Get a Word in Edgewise

I’ve been in a few situations where I couldn’t get a word in, edgewise or straight on. When it happens, the same choice arises: make the effort to turn a monologue into a conversation or move on to a less forbidding dialogue partner. Whether to stay or go depends on the kind of monologue it is: one that only wants a passive and silent audience, or one that is sincerely seeking a conversation partner, but is having trouble making a connection. The first is a waste of time, the second is worth the effort to get that word in edgewise.

Sometimes, it isn’t a spoken word. Inked words on a page can be almost as one sided, especially when they are difficult to understand. Sometimes, the argument is too dense, an impenetrable hedge with no gate in sight. Sections of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time were like that for me – I understood all the words in the sentences, but couldn’t figure out what they meant strung together. It took me well over a month to get through the book, and a good couple of years before I understood it well enough to ask even the most basic questions about the ideas it contained. Why did I stick with this conversation when lack of understanding made it impossible to get a word in edgewise? I suspected there was something true and deep in Hawking’s printed monologue – something worth the attempt to change it into a conversation. Twenty years later, I felt the same about Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe.

I wonder how many people experience holy scripture of any kind – Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. –  as such a torrent of words that no one can get a word in edgewise. Holy writ is meant to be a conversation: it’s the best attempt of people throughout history to offer those who come after them an entry, constructed of words and prayer, into God’s infinite, intimate, loving reality. So get your word in, straight on or edgewise. It’s the conversation of a lifetime, and God eagerly listens for the word we offer.

Easy as Pie…A Piece of Cake…

The Phrase Finder‘s Gary Martin dates (as) easy as pie to the 1800’s, American in origin [www.phrases.org.uk). The easy part isn’t in the making of the pie, but in the ease with which it is enjoyed. He notes that cake is also related to pleasant, easy things – perhaps a commentary on how much dessert is enjoyed?

Being a baker myself, I am usually aware of the effort it took to produce what I eat – I’ve made countless cakes and I’ve witnessed my husband make dozens of pies over the past few years. Restaurant work paid my bills, so I don’t usually take entrees for granted much, either. But these sayings aren’t meant to be taken literally – they wouldn’t be common expressions if they were limited to that. So, I can’t help thinking that most things that are a piece of cake or as easy as pie aren’t worth a whole lot unless someone else invested the time and effort that make them valuable. I may never know who made things go so smoothly for me as to be as easy as pie, but I’m sure I owe him or her a long overdue thank you.

Don’t Blink

Don’t Blink – you just might miss it.

I used to say this about New Durham, the town I called home for almost a decade. It’s that blinking yellow light on Route 11, a couple of miles before you get to the Alton traffic circle, just below the southern edge of Winnepesaukee. Lots of trees, a lake, scattered ponds, and a brown raised ranch five miles from town center that kept me and my family warm and dry. A beach on Chalk pond and a canoe to paddle every inch of it, snow and ice for sledding and skating, and stars scattered through the deep blue sky every season of the year were waiting outside the door. Inside, the people I loved and laughed with. Back then, I didn’t know how fast those days and years would pass into other days, years, and places.

I have loved every place I’ve lived, and I’ve loved every stage of life. Each brought gifts and heartache – the unique contour and blessing of my life’s particulars. I wouldn’t go back, trading what is and will be for what was, but time’s passing has changed the meaning of don’t blink since that yellow light marked my home town and my teen years. Now it means something like this:

My life is one among billions, a small flicker lasting for such a short time. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a holy, crazy, blessed one-of-a-kind gift. It’s the same for every single life – yours, mine, and everyone else’s. If I’m too busy fussing about what isn’t perfect, I will miss it just as surely as a blink of an eye at the wrong time sends me right past that yellow light without a clue that it marks a place called home.

God, give me eyes to see this fragile, broken, beloved life that is your gift to me. May I see everyone and everything else as you do: beloved. Amen.

Common Expressions…

They are everywhere – on mugs and posters, in novels, and spoken by morning show hosts. These common expressions pepper our conversations. We hand them down to our children and toss them back and forth with neighbors and strangers alike. Some are almost universally understood, others only known within a particular region. I thought it might be fun to give them a second look…

Bang A Uey 

It’s New Englandese (specifically, Boston area) for make a U-turn, turn around. I use it on occasion and hear others use it every so often – but only in New England or from New Englanders who’ve moved elsewhere. It even showed up in the GPS vocabulary when the TomTom “Boston Driver” voice was activated. It’s what I have to do when I’m heading in the opposite direction from where I need to go.

Bang a Uey. Turn around. I can’t and won’t do this unless I know and admit that I’m going in exactly the wrong direction. To get where I want to be, I have to do an about-face, turn the wheel and put the destination in front of the dashboard rather than in the rearview mirror. There’s no easier way to make the necessary change of direction.

When I have to do this in the larger sense, bang a Uey can be said in just one word: repent.

Ants

Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider its ways and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. Proverbs 6:6-11 NRSV

 

There’s a big difference between being a good worker and a workaholic, and that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle these days. Either work all the time to further a career and amass wealth or be a shiftless weight on society. If a few biblical words are thrown into the mix to encourage hard work to avoid the fires of eternal damnation, this either/or reality has a lot more power. Suddenly, God’s love and personal worth are tied to unceasing work.

There’s a space somewhere between spending every waking minute working or thinking about work and spending all day sitting on the couch in a bathrobe binge watching movies and playing online Scrabble. The mind, heart, and soul need free time and the chance to work hard. After all, who says ants don’t stop long enough to see the beauty of the world on their way to work?

Personification

[Wisdom] will save you from the way of evil, from those who speak perversely, who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil; those whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways.

You will be saved from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the partner of her youth and forgets her sacred covenant; for her way leads down to death, and her paths to the shades; those who go to her never come back, nor do they regain the paths of life.

Therefore walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just. For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.  Proverbs 2:12-22, NRSV

[NRSV, The Discipleship Study Bible, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008]

In a footnote on this passage, Kathleen Farmer makes the case that the path leading to wrongdoing is personified as “the loose woman,” the counterpart to the path of Wisdom also personified as a woman. The path to life and the path to death are both depicted as beautiful women who do their best to influence the hearts and minds of young men. Choosing one of these women is really choosing a lifestyle, a direction for life; it’s temptation in a larger sense, not just in an immediate wow-is-she-good-looking sense.

Things being personified as women is not a new thing: ships, airplanes, cars, countries, and bodies of water are often “shes,” and the allure they hold is sensual and strong. The Muses are the various Art pursuits embodied as women and portrayed on countless buildings, in untold paintings, and dancing through both poetry and prose. Ideals as well as objects are often identified as gendered, and very often that gender is female. Things that attract and lure, fostering or jeopardizing life, have feminine pronouns; things that rule (e.g. Zeus) or hold direct power (Lord, King, etc) are very often personified as male. Why is that?

There are university departments dedicated to this question, and in the past few decades gender has become a major factor in public dialogue and in political life. Some feel the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, some feel that there isn’t nearly enough attention paid to it. Strong emotions are involved either way. One thing is very clear: the language we use and the images we associate with them are powerful. Deep levels are involved, some running below conscious thought.

Wisdom as a virtuous woman and Folly as a loose one may be appealing or offensive personifications, but I do think they get at an important truth: there’s a lot more to choosing a life path than reasoned assent. Where the feet go commits body as well as mind and soul. Choose well.

 

Consequences

WISDOM SPEAKS TO THOSE WHO REFUSE HER COUNSEL:

“Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord.

They would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies.

For the turning away of the simple will slay them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them: But whoever listens to me will dwell safely, and will be secure, without fear of evil.” Proverbs 1:29-33

[I can’t tell you what translation of scripture this is, only that I found it in the desk drawer of my guest room at Princeton Seminary. It’s from a pocket size New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs provided by the Gideon’s. Alongside the English version were two others: Spanish and Korean. Sitting in one of the world’s best centers for theological education, whose staff and former staff have provided translations for the RSV and NRSV Bibles, it was a welcome surprise to find the same little scripture book here that can be found in hotel drawers throughout the world – free offerings with no strings and no sermon attached.]

Wisdom speaks as a woman in Proverbs, offering advice and pointing the way to a better life for all who desire it. But that better life isn’t one at the expense of others, and it doesn’t promise fame or immense wealth. There is a cost to it, just as there is a cost to every life choice. Perhaps that’s the take-away from Proverbs: choices have consequences, for the one who does the choosing and the ones who are affected by the choices.

In a surface reading of this book, it looks like Wisdom offers safety and security to those who follow her – those who accept that wisdom begins with choosing God first (the fear of the Lord). But wise men and women who choose God first don’t seem to have lives of security and safety any more than the ones who make a different choice. In fact, it seems like they are more likely to suffer or die young: Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, MLK, Mother Theresa, and Rosa Parks to name a few. So what does it mean when Wisdom says that those who follow her will “dwell safely and will be secure, without fear of evil?” I don’t think there’s an answer to this question that can be typed out or memorized. The best I can articulate is something like this:

Choosing God first is choosing to live in the largest reality that this universe has to offer. It is seeing everyone and everything as God-related and God-created. Nothing can ever remove us from the embrace of God – even those things that harm the body and shorten life. We may lose our way, but we are never lost to God.

A Waste of Precious Time

Yesterday was Pentecost, the celebration of the Holy Spirit alive and moving in this world. I arrived early to set up for the high school class I lead, only to find that a fundraising car wash and the need for extra acolytes had reduced my class to just me. Several hours of preparation and a twenty mile drive for nothing more than a few minutes in an empty room and a return trip home. My thought on the drive home: what a waste of time.

And I was right, it was a waste of time: just in a way I didn’t appreciate until I was more than halfway home. I was so focused on the time I spent prepping for something that didn’t happen that I disregarded the celebration of the Spirit who always moves in unexpected and mysterious ways. I ignored the grace of so many youth and adults scrubbing cars to fund the mission trip to Puerto Rico. While I wasn’t rude, I certainly wasn’t gracious about the whole thing.

In truth, preparation for learning in faith is never a waste of time; I had the chance to pray for my class and learn something new. It’s a testament to my own lack of perspective that I forgot this. The real waste of time: I had the chance to see the Spirit moving in surprising and wonderful ways and I turned a blind eye to it. Not a waste of my precious time, but a rejection of the gift of sacred time the Spirit offered me.

O Lord, open my eyes to see your grace and my heart to love the gifts you give. In Christ’s name I pray, Amen.

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

For the Living

The white colonial on the corner of Park and Main has changed hands two or three times since I moved to Wareham. With successive owners, the clapboard has been repaired and repainted. The parking area is resurfaced and apartment doors replaced. The old stone wall remains the same, but the weeds are pulled out of it regularly. It’s a nice old house, but the really amazing thing is the yard.

Grass grows in the front, and lovely plantings welcome visitors up the walk. There’s an antique bicycle with petunias growing from its basket, bright flowering vines, birdbaths and feeders. From the sidewalk I can see a child’s climbing set, vegetable beds, and an arched walkway that must look amazing from many of the windows. There’s room in the yard to play croquet or badminton; there are also places to read, cook out, or grow pumpkins. Whoever planned and created this outdoor space made a place that serves everyone living there or visiting – and it’s beautiful to boot.

I’m sure if I took a close enough look I could find flaws – weeds, bare patches, damp corners. But that’s true of everything that lives and breathes. Beauty isn’t the same thing as perfection, especially where people and animals live, work, and play. The beauty of this yard is intended for the living of life, not for observation. I say a prayer of thanks when I walk by, for the creator of this place and the Creator of all places.