Saturday, February 25, 2012

Thorns, redbuds, and a diaper pin

Can you identify this thorny vine?
I spent part of Ash Wednesday weeding - pulling vines out of the holly bushes, cutting back bamboo, pulling grass and weeds out of the flower beds, trying to steer clear of any poison ivy.   There's a particularly thorny vine that wants to take over my yard, it seems.  I don't even know it's name - but it's very prickly and blooms with a little white flower.  Even with two pairs of leather gloves, I felt the tiny thorns as I pulled it out of even pricklier holly bushes and asparagus ferns.  

I think weeding will be my spiritual discipline this year for Lent.  Rather than giving up something I love, I'm going to look for the weeds in my spiritual life and pull them out by the roots.  Grass growing in the wrong place. Prickly vines taking over. Bamboo that persistently returns to sprout in the middle of my lawn.  Smilax winding up the crepe myrtle.  Nettles, plaintain, white clover.  Even the star aster that I planted myself and then found that it would completely take over the flower bed.  

What are those weeds in my own life that need to be pulled, cut back, or uprooted?  What are those things that waste my time and energy?  What creates chaos in my life? What activities have simply outgrown their place?  What are those things that have taken over my spiritual garden, leaving no room for the Holy? Time for some weeding!


Frosty country barn
Eastern redbuds in the mist
Spring thaw, flaming bright

        This is a haiku I jotted in my journal after a misty mountain walk in the mountains in Tryon, N.C. The magnificent purple-pink blooms of the Eastern Redbud trees were the only color breaking a mostly gray landscape while I was there. It's one of the prettiest times of the year for this tree, and I was delighted to witness its passage into spring. The haiku captures the moment and mood for me more than other ways of journaling. The short poems, which can be read in one breath, feel like clean, simple meditations, verbal snapshots of emotion.


     Inside the collar of my ministerial robe hides an object that looks a bit out of place. When I was given the robe during my ordination, it came with a green stole, the kind we wear during ordinary time. That one is tapered at the place where it goes around my neck, so the next time I wore my robe, to preach at Providence during ordinary time, my stole stayed in place.
      In the winter of 2010, I was asked to do my first funeral, which called for the white stole I had gotten as a gift but not yet worn. This was not just any funeral. My Gramma Carolyn was the one in the casket. I had a lot on my mind as I arrived at my parents' house in KY the day before the funeral. The fact that my stole wouldn't stay in place just added to the stress.
      My mother and I tried to safety pin it, but we couldn't find a pin large or strong enough to go through the thick robe and stole. "I think I've got something that may work," Mom said, and went rummaging in drawers until she found what she was looking for -- one of the diaper pins they used when I was a baby. It was the right size, and seemed fitting in other ways, too. Now it is a permanent part of my ministerial attire. It reminds me of the whole person I am, past and present, child and adult, daughter and granddaughter and minister. Amazing that one little pin can hold so much together.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Movies and macular holes

       As Hurley and I were running and walking through Palmetto Islands County Park today, I saw a lot of these old live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and it brought to mind once again a movie I watched a few days ago, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life."  There is a literal tree very similar to this one that is seen many times in the film.  But the title is also metaphorical, calling us back to the biblical creation story in the book of Genesis, where the tree was in the Garden of Eden.  I can hardly describe the movie.  It is by far the most spiritually moving and thought-provoking film I can recall seeing.  It is also one of the most aesthetically beautiful.  I don't want to give too much away to anyone who might want to see it (and I definitely recommend it, with the caveat that it is unlike any movie you've ever seen, so don't expect traditional anything), but I want to share a few moments that resonated with me.  
      The film opens with words from the biblical book of Job onscreen:  "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (Job 38:4, 7)  This same question -- "Where were you?" -- will be spoken in prayer by several members of the family whose story forms most of the main plot (if you can call it that).  The themes are so universal, the doubt of God's presence in times of trial, the demands to know why tragedy has befallen someone close to us, someone so good or young or both.  I think what I love about this movie is that it dares to ask out loud many of the same questions that have been on my heart at one time or another.  In snatches of whispered prayers, mostly from our protagonist family's eldest son, Jack, (sometimes as a child, sometimes as an adult) and his parents, who do not even have names besides Mother and Father.  
     Dialogue is spare.  Long stretches of the movie pass with only music or sound effects or even silence.  In juxtaposition to the family's grief, we have a nearly 20-minute sequence that aims for nothing less than to show the creation of the universe.  Beautiful does not begin to describe it and how it made me feel.  And over those images of nebulae, planets, volcanoes, waterfalls, bacteria, even dinosaurs, we continue to hear, sporadically, heartfelt whispered prayers.  "My hope, my God. . .  How did you come to me, in what shape?  What disguise? . .  How did I lose you, wandered, forgot you? . .  Was I false to you?  Lord, why?  Where were you? . .  Did you know? . .  Who are we to you? . .  Answer me. . .  We cry to you. . .  You let a boy die.  Where were you?"  Then we see onscreen a figure of light, shimmering, constantly changing shape, almost dancing.  Is this a representation of God?  Perhaps.  It is not an answer to all these questions that I and so many have asked, but it is a response.  
     Whatever else the film may have to say about God, it seems clear that the God of this portrayed universe is both present and busy.  The movie leaves us with indelible images of beauty and grace, like bread crumbs forming a trail that leads to God.  It awakened me to such sights in my real life -- the color and pattern of the clouds at sunset, a helping hand offered by one child to another on the playground, even something so simple yet majestic as this tree.


     We’re on day 4 of face down time.  My mother-in-law is staying with us as she recovers from surgery to repair two macular holes in her eye.  The surgeon repairs the holes (caused when the vitreous gel pulls away from the retina - I’ve learned a lot of eye anatomy this week! ) and then inserts a bubble of air into the eye which acts as a splint or a band-aid - holding the patch in place while it heals.  The tricky part is the recovery.  In order to hold the air bubble in the right place, the patient must remain in a face down -  face parallel to the floor - position for at least 7 days .  Face down.  Walking, sitting, sleeping, eating.  24/7.  
      I find myself holding my own head down in sympathy or perhaps encouragement as I hold her arm for balance. You can’t see much when your face is parallel to the floor. Lines in the hardwood. Stains on the carpet.  Cracks in the driveway.  You miss the big picture and it's hard to see where you are going.  But since you can't lift your head,  you begin to look more closely.  What are those white chips in my driveway cement?  Where did that black stain come from?  Why is my shoe laced crooked?  So many things to explore - in just a small square foot of the universe.   You see where your feet are touching the earth, where you are grounded.  
       We need the view from 40,000 feet to get the big picture and move forward, but sometimes we simply need to see where we stand. 

 GODS AND MEN Olivier Rabourdin as one of a group of Cistercian Trappist
 monks who are part of the life of a mountain village in Algeria in the 1990s.
As Lent approaches, I’ve been thinking about how to physically connect with the season – what I could give up or add that physically brings me to a more spiritual plane. I got the answer Sunday when I stayed home from church trying to avoid a migraine I could tell was coming on. Instead, I curled up with the movie, "Of Gods and Men," not my typical movie fare, but something I felt oddly drawn to. I was treated to a rich spiritual blessing watching the quiet, seemingly boring lives of eight monks, in the wrong place at the right time in Algiers. The movie follows how each finds his own pathway to a deeper relationship with God. It left me stunned by their fanaticism for peace and the director's artistry in capturing it. It’s such a rare sight, one that lights a candle in this time of terror and materialism, shedding light on how not to be overwhelmed by the tides of evil, doubt and oblivion.
Next time you need some quiet or inspiration, pop a bowl of popcorn and settle in. The movie is a gift that has to be unwrapped slowly to be best enjoyed. Like faith. It’s my challenge to find ways during Lent to be more quiet and do more courageous listening as they model in the movie.

Friday, February 10, 2012

February thoughts

(Photo courtesy.
Early Morning

     It’s 4 o’clock in the morning. 
     I stare out the window watching the night rotate into day. I woke for some reason and hope to go back to sleep without my mind going down my to-do list for the day. The harder I fight to go to sleep, the more it eludes me. 
     Finally the dark shifts to the deepest of blues, a hue of the blue that reminds me of a retreat I took at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga. It’s been four years since my retreat there, but there are images that stick to me - that flow through my dreams.
     One is of the interior chapel at Vigils and Compline or evening prayers, the sun serving as a color wheel casting shades of dappled blues along the arches. I know the monks are in chapel praying and chanting now.
     I am not alone. My heart sings with them.
     I drift back to sleep.


     This has been my view for much of the week. I've had a lot of writing to do the past few days. What keeps drawing my attention is the space bar, and that worn out place in the middle where my thumbs have landed thousands of times. I can't help but wonder, if my life were a keyboard, which would be the worn out keys? Do I land most often on worry, fear, jealousy, anger? Or on hope, kindness, faith, love, joy? 
     I know which I want to be true, but still I wonder.


Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; 
they toil not, neither do they spin.   Matthew 6:28

     Laziness can have surprising benefits.   Last winter, I carefully planted shoots of baby romaine lettuce in a garden pot filled with fresh soil and a little compost.  The romaine loved the cool winter and I harvested romaine until the days got too warm.  When the lettuce bolted, I pulled it out and replanted the pot with sweet basil for the summer.  
     This winter found me lacking in time and energy for the garden.  I pulled the frost bitten basil out of the pot in late November and simply stored the pot full of dirt beside the house without even a plan for spring.  And look what happened!
      Free lettuce! Volunteer shoots of romaine appeared, growing again in the container.  I watered it a bit and now I have another winter of fresh romaine. 
     I love finding these small miracles in my life  - even when I've done nothing to deserve them.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Two trees and a lot of weeds

      Most people enjoy crepe myrtle trees for their lavish, brilliantly colored blooms in summer or for their fiery fall foliage.   I enjoy those - but I think most of all, I love the bones.  The tree trunks and branches, enjoyed best in winter when those show-stopping blooms have faded and even the bright leaves have drifted away, remind me of fine, elegant bone.  The rough bark peels away in winter, leaving only the smooth inner trunk that feels like finely sanded wood when you rub your hands along it.  Stripped of pretense and adornment, the tree is bare bones and pure essence, deeply rooted in the earth, reaching for the sky.
      Native Americans called trees our “standing brothers and sisters.”  We both stand upright, with a vertical orientation to life.  Trees grow deep into one small piece of the earth.  They bend and flex with the wind, aching against the storms that blow through.  The leaves reach for the sun, as the branches grow and stretch upward.
      Thoreau knew what is was to be a friend of trees. He writes "I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines."   Sometimes, it is enough, just to sit with the living bones of the crepe myrtle, breathing in God, knowing that my own roots reach deep and that I, too, can reach for the sun.


Tulip Time

I spotted my first tulip trees last week, chocked full of pink blossoms that resemble slender ballerina slippers on point. It’s one of my favorite trees, more subdued than its flashier cousin, the lovely Magnolia, with its blossoms the size of Sunday-go-to-meeting hats. What I love most about these trees, though, is how they bloom first, in the midst of a dreary winter landscape. You have to admire their panache, how they fly in the face of possible freezing weather. It’s a reminder to me of the season change to come, and the precious things happening in the bleakest moments preceding the avalanche of  spring.
Much of life happens in these bleak moments of limbo. When I see these blossoms that open up like cups, it reminds me of the popular Zen story about a university professor who goes to visit a Zen master.  The master serves the tea, pouring his visitor’s cup full, and then to the point of overflowing. Unable to restrain himself, the professor tells him, "It is overfull. No more will go in!"
"Like this cup," the master said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
When I see a tulip blossom, I take a breath, and remember to empty my cup.



        Recently, I spent a good three or four hours pulling weeds in my yard.  My knees and back are still screaming at me about it.  When I bought a house last year, I was excited to have a backyard of my own for the first time.  However, the previous owners had left the yard a terrible mess, and I have been working on it little by little for the past six months, whenever the weather and my schedule will allow. 
       The weeding is the worst.  It seems to me that I just pulled all these weeds from exactly the same places in the yard, and now they're back.  And in a few weeks, I'll have to do it all over again.  I hate maintenance.  Once I do something, I want it to stay done.  I'm still angry that I worked really hard and lost 60 lbs a few years ago, and now I'm trying to do it again because all those pounds came back and brought friends.  It is so disgustingly unfair!  
     As I pondered the injustice of it all during those hours pulling weeds, it occurred to me that this is the rule for everything in life really.  It would be wonderful if you could say your vows and then just get to enjoy being married for the rest of your life, but it takes a lot more work to stay married than to get married.  I'm sure every mother would love to relax after delivering the baby and say, "Whew, I'm glad the hard part is over," but of course it only gets much harder from there.  Learn a new language, play a sport, or buy a car, and you will have to continue the work of maintenance if you want to keep it. 
       When I first joined a church, I heard the old Baptist adage, "Once saved, always saved," and I think I got the idea that I would be safe coasting through my Christian life with no maintenance.  But now I realize how foolish I was to think that faith would be so different from the rest of life.  Much as I hate to contradict old Baptist adages, I'm much more inclined to agree with Paul's admonition (Philippians 2:12) to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."  That is what I find myself doing, and it is often frustrating, painful, difficult work.  It is the love of God that keeps me motivated to continue, but also the fear -- not fear of God, for if I did not believe God was on my side I couldn't do it at all, but fear of the terrible mess my life would become without constant weeding.