Simple

One of the things I love about cooking is the simplicity of it. With a few basic skills and a minimum of utensils, I can make something that feeds the body, gladdens the heart, and delights the soul. Chicken soup, grilled cheese, cinnamon toast, scrambled eggs, and flatbread with dipping oil require time and effort, but making them is much like walking a familiar path – there’s little to trip me up and a lot to enjoy.

The food on my Thanksgiving table is much the same. I’ve used the same recipes for years: Salted turkey from a 2010 Bon Appetit, mashed potatoes like my mother made, stuffing and candied yams a la my mother-in-law, cranberry sauce, and my husband’s pumpkin pie. The cheese tray before dinner varies from year to year, as do the vegetables. Add some sparkling cider and a nice wine and there’s a feast. The peeling, chopping, seasoning, and baking are familiar tasks made enjoyable through years of repetition. I think i enjoy the preparation almost as much as the meal.

I’d like to enjoy the work that goes into the other aspects of my life the same way I enjoy making dinner. But to do that, I’ll have to limit the number of things I’m working on and I’ll have to put in enough time and effort for it all to become a familiar exercise. Will I get bored with a simpler life? Will I miss the complexity that keeping more options brings? These are questions I am pondering.

But if Thanksgiving is any indication, simple isn’t boring: it’s just a good way to focus on the beauty and holiness found in every single moment.

May your Thanksgiving be blessed, happy, and simple.

Simple Gifts, Liz Story, artist ( The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection, 1996)

A Bump in the Road?

The other day, I heard someone say that Thanksgiving didn’t seem particularly important – it was a bump in the road from Halloween to Christmas. Judging by store displays, grocery stores being the exception, he’s got a point. Halloween decorations and Christmas ornaments leave little room for anything else. Sure, there are a few pilgrim hats or ceramic turkeys tucked away on shelves, perhaps a spare dreidel, but it’s much more difficult to commercialize a holiday dedicated to giving thanks than ones involving costumes and candy, blinking lights and wrapping paper. Is it really just a commute from handing out Halloween candy to eating the Life Savers and chocolate coins that fill our stockings? Is Thanksgiving just the bump in the road that rattles the car and cannot be avoided?

I think there’s a value to this bump in the road. It’s enough of a holiday to require intentional planning and not a small amount of work. It’s a time to join others around a table, either our own or someone else’s, or enjoy the hospitality of a restaurant. There are things to buy, cleaning to do, and cooking involved – but none of it gets wrapped in paper with a gift tag because it’s not given by one person to another. Thanksgiving isn’t about getting gifts or giving them out. Everyone brings something. It might be food or drink, it might be helping to get the meal on the table, or it might be washing pots and pans when it’s all done. It might just be showing up, telling stories and listening to the stories of others. This bump in the road causes us to look up from our shopping lists and over-filled calendars just long enough to look across the table and see the holiness of God in the faces looking back.

 

Preparations begin…

No matter how familiar the Thanksgiving menu, it’s still a lot of work to get the turkey in the oven and the fixin’s on the table. Shopping, cleaning, and making sure everyone gets home are tasks already begun. There are still a few outdoor chores to do as well – getting the leaves raked and bagged, putting away the hose and collecting the garden tools. It’s the same every year before Thanksgiving because it’s time to prepare for the winter months as much as it is time to prepare dinner. Isn’t that the point of Thanksgiving? Giving thanks for the bounty of the earth as we approach a time when the earth sleeps and nothing grows? In the season of canning and drying, storing apples, cranberries, sage, and other herbs for use during the cold months, I sometimes forget what a counter-intuitive act of faith it is to throw a feast when summer’s bounty had come to an end. Would I be as generous with my Thanksgiving meal if I had to depend on what I’d grown and preserved to get me through to Spring? With a market right down the street supplying more than I’ll ever need in the cold months, it’s hard to know the answer.

I think preparing for this Harvest celebration is trying to teach me something more than gratitude for the food on the table and loved ones around it. I’ve been wondering lately about the garden that is my spiritual life. What are the fruits of this harvest? If I’m honest, there have been many times I’ve neglected to tend this inner spiritual space. I can name quite a few of the weeds that choke its growth because I haven’t put in the time to pull them out – impatience, arrogance, and lack of gratitude come to mind. As far as I know, there is no spiritual grocery store down the street: My spirit lives on what I’ve grown in my God-given garden.

The older I get, the more I realize that my inner spiritual garden becomes more and more visible as I age. How I treat others, especially those whose actions or attitudes frustrate me, is a glimpse into the state of my spiritual growth. Like everyone, I am imperfect and easily broken. If I don’t tend to my spiritual life, I will push my own brokenness on others. If I don’t want to do that, it’s going to take some inner work. If I want enough generosity of spirit to celebrate the bounty of this life, if I want to share what I’ve been given rather than hoard it for myself, it’s time to do some gardening…

 

Table Blessed

Last night, Halloween dinner was at my house. Phyllo puffs, a cheese board, bread and dipping oil as we gathered, then a choice of soups and salad. We finished with an apple pecan pie and coffee. The food was wonderful, but it was the company that made the evening – eight amazing people who grace my table and my life. There were stories of John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads and Amazing Grace sung together in three different countries during the same vacation and the Blues Brothers buying chairs on the way to Martha’s Vineyard. The latest family news and losing electricity in the last storm were tossed back and forth, along with what’s happening in the oyster beds and maternity wards. All too soon, coats and purses were gathered up and everyone headed out the door, the evening a memory.

My husband and I know these eight friends through two churches. Four were on my husband’s church board, three added their voices and instruments to church choirs, two were on search committees that called my husband as a pastor. Two gave us their beach house when we first moved to town, two others hosted Easter Egg Hunts when all our children were young. Three came to the book club I led a few years back, and two included us in the Chinese naming ceremony for their grandchild. I’ve spend countless hours walking streets and trails with two of them. I’ve spend birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, funerals, baptisms, and graduations with every one of them. In more ways than I can comprehend, they have brought joy into my life.

Sixteen years ago, I hadn’t met any of them. I’d have missed them entirely if the Spirit had taken us somewhere other than Wareham. For a bit of cooking and cleaning on my part, some cooking and driving on theirs, the ten of us gathered together. I’d have to be blind not to see in their faces the love of God.

Wherever two or more gather together, I will be.

But for the grace of God…

I’ve seen several car accidents in the past seven days. Last Thursday: A high school driver and a minivan crashed at a four-way stop, a sedan side-swiped turning left onto a busy road, and a truck running through a red and into a four door Corolla. Last Friday: two SUV’s crumpled on the side of I495 and a dump truck rear-ended on Main Street in Carver. Tuesday: three police cruisers, an ambulance and a firetruck tending to the drivers and passengers of two wrecked vehicles in front of Carver’s Rockland Trust. Miraculously, no one involved was seriously injured. In fact, only one person out of all the crashes required assistance to get out of a car. Thank God for the life-saving automotive technology!

During this past week, in the same areas as these accidents, I’ve been passed in a double yellow zone by drivers frustrated by the reduced speed in school zones and thickly settled areas. A woman in the car behind me beeped and flipped me off for not turning left into oncoming traffic. A pick-up truck driver laid on the horn because I yielded to oncoming traffic at the end of an off-ramp. Fortunately, none of these ended in dented fenders.

I understand that people are in a rush, and that life pace pushes drivers to take risks they might avoid if they weren’t constantly hurrying. Passing all those crashes, I wondered how many of the drivers and passengers in the other cars paused long enough in their busyness to be thankful for the lives of strangers that weren’t lost – and for their own good fortune to be observing an accident rather than in one. I also wondered how many accidents I’ve passed in my lifetime that didn’t register more than a passing glance. I suspect the number is higher than it should be.

Today, I’ll drive to Plymouth for a weekly Bible study and carpool pick-up. I hope I can remember that the slow cars and the speeding cars, the beeping horns and squealing brakes are not inanimate annoyances – they are the carriers of God’s beloved children. May I have a grateful enough spirit to value each life without needing the reminder of roadside wrecks.

I Owe You One

It’s only two days into writing about giving thanks and being grateful, and I’ve already acted without thanks or gratitude. As offenses go, it wasn’t a major one – just annoyance at having to do last night’s dishes. But such a little thing led to sending my beloved out the door carrying my irritation instead of wishes for a fabulous day. And this was after he had already offered an apology and an “I owe you one.” And the kicker: last night, I offered to do the dishes! He didn’t take me up on the offer then, but should that really matter? The dishes are the same, the task the same, and the time it takes to do them identical.

I took my crabby self for a walk before sinking the pots and pans in sudsy water. I saw a new mom pushing her baby in a carriage, a lovely woman working on her garden, and a man opening a car door for his wife. I stopped at the library garden long enough to prune the butterfly bush and dead head the marigolds; I saw two bumble bees just warming up enough to hum and a couple of squirrels racing up a tree. The sun turned the wet grass into brilliant slivers of light and the breeze brought the piney,fern-filled scent of Autumn. By the time I turned back and headed for home, I’d traded in my pettiness for joy.

Had the dishes been done this morning, would I have gone on that walk? Would I have missed out on the beauty of this day and the holiness of the life it holds? I’ll never know. What I do know: I owe my husband a gracious acceptance of his apology. What I suspect: for the blessings of sun and wind, work and play, I owe him one.

PS. I actually enjoyed doing the dishes when I got home…

Reaping What Was Sown

The vegetables keep coming – kale, tomatillos, squash, onions, ground cherries, flowers, and a handful of herbs. My part in this bounty is limited to wise investment: I signed up for this CSA and wrote a check a few months back. That investment, along with the investments of quite a few others, has been returned to me in healthy, tasty, locally grown food. I figured the weekly bounty would end in September, so the last few weeks of produce are a wonderful, welcome surprise. I am thankful for the greens on my table and the ones in my freezer that will make their appearance in the months ahead. Karen’s labor in her garden has created an amazing, edible bounty.

With the cold weather comes the ingathering. I’ll spend some time canning applesauce and some cranberry orange sauce. I’ll pull in the rosemary and sage, hanging them to dry. They will season stuffing and soups, add zing to chicken, and give their flavor to dipping oils.

If I were a romantic, I might stop at these happy, homey words. These blessings are real, after all, and what was sown has become a bountiful harvest. But that’s not all that’s been sown, and not all that will be harvested in due time. I’ve planted emotional and spiritual seeds in my own life and in the life of others; others have done the same. I don’t think it’s possible to walk this earth without scattering seeds. Such seeds bear fruit and what was put out comes back. The question is: what harvest will come of the seeds I’ve sown?

I’ll spend this harvest time taking a good, long look. Who knows what I might find?

I invite you to share your harvest stories as well.

Lord, bless the work of my hands and heart. May my life bear good fruit. Amen.

Diana Krall, Count Your Blessings, Christmas Songs, Verve Records, 2005

To Marge, In Grateful Thanks

She was a retired high school chemistry teacher, a reader of Bonhoeffer, and someone whose later years were filled with enough wisdom and love to pray for the people who would harm and kill others rather than foster and bless them. She spoke and wrote with love and intelligence. For the past eight years, she blessed my life as a companion in study and prayer. Even when she moved hundreds of miles away a few years back, she remained in my heart.

Marge O’Brien was kind enough to share her thoughts with me in many conversations. She was also kind enough to do the same for anyone who read my yearly Advent Devotional. With grateful thanks, I share her words with you:

Psalm 126; Habakkuk 3:13-19; Matthew 21:28-32

Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the field yields no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.

Habakkuk 3:17-19

Habakkuk was a prophet in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE. It was a time of great turmoil in Jerusalem and of many great injustices in the world. In many ways like in our own world, the question arises, “Where is God’s justice?” Why do the poor suffer while the powerful go unpunished for their misdeeds? Why do bad things happen to good people? Perhaps we ask the wrong questions. Is it up to us to criticize God? Or is it possible that there is something else going on?

Perhaps we have a role in bringing God’s kingdom into our world. Over and over again, in both the Old and New Testaments, we are reminded that our God wills a world of righteousness and justice, a world with compassion for the poor and the sick, a world of peace and love. Sometimes we are depressed by what we see in the events of our time. We feel helpless to make things better. Habakkuk foresaw great troubles coming to Jerusalem in the form of warring nations. He knew that times were going to be rough. “YET I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!”

There are times in our own lives when we feel helpless. We do not have control over what is happening. Jobs are lost. Relationships fail. Illness consumes us or someone we love. YET, in all of the sadness and violence, God is beside us, loving us, guiding us, helping us. As we look back on some of the dark times in our life, so often we see God at work picking up the pieces for us and helping us get through to a brighter side of the darkness.

And there is the answer: God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, with us always. In the darkness or the light, as Julian of Nowich reminds us “All shall be well.”

Lord Jesus, let our minds rest in your Word, so that when doubt and grief would overwhelm us, faith will open our eyes to see your hand at work in our life and enable us to turn toward the future with hope and toward each other in perfect charity.” A Prayer from St. Augustine.

Offered on December 13, 2014, by Marge O’Brien, retired teacher now worshipping at St. David’s Episcopal ChurchIn North Chesterfield Virginia, steadfast pray-er, child of God.

Treadful Time?

The air is thinner, no longer able to wrap me in heat and humidity. Storms and shortening days have transformed the green canopy over my head into scatter rugs at my feet. It’s happened every year at the change of seasons, but this year something else is going on. For the first time, it feels like a change of life season.

I first walked these streets fifteen years ago, but the life I was living then has fallen away just as surely as the leaves at my feet. I walk this beloved world in a middle age that will soon transform me into an elder – God willing. I am a falling leaf, transformed by age and experience from green to…what?

Years ago, my son Colin’s third grade teacher asked him to answer this question: As a leaf on a tree in Autumn, would you want to fall first or last? Colin chose first, somersaulting and turning on his way to earth. It’s my turn to answer that question now – not just metaphorically, but tangibly. Will I hang on to the stage of life that has brought me so much, or will I let it go, willingly and gladly jumping into the next colorful and grand adventure?

Today, I choose to jump. Knowing that I will return to the earth, accepting a different perspective and place, I will let time take me where it will. Because I don’t think Time is an angry, muddy boot that grinds me into an unforgiving eternal pavement. I believe it’s a brisk wind, carrying me to my resting place when I cannot get there on my own. And if the foliage I see on this walk is any indication of life’s truth, it’s after the fall that my life is revealed in all its color.

To every thing there is a season…Ecclesiastes.

Taking the Stairs

There are things that only the people on foot or bike notice.  Wareham’s many outdoor staircases are in this category. There are granite steps connecting Highland Court to the library grounds and there’s a wooden staircase from the upper and lower parking areas at Tobey Hospital. Across from Besse Park is a cement staircase that ends just outside Tobey Hospital’s emergency entrance. Saint Patrick’s church has a couple of them, and several of the alleys between downtown shops end in stairs.

When my sons were very young, they loved finding stairs. Going up and going down both had rewards and challenges, and finding hidden staircases delighted them. Given the chance, they would choose a walking route that had some stairs in it.

Because I’ve scaled the steps of Wareham countless times with my children, they are still integral to my walks around town. They give me a way to get from a low place to a high one, dividing the distance equally among the steps. There are handrails if I lose my balance, and they provide a comfortable seat if I need a rest. They are concrete creations of purpose and order, made with skill and care.

But stairs are useless to anyone who cannot climb them. Strollers, scooters, crutches, and canes don’t work well on stairs, and they require a certain level of physical exertion. They are a means of access only for some. That’s why ramps and elevators are so necessary.

There have been only a few times when I could not take the stairs – when I fractured my kneecap, when I was recovering from pneumonia, and when I had a child in a stroller. Each of these circumstances gave me a great appreciation for the other means of getting up and down. When I was able to take the stairs again, it was with a greater awareness of their limits and a greater appreciation for the gift of ascending and descending.