me.

It is just what I heard all my life growing up in church, and not that I didn’t try before—if you count prayer, reading and studying the Bible, working to be kind, and struggling to figure out one’s own self as “trying”—but the difference is that I finally had to try this letting go in a profoundly necessary way, and I had help from some very kind, very wise family, friends, colleagues, and others whom God has put in my life as the best blessings ever.

It is of course an ongoing process, but at last at least I have tasted peace.

It is my daily bread now. And, oh, how I love it!

So when I go out into the world and I see someone or when something happens to make me feel my own unmet or at that moment sensitized needs, I have a little chat with Jesus. I ask him to fill that space and to become that need for me. Well, I say, It hurts to him, and there he is.

Wise people say that God is always with us, and certainly that is true; but so is oxygen, and yet we all so often breathe without noticing it.

So when I go out into the world and meet a person whose needs come up against my world in a totally large way (which happens on occasion), either because this person has a hurt or an issue that is terribly agonizing for them (or for me) or because this person needs attention that only God can give them, now I can listen and let their needs just be and pray for them better, and then go from there.

Having boundaries is a wonderful thing, and it only took me fifty years to get here. I have also learned that the best kind of boundaries are invisible. No one wants to become a curmudgeon. At least I don’t. I want to be loving to others, to love God (same thing, really), and to love my own self, and I have discovered or am discovering that I can love better with self-boundaries, which a psychologist might call “a healthy ego.” I might also call it “loving the gift of life that God gave me.”

As I stand talking with anyone in public now, I am aware of and can feel my new peaceful boundaries, and I pray for that beyond-knowledge peace for people I’m with and listen as lovingly as I can, well, to everyone, but I’m learning the wisdom of Luke 10:6, that sometimes my peace returns to me when there seems to be too much noisy need either in my own world or in another’s.

This makes me think of my high school friend who was an amazing tennis player, and also a killer ping pong opponent. We played many fierce games over that tiny net, and even though I was no shabby ping pong player myself, I could not beat him. His serve was too hard, his spins were too strong, his placement too clever, and his returns just too overwhelming.

I kept trying to rise to his level. I’d hit his powerful serves and returns back to him the way he sent them to me, with all my might, but my efforts just sent many orange ping pong balls shooting off the table and careening out into space.

One day, exasperated at losing to my friend again, I said, “Come on. Teach me how to beat you.” He said, “Try what I do on the tennis court. When a player serves really fast and really strong, I don’t hit back with all my strength. I let his energy return his serve back to him. I just stand there and make contact. Then I play my own game.”

I followed my friend’s advice, and soon I was winning; and then he began complaining that I was using his teaching against him.

But what he’d really taught me was a valuable lesson for life.

The lesson seems to me to be rejoice, be gentle to all, and don’t worry; instead, pray and thank God always. Well, that’s what the three verses before Philippians 4:7 recommend as the “if” to the “then” (or “and”) of verse seven: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

So, to get God’s ineffable peace, first, take grace, then mix it with being thankful, being gentle to everyone (even to the people one doesn’t much jive with), don’t worry, pray, and, again, thank God for our blessings. Btw, ineffable is my favorite word for this kind of peace.

Learning to be thankful, to be gentle, and to be praying sounds like a lifelong journey to me. So I am thankful that the best part of life is that the learning can be and always is ongoing.

It is telling that someone as eminent as Lord Kelvin, the nineteenth-century University of Glasgow professor who analyzed electricity mathematically, articulated the first and second Laws of Thermodynamics, and helped shape physics as we know it today, that this Lord Kelvin once said, “I have been a student of the University of Glasgow fifty-five years today, and I hope to continue a student of the University as long as I live.”

I am praying to continue a student of Christ “as long as I live.”

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Cool Steps

The concrete steps are cool because they have been in the shade of a brick wall most of the afternoon, and also it is long after supper. The dishes have been washed, and the wooden round table wiped clean with a moist yellow sponge. It is sometime in early May, and the hot days have really brought out the green in everything that is growing out of the red earth.

These steps lead nowhere, really, and that is one reason I like them so much. Perhaps they once led to a house that faced Shorter Avenue, walking you up to a cozy front porch. But that house is gone, and now these steps lead quite by the accident of having been abandoned to the side of a large brick office building where accountants, tax experts, and insurance agents work by day.

I have had a walk, and I sit after it for no reason almost but not quite halfway up these abandoned steps and watch the cars and trucks go by on Shorter Avenue. I sit almost but not quite halfway up these steps because that position is a) most comfortable and b) most hidden. I want to blend in with my surroundings. Like a deer hunter in the woods, I am as still as I can be, and the concrete steps are cool beneath my fingertips; and, being a born-and-bred Southerner, I never take cool for granted once April is gone.

I am fond of Shorter Avenue. If you follow it east, it changes names a few times as it winds through hospitals and past Papa John’s, a movie theater, Steak ’n Shake, Barnes & Noble, and Kroger, heading as Highway 20 towards Cartersville and on to Canton, Georgia, my hometown in sixth grade and for many years after, until I married.

Actually, my first family and I lived in Macedonia Community, which is fifteen minutes out from Canton, and as I sit on the cool steps, I can see the green fields, the forever reassuringly calm cows, and the long chicken houses filled with manually changed water drinkers and with never not-moving, smelly but cute yellow chicks that always reminded me of Easter gifts and irony.

I still love Canton for two reasons. It is where I first cut my teeth on the wisdom that living through childhood brings, and it is also where I learned the beautiful, wonder-filled art of diagramming sentences, from Mrs. Dot Whitfield, my sixth- and seventh-grade English teacher. So, in a way, this road leads to where my life began, because all of my days, the good ones, the glad ones, the amazing ones, the happy ones, the loving ones, the awful ones, the sad ones, the lonely ones, the injured ones, and the painful, ugly ones, were all lived out on a background of my search for Wisdom, or Christ, and of my love for language.

I have all of these reveries to the soothing background music that goes swish, swish . . . swish, swish . . . swish, swish, swish, swish, as cars and trucks of all kinds and colors drive past my cozy, abandoned, cool steps, as the full May sun turns the blue, cloudless sky all shades of red and purple as it slowly disappears into the pocket of the horizon. I estimate dusk won’t come for another good forty-five minutes, plenty of time for me to sit on these steps not far from home and watch my neighbors drive past.

After sitting there some minutes or no minutes, I cannot say which, I start having the most unusual thoughts. I wonder about the people in those cars. I wonder where they are going and why and are they happy? Are they driving to one of the hospitals in town to visit a dying friend, or are they going to a friend’s house for a birthday party perhaps? Are they driving to a pharmacy to pick up medicine for a sick child, sick themselves with worry? Did that person driving that green sedan pick the color of his car, and if so, why? Is it his favorite color or just the best he could find? Does he even like green, or did his wife pick the shade? Is he colorblind, and, if so, what does that green hue look like in his eyes?

I start seeing new, shiny cars and imagine that some are driven by confident people and some by scared humans. Perhaps the woman in that showroom-perfect luxury car is secretly afraid that her business is about to implode in the economy’s weakness? Then I see an older car with a dent in its back fender that is unrepaired and unrepentant, or is perhaps beyond the family’s budget for repairs.

Soon I find myself caught up in a blur of vision. I see that each car, truck, van, and delivery vehicle—the new, the expensive, the used, the least costly, the sporty, the Buick, the convertible, the gleaming pick-up truck, the beat-up and much-driven, the much-loved and polished, the hardly noticed until they break down, and the ones so brand-new that they are still without tags—that each one is vulnerable to dents and dings and life in general and that the people inside each vehicle are vulnerable, too, in various ways that are all different and all the same.

Where are they all rushing to? I love them all and wish them all well. I hope they are happy.

I find myself praying for this one and for that one. I catch faces of drivers, of passengers, of children, of men, of women, and then there are no faces, just swishes and metal and black wheels, and since no one ever looks my way but straight ahead towards their destinations, I am allowed to pray for everyone without being interrupted by a stare or a casual wave.

I am invisible, and in the sitting is the seeing, and in the seeing is the praying, and in the praying is the love for everyone I see. And in this love is the connection between us humans that is always there.

Is this how the Trappist monk Thomas Merton felt on that busy street corner in Kentucky on March 18, 1958? He was in Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, when, he writes: “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . . There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

God bless and keep us all.

Selah.

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Leonard Cohen’s “The Window”

Thanks to Facebook postings by Dr. Elizabeth Kraft, a professor of English at the University of Georgia, my former professor of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Drama, and author of numerous books on eighteenth-century British literature, I have come to know the music of Leonard Cohen.

Sure, I knew that I loved “Hallelujah,” but only because it came on the radio so often. I rarely know who sings what, so I had no idea who wrote this haunting song, until recently.

Now, thanks to Elizabeth Kraft, I have listened to several Leonard Cohen songs, and, though I am late to the party, it has been wonderful to discover Cohen’s hautingly beautiful music.

Here are the lyrics to “The Window”:

Why do you stand by the window
Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side
Lost in the rages of fragrance
Lost in the rags of remorse
Lost in the waves of a sickness
That loosens the high silver nerves
Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul

And come forth from the cloud of unknowing
And kiss the cheek of the moon
The New Jerusalem glowing
Why tarry all night in the ruin
And leave no word of discomfort
And leave no observer to mourn
But climb on your tears and be silent
Like a rose on its ladder of thorns

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendor
In the arms of the high holy one
For the holy one dreams of a letter
Dreams of a letter’s death
Oh bless thee continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh

Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Gentle this soul

Here is a sung performance of this song. That the song includes so many rich allusions, including to The Cloud of Unknowing, makes an already beautiful prayer unforgettable.

Leonard Cohen says before he begins to sing “The Window” that it is a prayer about bringing the “two halves” of life together, and that is also what The Cloud of Unknowing is about, helping us live out our too often either-or days lovingly, or, as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing might say, waking up to and in the mystery of Love, who is the non-dualistic Christ.

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The Shade of the Shadow

I’ve been singing Psalms lately.

Sing them long enough, and we memorize them; or they begin memorizing us.

Every day, my hope is that I will learn to love more as Christ did and does and will. I think it is better to have the highest aspirations and fail to reach them than to set the bar low and get there. So please keep in mind this prayerful intention of my soul’s will towards loving more when I tell you that I adore the total picture of the Psalms.

The Psalms are the best workbook on prayer. Read them with a sincere heart, and we pray. Sing them, and they change us.

In the Psalms, we get to follow the rollercoaster emotions that make up us human beings. They are the lifeblood of the Psalms—honest, intimate emotions confessed through tears, cried out with a red face, shouted out in despair, spat out in anger, and sung out in praise to God.

I love that they praise God, I love that they beg God for help, I love that they express my feelings of failure when I’ve fallen flat on my face and am hungering for God’s great compassion to blot out my transgressions, and I love that they show real anger at life’s injustices.

Their complexity of raw emotions used to bother me. I’m not supposed to hate others who hurt me and wish them dead, right? But the Psalms cover that, too. And is there any human who has escaped being hurt and feeling hatred and having such unholy thoughts?

I’ve said it before, and I say it again. It’s tricky being a human being.

Apparently, to be human means to be at war with my own mixed motives and to become aware that my heart is hard with a “me-me-me” perspective. In fact, God says through one of his prophets that to be human is to have a divided heart and that only he can soften our hearts of stone and give us new life: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19), and God also says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

Jung describes our split natures this way: “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.” (The Portable Jung, 362)

The Psalms, however, show us just that—a human facing his own soul. They reveal a human being’s showing up for his own life. They share a human being’s wanting to be closer to God and yet feeling weak, sinful, helpless, insecure, wounded, and vengeful and at other times experiencing perfect contentment in God’s love, gratitude for blessings, healing in forgiveness, and joy in the intimacy of divine friendship.

In short, the Psalms cover the up-and-down emotions of being an ordinary human being.

They include the shadow self that each one of us has, . . . or that has each one of us. In many of the Psalms we see a very human human being struggling with his shadow self. You know—the person who rarely makes an appearance in public but whom you meet unmasked in your dreams or when stuck in mind-enraging traffic in Cartersville at one of those five-minute red lights or when you feel that someone got something and you didn’t or when you feel overlooked or when you feel put down or when you feel hurt or when you feel anxious or when you feel intimidated or when you feel stupid or when the person in the fifteen-limit Kroger line plonks down THIRTY items and then conducts a FIFTEEN-MINUTE talk with the clerk at the cash register while you stomp your foot and sigh or when someone cuts in front of you in Atlanta traffic or even when you feel inside the almost overwhelming surge of I’m going to get what I want no matter WHAT IT TAKES.

I am merely speaking from experience—my experience.

When reading, studying, meditating on, or singing the darker Psalms, I think, I’m not alone in feeling that way, and that shared experience in itself is comforting.

Getting to know our shadow selves is apparently not for the faint of heart. Jung writes that we naturally turn away from our darker side: “We instinctively resist trying the way that leads through obscurity and darkness” (5). He says that we must, however, venture into and emerge again from the darkness (5).

Some of my favorite comic book characters do shadowboxing. I think of the black suit that Spiderman becomes addicted to wearing, almost without knowing it, and how he must come to grips with its existence.

Also, in the 1983 Superman III movie with Christopher Reeves as Superman, a dark Superman appears who straightens out the Tower of Pisa, blows out the Olympic Flame at the opening ceremonies, and rips a hole in an oil tanker, creating a dangerous oil slick. Dark Superman’s costume gets dirty, and his clean-cut face laxes into an unshaven, disreputable stubble. Not long after, the shadow Superman finds himself face-to-face with the bespectacled Clark Kent, who looks him in the eye, wrestles with him, and after some close calls, wins.

When I saw this movie, I was twenty-two, and I was reminded of Jacob’s wrestling an angel who refused to give Jacob his name (Genesis 32 and Hosea 12), saying, in fact: “Why do you want to know what my name is?” This holy encounter changed Jacob forever.

So, I’ve been obsessed lately, in a non-thinking way, with my shadow self. (Hello, wonderful Spring-2011 Word-Study students!). To tether amorphous emotions and non-thoughts with something concrete, I looked up the etymology of shadow. I was looking for the dark meanings of shadow but first came across the fact that, when used as a verb, shadow comes from the Old English sceadwian for “to cover as if with wings, protect.”

That positive connotation of “to shadow,” meaning “to protect,” reminds me of Augustine’s “felix culpa,” or “fortunate fall” / “happy catastrophe,” reminding me that my shadow self is the mortal wound through which God’s light-bringing eternal grace often enters.

Now, if we think of the ancient idea that sometimes darkness is an excess of light, then we can see how complicated our simplistic dualistic notions actually are, when viewed with whole-seeking eyes. I’d prefer never again to think dualistically but haven’t yet found the vitamin in Kroger for enhancing that part of my vision. But any one of us who has walked through deeply confusing days has likely seen that darkness can represent both what is least attractive in us humans and also an excess of light that is filling ours souls with Christ’s loving grace.

The notion of the unconscious shadow self as creative when acknowledged and integrated into a person’s conscious life is echoed again in the Old English word sceadu, for “shade, shadow, darkness, a shady place, protection from glare or heat.”

It’s my choice. My shadow self can dog me, or I can face her, just as the Old English sceadu can mean both “a destructive influence” or “protection.” The facing of my shadow self can “protect” me because if I grow in knowledge of my darkness and also in the knowledge that Christ loves me completely, I can rest in the shade of Christ’s love, rather than traipse, lost, through the noonday desert of both arrogance and self-loathing.

Here’s where I got to in thinking or in not-thinking about my shadow self. I often ask Jesus to become real to me where the holes in my soul breathe and hurt and are so needy and so very much afraid.

Sometimes, since I can remember, I want to put certain people in those holes. Often, these have been people I find quite attractive for various reasons—they are smart, funny, and kind. I want to apply these people as band-aids onto the gaping wounds of my soul, but always, without fail, such medicine does not work. It can’t.

We can love each other, but we can’t plug each others’ wounds of soul. Only as I become better friends with Jesus do I see that even Jesus is not meant to be used in this way. My favorite ancient Christian writers say over and over, as if my brain hears it and forgets it while driving through the Chick-Fil-A drive-through window trying to explain that, no, we don’t, thanks, want pickles on those chicken sandwiches, but, please, yes, leave the cherries on one of the four chocolate milkshakes—that we are to love God for God, not for anything that he can “do” for us.

Anyway, all of our best on-earth relationships have that same spirit, don’t they? I love my husband because he’s Sean. He is a very wonderful man and also does a lot of nice things for me, but that’s not why I love him. I love Sean because he is Sean. Just because. I love my children just because also. And one of the greatest surprises of the afternoon of my human life is that I am beginning to also love me myself just because. This is the final frontier.

To love my self as very flawed human being who is also however lovely in God’s sight and God-loved and who can be and is God’s friend—that is my final, lasting adventure. It is also my experience of and future hope in transformation in Christ’s love.

So now I smile when I think of my outer self, with its well-earned, increasingly much-loved wrinkled and wrinkling face, when I also consider that within, my soul is ripening like a green apple in the bright, warm sun of Christ’s presence, under the blue sky of God’s Spirit, and on a branch of God the Father’s abiding love.

As my new friend Fr. Tom Francis of the Conyers Monastery says with wise, purposeful ungrammatical emphasis when he signs off his e-mails to me: “United in our Three Divine Friends = WE AM.”

(This blog is not about theodicy, by the way. Instead, it is mostly about being friends with God and with growing in self-knowledge within the context or safe “container” of Christ’s love. God is my friend, and my trust in his good purposes for my life and for the world grows as I empty myself before him; but that is not to say that I am foolish enough to think that I understand why the injustices in life exist nor that I don’t get very upset about them.)

In my own life, I see more and more the truth of Paul’s wise words: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)

That one verse in Romans sums up my understanding of my shadow self.

I often don’t clearly understand my own motives. Sometimes I think I am doing a good thing out of love only to see later that my “good deed” was selfishly motivated and not that caring, actually. Other times, I give up and just do my very-weak best, and that turns out to have been helpful to someone else, and I marvel.

I drink six cups of coffee a day. I give up six cups of coffee a day. Next, I hear my sweet tooth wanting more and more and more. Then, I don’t want to think that ugly thought about someone, and I do think it. My thoughts fly like Kentucky derby horses out of the starting gates. They stampede through my mind sometimes. And on occasion I get scared for no reason whatsoever that I can see.

Being a human being is tricky.

That’s why I can almost hear Paul shouting as he writes that later verse in that chapter: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)

Sometimes when I’m at Jandy’s, the new yoghurt place in town, all of a sudden, in the middle of pulling down the middle lever that intertwines chocolate and vanilla yoghurts into one cold, lovely rope of brown-and-white sweetness, I’ll start thinking about Carl Jung.

Lately, I’ve begun to love my shadow. The darkness that each human being has—my weaknesses, sins, insecurities, and wounds—God loves, embraces, steps into, and redeems in his grace.

Also, the more I see my dark self, the less I project it onto others. That makes me more peaceful and happier.

In this dark soil, I have faith God plants his most fecund seeds of joy and transformation in Christ.

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What Is Arrogance?

Everything is pink. I mean everything is every shade of pink imaginable. You don’t know pink until you have been here. A few weeks ago, students hung dark fuchsia curtains around the door. Then, through the open door, I see the soft pink walls I love, and standing there behind her desk, yes, in an elegant pink top, is the pretty much always-ON Dr. Martha Shaw.

If she is not directing the Shorter University Chorale or the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir (which, btw, she founded) or teaching music or driving somewhere to do a concert or attending a student’s or colleague’s concert or leading a conductor’s workshop or traveling to Italy to direct the Chorale in the Vatican or traveling to Spain with the Chorale or going to China with the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir, then Dr. Shaw is making a CD or editing a CD or publishing a CD of choral music.

I also happen to know that in the past one of her activities included painting green Ep Sig shamrocks on the (then) Shorter College campus. (I can show you where they are, too.) She is also known to make great scones and great coffee, and she is generous in sending friends flowers. I can attest to that myself.

(Martha told me once a friend of hers described her as having two buttons—an ON button and an OFF button, adding, “But, Martha, you never use the OFF.” In this respect, Martha and I favor each other, and I’ve always said she is my older sister I never had.)

This day, we do our hurry-up Stehcafé version of talking, sometimes necessary when she’s going in one direction and I in the other. She’s putting on, yes, dark pink lipstick, getting ready to dash out to an appointment, as I stand on the other side of her desk; and in the middle of a conversation about 100 things, she says (somehow) through lipstick application, “My children and I’ve been discussing what arrogance is.”

We got into this conversation because we’d just finished talking about a wonderful high school senior whom we both know. In fact, I’d sprinted over the front circle’s chisled paving stones to Martha’s office to tell her good news about this senior who epitomizes the non-arrogant teenager uniquely accomplished character-wise, scholastically, musically, and athletically. I wanted to share with Martha that he had just been awarded a Duke Scholarship to Furman University, full tuition for four years. He’s an Eagle Scout with a nearly 4.0 GPA in college-prep courses, he also plays the piano well, he’s Captain of the swim team, and he has a heart for helping out others less fortunate than he, and does so, too, regularly.

I’m beside myself with joy for him. He’s so well-deserving.

I add, “And, Martha, best of all, he’s modest.”

She says, “I know,” then pulls out a recent photo of the “kids” in her Spivey Hall Children’s Choir, pointing out to me those who will be matriculating to Shorter next year (in particular one English major, yay!), and, since I have had occasion to talk with some of these students, I say, “They’re so talented, and so modest.”

Martha says, “Yes, we like our talented people that way.”

That’s how arrogance comes up. She tells me she and her Spivey Hall students have been discussing what arrogance is and how it can be both obvious in some cases and insidious in others.

I start thinking how I would define arrogance, and quickly realize I can’t. I find it easier to recognize than to define, so I admit to Martha, “I don’t know what the etymology of arrogance is,” and Martha says, “You’ll have to write a blog about it.”

So here it is, Martha.

Someone very wise once told me that the stick of self-absorption has two ends, arrogance and self-loathing.

Since I’ve spent most of my life on the self-loathing end of the self-absorption stick, I find that entrenched, dense, and seemingly unexamined arrogance is repulsive; well, it’s actually boring (narcissism is not known to be a scintillating conversation-starter); however, on the other hand, self-loathing (speaking from experience) is just as much of a trap as arrogance, and equally boring to one’s self and to others.

Being human is a tricky business, really.

Growing up, we get handed so many seemingly mixed messages. We’re told, “Be confident!” We’re told, “Be humble!” We’re told, “You must have self-esteem!” We’re told, “Don’t focus on yourself so much!”

Often it does seem that we either overestimate ourselves or underestimate ourselves. I love me; I love me not. I love me; I love me not. We pull the petals on the daisy of our souls and wonder which one it is today. This hour. This second.

Both extremes indicate a lack of self-knowledge. What an ongoing, non-stop process self-knowledge is, or else we perish—it’s a class with no final exam, unless death is considered; a course with no textbook, unless the Psalms are reckoned into the day; and a subject with no teacher, unless, like me, you look to Jesus to learn more about the mystery of Love, which is, perhaps, the ultimate self-knowledge.

I can’t understand concepts unless I know what soil the words that symbolize them rest in. So I turn to etymologies, or word histories, a lot. The etymologies of arrogance and of loathe make pictures in my mind that help me understand my soul better.

The etymology of arrogance, for example, reminds me of the challenges of parenting. We spend a lot of our energy reprimanding our children, saying: “Don’t say, ‘Gimme!’ all the time!”

There’s a wonderful Berenstain Bears book in which Brother and Sister Bear learn not to have a case of the “gimmes” each time their grandparents come over to visit them. Instead of greeting their grandparents at the door with a hug, they ask, “What’d you bring us? Gimme! Gimme!”

But, really, the irony is that we all grow taller, get older, and find gray hair on our heads one day, but remain somewhere deep inside “Gimme!”-children in our souls.

We have notions of what we want to “get” from life. We learn to say “Gimme!” in increasingly more “sophisticated” ways.

A friend of mine once said to me, “We’re all selfish. It’s just that some of us learn how to be selfish in more socially accepted ways.”

So, we all have ideas about how our lives and our every day should go, and when life disappoints us or doesn’t give us the attention we want, we usually get upset. Who hasn’t walked that path? I think that maturing is learning to appreciate the simplest of blessings and to see that simple blessings are NOT small but are HUGE in the scheme of happiness and peace!

We are given so much each day.

To see the sky is NOT a small blessing. To hear birds chirping is NOT a small blessing. To have a good friend such as Martha Shaw is NOT a small blessing. To teach students is NOT a small blessing. To wake up each day with a kind, loyal, interested, smart husband who is also a great father to our two children is NOT a small blessing!

Arrogance is rooted in the Latin word for “to ask.” It comes from the Latin rogare, which literally means, “to stretch out the hand.” I can picture that alright. That’s the “Gimme!” part of arrogance. The ar- prefix is really ad- for “to,” so truly arrogance means, “GIVE THAT TO ME!” We’re asking for special rights.

We’re demanding, requesting, requiring, and stretching out our hands to receive WHAT WE DEMAND RIGHT NOW. That’s arrogance.

The image of arrogance is a child’s reaching out and tugging on a parent’s shirt, demanding a new toy after opening all of his or her presents on Christmas day.

Arrogance also reminds me of a Frank Sinatra song: “I did it my way,” because arrogance has within its etymological roots the notion that I’m going “to move in a straight line,” I’m going “to direct” my own life completely, I’m going “to control” my day, and I’m going “to rule” my world. Yes, I will.

There is no flexibility in arrogance. It has the straight edge of an unbending ruler along which the world is measured by self-absorbed values.

After all, ruler, regina, rex, rule, regal, and right are all rooted in the same Latin word regere, for “to move in a straight line, to direct, to control, and to rule.”

Isn’t this the description of most two-year-olds? And of many “grownups”? The difference is that most thwarted-in-what-they-want grownup-type people won’t hold their breath until their wrinkling faces go blue. (I don’t usually.)

(Okay, it must be admitted that this mindset, at various strengths, is of epidemic proportions among us human beings. I wake up with it each day. We all want our days to go “right.” Some days I’m better able to let go of my white-knuckled grip on my own perspective, and those are beautiful, joyful days; also, at fifty I have certainly at least learned that there’s no such thing as an interruption, just different things and people inserting themselves into my day at unexpected times. I’ve also learned to turn my phone off—ha!)

A gentle wanting-things-to-go-right isn’t meant here, but that all-consuming IT-HAS-TO-BE-MY-WAY sense that belongs to narcissism, perhaps the darkest form of arrogance that blinds us to the existence of anyone else in this world.

The theme song of our human arrogance might be, “You’re so vain—I bet you think this song is about you. Don’t you!” Or, “I’m so vain—I always think this song is about me!”

On the other side of self-absorption, opposite arrogance, we have self-loathing; and it is rather comforting to know that loathing is a very old word. People have been hating themselves (well, and therefore others) for a very long time, AND so I’m not at all alone in this difficulty. Loathing’s roots are in Old English soil, from laðian, for “to hate.”

From there, the deeper roots get quite interesting. Loathing and laðian are related to the modern German word, Leid, for “sorrow, pain.”

You know, in Germany you say, “Es tut mir leid,” when you’ve hurt someone’s feelings and want to say, “Sorry.” It means, “What I did makes me feel pain [Leid].”

We often find that self-awareness is painful, and when it gets out-of-hand or when we have been hurt by others, that pain can run amuck. Much of my life has been spent (and will be spent) learning how to handle pain graciously. (I don’t handle pain graciously. Learning to handle pain graciously is the point, you see. That’s where God comes in.)

Loathing’s deepest roots are obscure, but there is a keen possibility that they ultimately come to rest in a simple Old English interjection, La! for “Oh!”

It is definitely reminiscent of “Oh woe is me!”

My hardest days spent in self-loathing saw much of that. The image I see with self-loathing is one of beating my own breast, saying, “Oh woe is me!” It is a cry filled with self-pity and with self-hatred.

Self-loathing is not to be confused with godly sorrow, which is the grace that always helps me recognize, confess, and grow when I’ve made mistakes or have sinned or have finally recognized genuine self-blindness. It’s that half-second of daylight when everything is dark, and I can only muster the smallest cry that suffices in the world of divine love: “Help me, God!” Sometimes it’s only, “HELP!”

The theme songs for self-loathing could be “Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen,” along with Kurt Cobain’s “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.”

It seems a worthwhile notion to become friends with one’s self. As I wake up each day to a new sun (meaning, as I get older), I want to learn how to become best friends with my self. It’s a fairly new concept for me.

This metamorphosis (ongoing) can (continue to) happen if I remain best friends with Christ and pay attention to his awesome Self. This means that I love prayer and solitude and the Bible and other books written by people who were and/or are best friends with God, and it also means that I love others and that I also love being kind and forgiving.

It also means that when I don’t love any of these things or any of these people (including my own self), that I receive the grace and have given to me the gift of the grace to ask for the grace to revert to that tiniest of prayers, “Help me, God, love again!”

It’s a tricky business to be a human being.

That’s why I turned to God.

I became a Christian when I was only seven precisely because I knew even then that I needed to change (and change quick). I’d heard the preacher say that Jesus could help me do just that. I started this invisible friendship with God because I’d heard that it could transform me.

At fifty, I can say that, though change has been and remains glacial slow, owing to my human clay feet, my friendship with God has changed me and still does change my stubborn, hard heart. It’s an adventure!

The benefits are that I will have a growing healthy self-image, love for my self, love for others, and plenty of love for God underwriting it all.

Also, I will be flexible, increasingly so.

Christianity in its beginnings focuses on the “now”—Jesus says notice how the flowers don’t worry about food and clothing and yet are so beautiful, and early Christianity also focuses on the “process”—Jesus says that he has come to give us abundant life (not arrogant, self-loathing lives); therefore, we can all hope (and certainly pray) that arrogance, narcissism, self-loathing, and anti-loving behavior in general can be changed.

I mean one person at a time. I mean starting in me.

I for one believe in transformation, since Christ lives in me and is my Friend.

I want to have the outlook that my son, John, has. On one occasion when I said to him, “John, you’re so handsome and so smart,” he answered without hesitating, barely looking up from his Legos he was building, to say, “I know, Mommy.”

Then he went on playing, not missing a beat. Nor did he dwell on that thought and make it overlarge in his head. He didn’t need to. He trusts me. He knows I have been, am, and will be there for him.

I thought, My son is confident in my love, and I’m just a human mother, prone to forgetting things and getting lost without a GPS in the car. How much more can I be confident in God’s perfect, all-forgiving, all-knowing, never-forgetting, always finding-me divine love? I am God’s daughter. God loves me.

I will spend the rest of my days discovering God’s love for me.

I will spend them learning to let go of my worries and my arrogance and my self-loathing and my self-absorption, discovering more and more new ways to accept God’s endless and unending love.

Won’t that be fun!

Selah.

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Hide-and-Seek God

When I was a stay-at-home mom, and our daughter was almost three, she loved to play hide-and-seek. One time in Mountain View, California, she and I were playing hide-and-seek, just the two of us, on the dusty, shaded playground a short walk from our rented townhouse. School had just let out, so we had the playground mostly to ourselves. I hid first, and she found me fairly easily. Various anatomical parts of me stuck out from behind a skinny pine tree.

“Your turn to hide!” I sang out, and off she dashed with that nervous look that is the excitement of possibly “being found.” I just saw her back as she pumped her arms and scampered off, head down, searching for shelter.

I’m a stickler for following rules, and, as the oldest of four siblings, I always have been; so I turned my back to my toddler and dutifully counted slowly to twenty, out loud. Then I turned around and started searching. I was serious about the search, too. I looked behind the slide, behind the skinny pine tree, behind the bushes, and just as I started across the playground, still searching, out dashed Kate yelling, “Surprise! Here I am! I found you!”

Huh? I said to myself and started to explain to her that that is NOT how the game works, when I stopped and thought, In this surprise is some spiritual lesson, but I’m not sure what. We played several more times, with her “hiding,” only to jump out sooner each time, shouting, “I found you!”

A decade later, I think back on this hide-and-seek game with my then toddler. By temperament, I am a rules follower, someone who prefers order, but over the years that preference has given way (often whether I’ve wanted it to or not) in the face of life as it is truly lived. My natural temperament that yearns for routine and schedule and predictability has eroded in the waves of living and loving imperfectly, as a wife and as a mom and later as a professor, writer, and speaker, and the sand of my once seemingly ordered life has been carried out to sea.

I turn to the Bible for nourishment, always have. It is the lighthouse on the rocky part of the shore, there faithfully, no matter the weather.

Over time, I forgot those playground games with my daughter. Then, one day not too long ago, I found myself translating the fourteenth-century classic on Bible meditation and contemplative prayer, The Cloud of Unknowing. In Chapter 46, I read words that reminded me of those hide-and-seek games with our daughter:

And don’t be hard on yourself. By that, I mean don’t overtax yourself emotionally or physically. Choose to be enthusiastic instead. This discipline [of Bible meditation and contemplative prayer] doesn’t require brute strength, but joy. As you increase the joy in your contemplative work, you also increase its humility and genuine spirituality, but if you force it, your efforts sink into a crude physicality. So beware. Remember that anyone approaching the high mountain of contemplation with a beastly heart will be driven away with stones. . . . That’s why you should be careful. Instead of being stubborn as a mule, learn to love with gentleness and joy, kindness and good manners. Cultivate self-control of body and soul. Accept the will of our Lord gracefully. Never lunge for it like a hungry dog. Even if you’re starving, don’t be a greedy greyhound. Don’t grab. Let me suggest how you can do this. I’m going to advise you to play a sort of game with God, seriously. Pretend you don’t want what you want as much as you want it. When you feel that beast, desire, stirring inside you with tremendous power, restrain it. Act as if you don’t want God to find out how much you long to see him, know him, and feel him. Hide all that. Perhaps I sound like a child making up a game, but I mean it. I’m confident that anyone with the grace to put my advice into practice will eventually experience the joy of God’s playfulness. God will come to you, the way an earthly father plays with his child, kissing and hugging, making everything alright.

“God will come to you, the way an earthly father [or mother, I say] plays with his [or her] child, kissing and hugging, making everything alright”—this wise observation reminded me that my two-year-old daughter was so confident I would find her that she didn’t even try to hide well. To her, the joy was in not-hiding quite and then bursting on me as soon as I began searching. She has always loved to surprise me with her unique presence. Would that I were that child with God my Father, I thought.

In devotional literature, it’s not unusual to find this hide-and-seek image. Often ancient Christian writers use diction and description to suggest that our relationship with God is not unlike a game of hide-and-seek between parent and child, which ends with the parent’s “finding” the child and covering him or her with kisses and hugs.

In the thirteenth-century spiritual guidebook, Ancrene Riwle, another anonymous author writes, Ure Louerd plaieth mid us, ase the moder mid hire junge deorlinge. (“Our Lord plays with us as the mother with her young darling.”) The Ancrene Riwle passage then describes a hide-and-seek game in which God our Mother hides, Her child cries out, “Mother! Mother!” and God jumps out with open arms and cluppeth and cusseth and wipeth (“hugs and kisses and wipes”) our eyes. The Ancrene Riwle author uses this image to describe the experience of how God withdraws or “hides” His grace from us for a time, before returning to “find” us. For this passage, see Nicholas Watson’s Anchoritic Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1991, page 132).

The hide-and-seek image is used, perhaps, because it suggests the intimacy of those who play this child’s game. In the classic The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham tell a story that helps me understand this experience:

The Medzibozer’s grandson, Yechiel Michael, was playing hide and seek with another child. He hid himself for some time, but his playmate did not look for him. Little Yechiel ran to Rabbi Baruch and said amid tears: “He did not look for me!”

The Rabbi said: “This is also God’s complaint, that we seek Him not.” (107)

But perhaps this next story from The Spirituality of Imperfection best helps me understand those long-ago games of hide-and-seek with my daughter and also my own dark, difficult, and despairing life experiences where I felt that God was “hiding” from me:

Once upon a time, a carefree young girl who lived at the edge of a forest and who loved to wander in the forest became lost. As it grew dark and the little girl did not return home, her parents became very worried. They began calling for the little girl and searching in the forest, and it grew darker. The parents returned home and called neighbors and people from the town to help them search for their little girl.

Meanwhile, the little girl wandered about in the forest and became very worried and anxious as it grew dark, because she could not find her way home. She tried one path and another and became more and more tired. Coming to a clearing in the forest, she lay down by a big rock and fell asleep.

Her frantic parents and neighbors scoured the forest. . . . but to no avail. Many of the searchers became exhausted and left, but the little girl’s father continued searching throughout the night.

Early in the morning, the father came to the clearing where the girl had lain to sleep. He suddenly saw his little girl and ran toward her, yelling and making a great noise on the dry branches which awoke the girl.

The little girl saw her father, and with a great shout of joy she exclaimed, “Daddy, I found you!” (108)

Kurtz and Ketcham write, “[W]e find what we are looking for only by being looked for” (108).

As we played together those many years ago, my toddler daughter found what she was looking for, the assurance of my searching for her, by jumping out and surprising me, upturning the “rules” of hide-and-seek because she could count on my being right there.

Sometimes, when I feel in hard times that Christ’s face is turned from me, that God who is my Best Friend is “hiding” from me, what jumps out at me is often my husband’s listening, a hug or a kiss from my children, a Bible verse, a loving friend, a kind stranger, a deliberately hearing-me wise person, my spontaneous wonder before a newly white dogwood, or a poignant sermon, and God says, “Surprise! I found you!”

Or maybe I say, “Father, I found you!”

Sometimes, in mutually loving relationships, it is almost impossible to tell who does the finding and who is the found.

So I keep praying that I embrace the grace to keep on seeking. Is the seeking the finding and the being found?

Anyway, I pray to live in the middle place of Christ’s enduring, loving mystery where grace and seeking meet.

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