Playing in the Dirt

I wasn’t really sure why the session was called “Playing in the Dirt.”

Drawing on Arthur Boer’s book, Living into Focus, Andrew Peterson talked about focal practices.  He defined them as activities that 1.) demand effort, 2.) connect us with others, and 3.) put us in touch with powers greater than ourselves. Three men joined AP in his presentation — a beekeeper, a birder, and a pipe-maker — and each shared how their “hobby” brought them into a deeper relationship both with God and man.

I left the session wondering what my focal practice could be.

“What did you think of the session?” I asked Mary a little later.

“I think that it made me want to get my own printing press,” she answered.

Yes, I could picture Mary with her own printing press, setting type, learning the mechanics of the machine, playing with inks and papers, and connecting with other people who shared that interest. I envied her a little that she could so easily identify a focal practice.

In my notes I had written, “In that moment you don’t want to be anywhere else or doing anything else.” I have had moments like that, but they are very private moments, in prayer or study, where hours pass and I am unaware of that passage of time because I am so engrossed in what I’m doing.  Unfortunately, those moments are so private that they fail in the criteria of connecting me with others.  Others feel like an intrusion.

I came home from Hutchmoot pondering a printing press for Mary.  Where could we get one? Where could we put it? The ready answer for her seemed an easier problem to tackle than coming up with a focal practice for myself. It’s not an easy problem, though.  Where would we get one? Where would we put it?

IMG_4996As I stood at my window on Tuesday morning, looking out at the leaves that have fallen on our garden, I noticed that some of the zinnias were still blooming despite the hard frosts. I had cut what I thought were the last of them before I left, but there were more, still blooming.  I grabbed the clippers to cut them so I could enjoy them on my kitchen table.

This morning, Friday, as I thought again about that focal practice, I looked at my little bouquet of zinnias and out the window to the still more blooming in my garden. I walked to the garden again and cut the flowers, smiling at the marigolds nestled in the leaves and flat out grinning at the daisy that dared to show her face in mid-October.

Marigolds in the leaves

Marigolds in the leaves.

Zinnia still blooming

Zinnia still blooming

A rebel daisy

A rebel daisy

Playing in the dirt.

Ha! My focal practice may indeed involve playing in the dirt.

The joy I experienced this summer in growing flowers was one I knew that I wanted to enjoy again next summer.

It will take effort — sifting through soil, choosing seeds and plants, tending, weeding, watering.

It will connect me others — as I glean knowledge from more experienced gardeners and as I share what I know and grow.

It will put me in touch with a power greater than myself. It already does — pushing back the darkness in this aching world and bringing in some color and light.

Beauty and mystery in growing flowers, a focal practice I can dirty my hands with.

An October bouquet -- Zinnias and a coneflower

An October bouquet — Zinnias and a coneflower

The World is a Wedding (and a Herkimer Diamond)

The other day I was sitting at our local mechanic’s shop, waiting for an oil change, and reading the Talmud.  (Isn’t that what everyone does while waiting for an oil change?) Anyway, I came across this sentence: “The world is a wedding.”

Aviary Photo_130563776508764253Having just been to a beautiful wedding, I thought this a wonderful way to describe the world.

A wedding is a love story, two people promising themselves to each other “til death do us part.”

Our world is also a love story — between God and man, where the church is the bride of Christ.

A wedding is a leaving and joining; it’s the close of one chapter and the beginning of another; it’s a little bit of sadness and a lot of joy.

What I loved most about Owen and Emily’s wedding were the little details.

flowers on the window ledge in the church

The flowers on the window ledges came mostly from our gardens, and the bottles were mostly borrowed from friends.When they were moved to the barn where the reception was held, they were a thread of continuity between the ceremony and the celebration.

Flowers along a beam in the barn

Owen and Emily included elements of fun, too, like the pinata and the bobble-heads.

Pig pinata

Pig pinata

A table of bobble-heads and treats.

A table of bobble-heads and treats.

Their wedding included everything from carousel rides to cider and doughnuts. It makes me smile just to think about it.

The table decorations, to me, were the icing on the (gluten-free) cake.

Table decorations

Table decorations

Brightly colored napkins, some made by Owen, served as the place-cards, tied with twine, with a name attached, neatly placed on each plate.  A strip of burlap ran down the center of each table.  A milk glass vase with a few flowers stood at either end of the table. And rocks. Several rocks were placed at random intervals on the burlap.

I looked at the rocks and was absolutely delighted. They were Herkimer Diamonds.

Herkimer Diamonds in our garden

Herkimer Diamonds in our garden

Herkimer Diamonds are unique double-terminated quartz crystals found in a roughly 30 mile swath of upstate New York near Herkimer. Hunting for them is so much fun. Getting the crystal free and intact from the mother-rock takes skills that I don’t have, so when we mine, we take the whole rock. The rocks sparkle even if there is no obvious diamond.

The world, and a wedding, are like Herkimer diamonds. They are hard. They can be rough.

But there are also plenty of sparkles for those willing to look for them.

The world is a wedding.

Thanks be to God.

Learning from a 5 year old

We recently changed where we sit in church. If I had known how much fun it would be to sit behind Jacob, I would have moved years ago.

Jacob is 110% boy. His serious 5-year-old face belies his enthusiasm, but the twinkle in his eye reveals all. He has the kind of energy that people try to bottle and sell under brand names like Monster and 5 Hour Energy, except his is all-natural and can’t be bottled. While he is constantly moving, he is also constantly listening.

Yesterday, he was doing a speedy side-slide shuffle along his little section of the pew while the scripture, Micah 7:18-20, was being read.

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
    and passing over transgression
    for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger for ever,
    because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
    he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
    into the depths of the sea.
You will show faithfulness to Jacob [emphasis mine]
    and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
    from the days of old.

When the words “to Jacob” were read, little Jacob stopped dead in his tracks.

“To Jacob,” he said out loud. “Why me?”

I laughed. Why me indeed? Shouldn’t that be the response every one of us gives to a passage about God’s forgiveness and faithfulness?

IMG_4944Later, Jacob was lying on the pew, zooming two pencils over his head like little airplanes, as the pastor was finishing the Great Thanksgiving and issuing the invitation to receive communion.  Upon hearing the words, “Come, the table is ready,” Jacob leaped to his feet, clapped his hands, and said, “Wait for me!”

The church we attend welcomes children to partake in communion.  Communion can, at times, be a bit chaotic. There may be some who may look down on this practice, but I have found it refreshing. I fully understand Jacob’s joy at going forward to receive the bread and the wine.

In the words of The Great Thanksgiving,

Gracious God, pour out Your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these Your gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ
that we may be for the world
the body of Christ, redeemed by His blood.

By your Spirit draw us together in one body
and join us to Christ the Lord,
that we may remain His glad and faithful people
until we feast with Him in glory.

I receive the bread and the wine with sobriety, and also with great joy. Communion is not just a time to reflect back on Christ’s sacrifice, but it’s a time to look forward to a day when we will feast at a great banquet with Him. I love that.

If you think church is boring (not that it is for me), look for a Jacob to sit behind.  He can teach you a lot.

Luxury

Luxury

Luxury

This, to me, is luxury.

It is not a house that’s too big,
or a swimming pool,
or hot tub.

It is not a housekeeper,
or a groundsman,
or a chauffeur.

It is not trinkets and baubles,
or jewelry,
or stuff.

It is having vibrant orange flowers
still blossoming in my northern garden
in October.

It is seeing the fog rest over the valley
and appreciating its beauty.

It is family –
people who encourage,
cajole,
hug,
challenge,
and delight me.

It is walking with my children
to an old wooden church
with old stained glass windows
where old hymns are sung
by saints, old and young.

I am rich indeed.

The Power Pose

I laughed at Jacob when he was talking about making himself big.

“Really,” he insisted, “it makes you feel powerful.” He demonstrated with arms high and spread, taking up as much space as he possibly could.

We tried a “big” picture once when we were on vacation.Jacob's camera Williamsburg 1472As you can see, only a few people took it seriously. I was laughing. Helen gave a half-hearted effort. Laurel was worried that she was going to get smacked in the face. Even Jacob and Philip, while they made themselves big, didn’t look terribly intimidating. Sam, behind me, was the only one who looked like he really meant it.

Well, meant what, exactly?

It turns out Jacob was onto something. I read an article today called “How to Enter a Room Like a Boss.” It was on a website called The Art of Manliness,  which is not one I frequent, but someone had posted a link and it made me think of Jacob’s “big.” The article said,

What does this mean for you? If you can, before you enter a room take two minutes to put yourself in a power pose, with your arms and legs stretched out as far as they can go. This will spike your testosterone and drop your cortisol, making you feel calm, confident, and self-assured.

I wonder if testosterone spikes and cortisol drops with laughter, because, seriously, that’s all I can do regarding this.

My favorite “big” picture is one I took when we were on vacation this spring. I told Karl and Laurel to go out on a sand bar and be big.Rachel Carson 093It was a beautiful day at the Rachel Carson Reserve.  With an expansive sky stretching above and behind them, and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean lapping at their feet, “big” became a relative term.

As it should be.

Our “powerfulness” or feelings of power and confidence shouldn’t come from a pose, it should come from our heart. It should come from remembering how small we really are, but that we are loved by the God of the universe.

He who put the stars in place also knows my name. That makes me feel pretty big.

Cannery Row

SCN_0478After reading Cannery Row, I forgave John Steinbeck for writing Of Mice and Men.

In fact, I think high school students across America should read Cannery Row instead of Of Mice and Men.  The salty language, plus the fact that the main characters include a madam and a bunch of bums, may preclude that from ever happening, but still. Cannery Row is a book of hope and grace and love.

Golly, I love this book.

I love the humanity.

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” and he would have meant the same thing.”

I love the people:

  • Lee Chong, who runs the grocery and of whom Steinbeck wrote, “It was deeply a part of Lee’s kindness and understanding that man’s right to kill himself is inviolable, but sometimes a friend can make it unnecessary.”
  • Dora Flood, the madam who ran, “no fly-by-night cheap clip-joint but a sturdy, virtuous club, built, maintained, and disciplined by Dora who … has through the exercise of special gifts of tact and honesty, charity and a certain realism, made herself respected by the intelligent, the learned, and the kind.”
  • Mack and the boys, Cannery Row’s bums, designated “the Beauties, the Virtues, and the Graces.” “What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed-up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, blots-on-the town, thieves, rascals, bums.”
  • Doc, who “tips his hat to dogs as he drives by and the dogs look up and smile at him. He can kill anything for need but would not even hurt a feeling for pleasure.”

Each person Steinbeck writes into the story is written with great love — an all-seeing love that doesn’t even attempt to hide their imperfections. It meets them where they are.

I’ve never been sure what the ultimate lesson from Of Mice and Men is.  That life is tragic?

I know what the lesson of Cannery Row is. Love and grace. That’s a better lesson for our high-schoolers, even if it does involve prostitutes and bums.

Silence by Shusaku Endo

The Netflix series, House of Cards, opens with these words:

There are two kinds of pain — the sort of pain that makes you strong and useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering.  I have no patience for useless things.  Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.

Such is a politician’s view on suffering. They play God.

IMG_4876[1]Silence by Shusaku Endo upends every firmly-held belief you’ve ever had on suffering and what it means to love God. The book takes place in 17th century Japan, a time when Christianity had been outlawed.  Christians were being rounded up and tortured until they apostatized. Father Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest, makes his way into Japan where he witnesses and experiences unspeakable suffering.

Over the past week I have received an email, basically the same one, from several different people asking for prayer for the Christians in Syria.  The email draws on quotes from emails from missionaries in Syria.  Here are two excerpts:

We lost the city of Queragosh (Qaraqosh). It fell to ISIS and they are beheading children systematically…

…ISIS is systematically going house to house to all the Christians and asking the children to denounce Jesus. He said so far not one child has. And so far all have consequently been killed. But not the parents….

Unspeakable suffering. I cannot imagine what it is to watch your child beheaded for Christ.

Where is God in the midst of this? Why is He silent?

The immediate feeling is that we must do something, and surely we must. Like Frank Underwood (in House of Cards), we feel like we need ” someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”

The bigger battle, though, is an unseen one, a spiritual one. The obvious choices for the battle we see may not be the right choices for the real war. Plus, I would posit that there is no useless pain, only pain we wish we didn’t have to deal with.

At his darkest moment, Father Rodrigues hears Christ say,

…It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.

Silence is a book that raises more questions than it answers. It answers questions in disturbing ways. It is a book that will stay with me, or anyone who dares to read it, for a long, long time.

*****

A better write-up, and what led me to this book in the first place, is “The Harrowing Silence: A Book Recommendation” by Pete Peterson at the Rabbit Room.