Wednesday, September 30, 2009

the beauty of laboring {or laboring for beauty}

Yesterday I was talking with my friend Lori about all the things that were concerning me going into this weekend's big annual Art Show on Main at Union Center.  People are praying, work is coming together but still these anxious thoughts and legitimate concerns sit on top of my brain like unwanted squatters.  I say to Lori "I don't mind working and praying and even being tired.  But I don't want to miss the beauty of all that is going to happen.  I don't want to be walking around like a squinty-eyed grouch."  Lori laughed (God bless her), reminded me that it was going to be OK and promised to pray.

Fast forward to last evening.  I knew I needed a good night of sleep so I mixed up my best sleep-aid cocktail that involves smooth Canadian whisky, Sprite (because I'm a girl afterall), a shot glass and a lighthearted book.  I'm laying in bed reading a lovely, old Moss Hart autobiography my mother gave me and this sentence stopped me mid-page:  ...there is an old and fond phrase in the theatre which actors whisper to each other on opening nights: 'Eleven o'clock always comes'.  Well, there's comfort in that sentiment, I guess. That no matter what happens with the big, scary thing you're about to risk, the clock will keep ticking and, eventually you'll be able to slip behind the door of your private dressing room and move on with your life.  Well, I guess there's comfort in that.

So I say to myself, November always comes.  But it doesn't feel that comforting because I know that the temptation to close my eyes and hold my breath through the month of October is not the way to truly live.  It's not the way to be alert to the small beauties that come, no matter what.  I don't want to miss the graces of art and community that will happen this month.  I don't want to miss the invisible breezes of the Spirit caressing all that is good and difficult about our fourth annual Art Show on Main.

In the interest of walking through each moment with this kind of awareness, I'd like to share some of the small beauties I've already seen along the way.  There's far more that can be recounted here, but the discipline of writing even a few of them down is good practice in living and praying with my eyes wide open.  Alert to the ways God is showing favor on our labor.  Assured of the reward, seen and unseen.

Here's one for starters:

This past weekend I watched my friends' band play a corporate charity event at a local wing and beer joint.  I know they're my friends, but, really, they're pretty good.  They have been working together for a couple of years and play a few gigs each year.  Every once in awhile when I'm chatting with them, I hear in their voices the longing to know what they're supposed to be doing with this group.  Just have a good time every once in awhile?  Play a charity gig here, a benefit there, a church event in between? 

A couple of us were having lunch on Sunday.  On our drive back to our cars we got on the subject of their band and what the future holds for it.  What do they play?  Where do they play?  If they are supposed to be playing bars and such how do they  make a difference in the spiritual realm?  And I've heard and read it learned it before: that art is incarnational -- making the invisible visible -- and subversive.  That it is beauty and truth and goodness for the sake of beauty, truth and goodness.  That God is truth, goodness and beauty and when we participate in the creation of these things we reveal the very image of God.

I'd been reading Psalm 19 all week and, like words that never had been spoken before, but birthed just now by the Spirit in my mind and mouth I said, "It's Psalm 19."
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.

Of course I couldn't remember all those words exactly like that right then and there in the parking lot, one hand on the seatbelt release, frozen in that spot by the sheer Spirit of the conversation, raindrops dripping on the windshield, car rumbling in idle.  "Lori, you guys are like the stars! They don't preach the gospel but they declare the glory of God.  You are subversive.  You surely revealed the image of God in that place last night.  The love and beauty and, really, just freakin' talent of you didn't have to be wrapped up in a gospel talk to be powerful."

Listen again: Their words aren't heard, their voices aren't recorded. But their silence fills the earth; unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.

So, I'm hoping that this group of friends and artists and Christ-followers will press on and write songs and reveal God's image.  I hope that my labors this month will give them one good sense of being led and loved on and encouraged.  That when they sit in the workshop with Brian Moss and Jason Harrod they'll know they are not alone.  That they can walk in the tracks of others.  That they can risk the longing that is pulling them.  The same longing I felt deep in the unspeakable parts of me as I listened to them Saturday night:  They are bigger than this.  And I don't mean the bar.

I leave this post with a video I stumbled on yesterday.  I politely ran across this guy's path at the symposium I attended last April.  I think he  probably knows what he's talking about.  I'm not sure why he's looking down into the camera the way he is.  I choose to picture us standing inside a huddle on the side of the field and I am warmed by his mid-game pep talk.  If I'd been there during the filming of it, I'd wanted to have him add that it can't be art by itself that will bring the kind of renewal he is cheering us with, but fully-formed artists as disciplined in skill and spirit and community.  (thank you, David, for this continual reminder)

Well, see for yourself (and what a joyous small beauty to discover that he's been thinking about Psalm 19, too!)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Art Show on Main opens October 3

It's the fourth annual art show at Union Center Christian Church.
Each year we hope to cultivate beauty and community through the making and appreciation of art.

If you are an artist (or you think you might be!) join us early on Saturday for workshops and panel discussions:

1:00 PM - 3:00 PM: Workshops
3:30 PM - 5:00 PM:  Feature Artist Panel Discussion
Hear straight from the artists themselves: their stories, the ups and downs of the creative life, the daily habits and struggles of living as an art maker.  Play your part as an art-maker and bring your questions, frustrations and encouragement for your fellow artists!

6:00 PM - 9:00 PM:  Exhibit opening with Coffeehouse on Main
Hear live music, author readings and art talks from our featured artists.  Enjoy free sugary desserts and caffeine-laden concoctions.  Support the aspiring musicians and spoken word artists who auditioned to play at this event.  Play your part as an art-appreciator and come for all or part of the evening!
(Coffee, desserts and admission are free.  The Cafe on Main will be open to purchase an even wider variety of coffeehouse beverages.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

as through a glass: trying to imagine myself a young widow

photo credit

Last night I went to a viewing.  It was a friend of my family's since I was a little girl.  Actually since my Dad was a little boy.  But the death was not his generation. It was mine.  The widow is forty years old.  It was awful. Except for a sort of lovely awareness that this was a good man and he had loved deeply and had been deeply loved.

But I do not wish at all to sentimentalize the tragedy of this man's death.  This husband of eighteen years. This father of a ten and thirteen-year-old. I looked them in the eye and saw trauma. Pure and simple. Absolute fear and pain. I'm not sure I've ever seen it in a rawer form than looking that boy, that ten-year-old son, in the eye.

When I walked by him in the receiving line my father was just ahead of me.  Dad held the boy's hands up, "See these big hands?  He's got man hands."  And all I could do is cover that man/boy hand with my own.  As if somehow a power of motherly God-ness would flow through me into him. I guess I thought maybe that was the hand that touched his father's cold dead arm earlier this week?  I didn't know what else to do but sandwich his sweet hand between my father's and my own. 

Later my mother and I were sitting in the middle of the room watching all that was going on around us in that uncanny ritual of people parading in front of the casket.  I looked over at my girl-hood friend and then at her mother and grandmother standing further up the receiving line.  "A family full of widows." I said this to my mother.  Really, I think, no family should ever see three generations of widows standing together in a line.

I remember a decade ago when Brian and I sat together in church on a Sunday morning and heard the report that one of our church's respected leaders had cheated on his wife. It was a horrible morning.  We were new to the church and really didn't know the people involved.  But I remember well the shock of recognition swirling in my gut.  That this had happened to this kind of couple meant this could happen to us.  To me. To Brian.  I looked at him strangely for days afterward.  Like the power of someone else's tragedy inserted itself between him and me.  Like a thick, blurry wall of glass.  That I had to look at him from a distance in case someday I'd have to separate myself from him and needed to get an idea of what he'd look like that way.

That's the same kind of cold, clammy shock that creeped through me while I stood in front of that awful, lovely casket.  I looked at the forty-year-old man, sun glasses perched on top of his head -- as was his custom.  His thick, made-up lips, not yet old enough to be wrinkled or drawn, even in death.  The fresh scrape on his house-building man-hands.  The sliver of dirt still under his fingernail.  I found myself trying to picture what Brian's lips would look like in a casket.

You might expect I'd gone home to love on him, be overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that he was healthy and full of life and trying to fix the leak in the upstairs bathroom.  But I was cranky with him instead. As if the knowing that he could die at his age was his fault.  That re-inserting a plate of protective glass between us, looking through with a disapproving squint would somehow protect me from being as vulnerable as the forty-year-old widow slumped on a stool, teary slits for eyes.

Like: how dare he take apart the bathroom plumbing when he could die any day now? If he really loved me he'd have called  a plumber and not leave me behind with this mess.

Monday, September 21, 2009

farewell summer

We thought the final day of summer was a good day to...

...make chili with the one, cute little green pepper harvested from our failed garden....

...fix the back steps that fell apart while we were on vacation... (well, Brian did this. I just put flower pots of blooming mums at the base of the steps when he was all done)...

...finally set up the badminton net we had purchased back in the dog days when the kids were bored. Better late than never.

Summer 2009 you flew by quickly but you were good and we are grateful to your Maker.
Bring on the Autumn days!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

study [disciplines for the inner life]

It cannot be that the people should grow in grace unless they give themselves to reading. A reading people will always be a knowing people. A people who talk much will know little. Press this upon them with your might, and you will soon see the fruit of your labours.
...You can never be deep...without it any more than a thorough Christian. O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not; what is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days...
--From The Message of the Wesleys. Compiled by Philip S. Watson
The words else you will be a trifler all your days stopped me breathless in this meditation on study. In some way, the spirit (hopefully, the holy one) has infused this fear into the daily fabric of my being and doing. On good days, surrendered to the spirit who is holy, it could be considered purpose -- although that word is sickeningly overused these days. On bad days, surrendered to the reigns of my flesh and spirits who are not holy, it could be considered drivenness, striving. Either way, it is not trifling.

Imagine, then, my delight at discovering that someone as wise and austere as a Wesley brother would connect trifling with a lack of reading! If I had known it was permissible to say this I could have been using it with my kids and friends for years now.

This meditation on the discipline of study continued to puzzle me at the purpose of the editors of the devotional. Did they intend to lead the reader to the conclusion that the discipline of study was about Bible-reading? Well, Bible-reading is a separate discipline coming up next in the book. Many of the quoted saints and scholars had to do with memorization; was study primarily about memorization? Or -- like the Wesley excerpt suggests -- more about reading; perhaps a spiritual reading, a practice of lectio devina?

After weeks in the meditation (albeit, disjointed meditation with the whirling about of the end of summer and beginning of school for the children) I'm left to assume that study, in this case, is about all of the above. But the common thread of application would certainly be a fierce resistance of trifling all our days.

Consider, won't you, the following excerpts and passages.

Bible reading
Deuteronomy 17:18-20: “When he sits on the throne as king, he must copy for himself this body of instruction on a scroll in the presence of the Levitical priests. He must always keep that copy with him and read it daily as long as he lives. That way he will learn to fear the Lord his God by obeying all the terms of these instructions and decrees. This regular reading will prevent him from becoming proud and acting as if he is above his fellow citizens. It will also prevent him from turning away from these commands in the smallest way. And it will ensure that he and his descendants will reign for many generations in Israel.
Apparently reading keeps us from trifling and snobbery. Since I'm aware of a lot of readers who are quite haughty, clearly reading on its own accord is not the goal here.


How about this guy for a role model?

Without hesitation, without inner debate, I entered into the inheritance of every modern Russian writer intent on the truth: I must write simply to ensure that it was not all forgotten, that posterity might someday come to know of it. Publication in my own lifetime I must shut out of my mind, out of my dreams.
I put away my idle dream. And in its place there was only the surety that my work would not be in vain, that it would someday smite the heads I had in my sights and that those who received its invisible emanations would understand. I no more rebelled against lifelong silence than against the lifelong impossibility of freeing my feet from the pull of gravity. As I finished one piece after another, at first in the camps, then in exile, then after rehabilitation, first verses, then plays, and later prose works too. I had only one desire: to keep all these things out of sight and myself with them.
In the camp this meant committing my verse -- many thousands of lines -- to memory. To help me with this I improvised decimal counting beads and, in transit prisons, broke up matchsticks and used the fragments as tallies. As I approached the end of my sentence I grew more confident of my powers of memory, and began writing down and memorizing prose -- dialogue at first, but then, bit by bit, whole densely written passages. My memory found room for them! It worked. but more and more of my time -- in the end as much as one week every month -- went into the regular repetition of all I had memorized.
--From The Oak and the the Calf by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Shame on us. Shame on me. Tell me now, the more impoverished days?

My friend Tracy and I meet at a pub every other Thursday night to talk about life as women who follow Jesus and try to love our husbands and children and try not to be triflers all our days. Last time we were together we were wondering out loud to each other how to fight off the dark and frustrating thoughts that seem to kick up so much inner dust they cloud out truth and love thoughts. We thought, perhaps, we should be memorizing stuff. Probably Scripture stuff. Next time we are together she is supposed to bring me a passage for us to be memorizing. Solzhenitsyn had his Gulag and broken matchsticks, we'll have our corner booth under the flatscreen and chilled glass mugs.

I read in Madeleine L'Engle's autobiography one of her meditation exercises. She memorized a prayer, passage or poem that began with each letter of the alphabet. She recited them, like an invisible rosary, I'd guess. Sometimes she did this while she was swimming laps in the morning. Well then.

Ultimately, the prayer would be that we (Tracy, me, you) pursue the non-trifling days of the Russian's exile. Or of the psalmist: I relish everything You've told me of life. I won't forget a word of it. For when it comes to words bringing counsel or aid whose would I rather recall? Surely, not my own. As the humble priest Nouwen admits, so do I: I fear that in crisis situations I will have to depend on my own unredeemed ramblings and not the word of God to guide me. (from The Living Reminder)

Spiritual Reading

This application of the study discipline seems to be not only the what of our reading but the how.
Psalm 119:9-16: How can a young person live a clean life? By carefully reading the map of your Word. I'm single-minded in pursuit of you; don't let me miss the road signs you've posted. I've banked your promises in the vault of my heart so I won't sin myself bankrupt. Be blessed, God; train me in your ways of wise living. I'll transfer to my lips all the counsel that comes from your mouth; I delight far more in what you tell me about living than in gathering a pile of riches.I ponder every morsel of wisdom from you, I attentively watch how you've done it. I relish everything you've told me of life, I won't forget a word of it.

In The House of the Soul and Concerning the Inner Life, author Evelyn Underhill boldly states: Spiritual reading is, or at least can be, second only to prayer as a developer and support of the inner life. She defines spiritual reading in this way: the brooding consideration, the savouring -- as it were the chewing of the cud -- in which we digest that which we have absorbed, and apply it to our own needs.

This week Pastor John will tell us a little bit about his view of the problem with teaching. Perhaps, it's not the teacher with the problem but the student in that we crave more and more and more. Like tiny, flightless birds we crane our necks out of the nest gurgling and churgling for more masticated grub when we need, instead, to look more like the sidling cow in the green field, regurgitating our own grub. Chewing it over and re-enjoying it's juices. Pastor John refers to this as marinating. And it requires peace and patience. Instead of an insecurity that drives me to shove more reading down the gullet, I live in the peaceful, grass-chomping state of the spotted bovine. This is true conviction for me.

Evelyn Underhill goes on to instruct: spiritual reading allows us to access all the hoarded supernatural treasure of the race: all that is found out about God. It should not be confined to Scripture, but should also include at least the lives and the writings of the canonized and uncanonized saints. She warms us with the truth that this kind of reading is not an isolated act but one that is truly social: It gives us not only information, but communion: real intercourse with the great souls of the past, who are the pride and glory of the Christian family. Ancient fields crowded with grass-chomping souls sharing the nourishment together. This, friends, is spiritual reading.

Read, savor, stew, question and pray. Yes, friends, chomp away: St. Augustine, John of the Cross and Gregory of Nyssa. Also C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Jonathan Edwards. Forgive me you saints of the female-image-of-God: Teresa of Avila and Mother Teresa. Catherine of Genoa, Catherine of Siena and Kathleen Norris. Corrie Ten Boom, Dallas Willard and Brother Lawrence. Rich, fertile, prayer-and study-soaked lives gorge these ancient fields. Still we trifle away our days with discount-warehouse best-seller lists. Impoverished indeed.

I spent my summer with Flannery O'Connor, Madeleine L'Engle, Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard. My mental and spiritual pantry is stocked full for cold, routine-ridden winter days. Like a stew simmering on the back burner of my mind I have much to recall from those glorious reading days of summer. And, thankfully, much of it is re-recorded in my journal to remind me when things inside me get sparse and croaky, tricking me into thinking I need more, more, more.

At the beginning and the end of the day may study be the discipline that makes the prayer in Psalm 119:1-7 -- on which I meditated for weeks -- be true in my inner and outer life:
Our LORD, you bless everyone
who lives right
and obeys your Law.
You bless all of those
who follow your commands
from deep in their hearts
and who never do wrong
or turn from you.
You have ordered us always
to obey your teachings;
I don't ever want to stray
from your laws.
Thinking about your commands
will keep me from doing
some foolish thing.
I will do right and praise you
by learning to respect
your perfect laws.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

feeling septemberish...

'I guess I'm just feeling Septemberish,' sighed Chester. 'It's getting towards Autumn now. And it's so pretty up in Connecticut. All the trees change color. The days get very clear - with a little smoke on the horizon from burning leaves. Pumpkins begin to come out.' "(The Cricket in Times Square)

Back to School

Iron Kettle Pumpkin Farm with Bethany, Zane and Natalie
(a wee early in the season....)
Goat Cheese Farm

My favorite September socks

Friday, September 11, 2009

Heavy Man Stuck
Scott Kolbo
Creative Commons Attribution

I've known this for a long time.

I know it because I know what we are referring to when we pretty up the last day of Christ by calling it His passion. The Passion of the Christ. What we're really saying is suffering. The suffering of Christ.

But I forgot.

I forgot when a few weeks ago my cousin/friend Robin sat me down in her mother's kitchen -- not two minutes after I arrived from about eight years since the last time I'd sat in that kitchen. When it was just her mother's and not hers, too. She sat me down and asked: What is your passion? At that time I didn't think: She's asking me about my suffering. I didn't even think it when my eyes got liquidy and I exhaled: I haven't felt safe to speak of my passion for a while now.

Why else but the suffering?

And I forgot last weekend at a Labor Day bonfire when my new friend Laura asked me the same question, just put another way: What do you love to do? I forgot that the prickly pain in my gut is actually passion.

I almost remembered when I talked with another friend on the phone this week and she told me that she didn't feel like it was the right time for her to be pursuing her musical gifts. I told her: My heart hurts that you don't. I didn't realize right that minute that pricking, teary, insomnia-producing pain is passion.

Last night I sat with my friend Lori, drinking Yuengling's on her couch so late that it was almost the middle of the night. And I told her how earlier that day Pastor Craig had reminded me that the root of the word passion is the same as suffering. And that I had a bad case of it. And I told Lori that what made it worse was that I felt shame to care so much. That I felt like I just annoyed people all the time caring so much. And that I had to get over that quick.

Or die.
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