Category Archives: gratitude

Taking a turn

To turn, turn, will be our delight,

’til by turning, turning we come ’round right.

[These are the last lines of Elder Joseph Brackett’s Simple Gifts, a Shaker song. The last lines were a reference to turning one’s life toward God, and also an instruction for the dancers to turn back to their original starting places.]

Turning means a change of direction – up to down, left to right, front to back, over to under and any of these in reverse. Turn is found in all kinds of contexts, and all of them hold the possibility for change. We can turn over a new leaf, give someone a turn, turn something over in our minds, have a turn, take turns, and lose a turn. Turning cartwheels on the grass or spinning around and around seems to turn the world over and over, making us dizzy. It isn’t really the world that’s turned, but it sure feels that way. What a wonderful feeling such turning can give us.

When the world isn’t the way I wish it would be, sometimes I’d like to turn the whole damn thing over and give it a shake. But the world isn’t my personal snow globe, and it’s much too big for me to spin in my hand. Perhaps there’s another way, though: turning myself, giving my perspective a shake, is well within my abilities – an existential spin or cartwheel that can help me see the world from a different angle. Sure, it might make me dizzy, but isn’t that part of the fun? And such a turn might be the best way for me to come ’round right…

[Liz Story, artist. Click Simple (gifts) Thanksgiving above for details.]

We shan’t be ashamed…

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free,

          ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

               And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

                    ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

     To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

          to turn, turn will be our delight,

               ‘til by turning, turning we come round right.

Simple Gifts, Joseph Brackett

From high school through grad school, I washed dishes, cleared tables, sat diners, waited tables, catered, and tended bar. I worked in hospital cafeterias, fine dining establishments, and a couple of Mexican food restaurants. With such a background (and because no one else knew or would admit to knowing how to tend bar), it was inevitable that I’d work in the seminary’s catering service. I oversaw hundreds of special dinners, and mixed more drinks than any other student in the seminary’s history. It was a lot of fun, the pay was decent, and the commute was a walk across campus. That’s why I found it puzzling that many of the other students found such work distasteful. Why was setting tables and refilling coffee cups, laying plates of food before professors and administrators somehow beneath the station of a graduate student?

I never felt that way about serving food and drink. Arriving before a function to set up, serving guests throughout the meal, then breaking down the room when it was over was elevating the biological necessity of eating into an aesthetically pleasing social experience. I made sure the socially awkward didn’t stand alone, making introductions among guests and bowing out once the conversation got going. Getting everyone seated in the right place and making sure the food arrived warm and beautifully plated was an exercise in good timing. It was forthright and literal service to others: simple work, done well, filling a basic need. Where’s the shame in that?

Was it because I was paid for my service, or because it was hands-on work in a place that set great store in the cerebral and intangible? I’m still not sure. I do wonder if part of the issue was the implied servant status that accompanied food service work. If that was the real issue, the irony is really hard to miss:

Jesus bent down to wash the feet of his disciples and he bowed his head to God in prayer. If such are the actions of God-With-Us, how can there be shame in any simple act of service?

[For more on Joseph Brackett and Simple Gifts, click Simple (Gifts) Thanksgiving above.]

Finding Ourselves

A few years back, the book club I joined read two books by women whose first books had sparked marvelous discussion and admiration. One was autobiographical in nature, the other fictional; both were full of pain, difficulty, and loss – but infused with a hope that difficulties can lead to greater understanding and love. The same could not be said for the second books by the same authors. Both were autobiographical, but without a larger love that could offer generosity to the great wide world. Both authors “woke up,” convicted by the belief that only by putting their wants first could they mature into the people they wished to be. Families were left, temporarily or permanently. Friends and lovers were notable for their shortcomings, not their attempts to overcome them. Women who grew in different ways were discounted as immature or sleepwalking through a world not of their own making. Neither book ended on a particularly good note as neither women seemed to feel embraced by their own lives.

Many of the book club members saw the authors as only selfish, self-promoting, and defined by anger. The writing was admired, the women’s conclusions contested. The conviction both authors professed – that women whose life paths went a different way were immature or somehow inferior in their understanding of the world – didn’t set well. Many decided they wouldn’t bother reading any more works by either author.

I understood how the book club members felt, and I also understood the authors’ newfound acceptance of the importance of their own stories and voices. The world is not a fair place, and women’s contributions have been undervalued and suppressed. Waking up to the injustice of it is not an easy experience. The question is whether this waking up inevitably leads to a single interpretation or stance for all women (not much is said about men in either book).

I believe the authors were women who were growing into their potential, and that their second books were autobiographies of a transition rather than of a final resolution or destination. Rejecting what demeans the self and limits the soul is necessary, but not something that can support a good and holy life by itself. The next step must be taken: loving the brokenness of others as much as our own shortcomings. Unless and until love and joy define how we see self and others, we aren’t yet where we need to be. Or, as Joseph Brackett put it:

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

Lord, help me love everyone who comes my way – and love the person you made me to be! Amen.

Elder Joseph Brackett, Simple Gifts, The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection; Windham Hill Records, 1996; Liz Story, performer, recorded at Luna Recording Studio, Prescott, AZ, 1996

Finding My Place

’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…

[For Simple Gifts complete lyrics and Liz Story’s version of this song, click Simple (gifts) Thanksgiving above]

One of the hardest parts of playing violin or singing in a chorus is learning how to find my place once I’ve lost it – something I found out during my high school years. It wasn’t so hard if I was playing the melody, or singing a familiar and simple piece of music; it was frustratingly difficult when I was responsible for the second violin part or singing alto in Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. When I lost my place, the rest of the musicians didn’t stop to wait. The music continued on, with or without me.

To pick up my part as a player or singer, I had to listen to the other players and singers. Only then could I match their notes to my sheet music and find my own part. Then it was a matter of rejoining the other players and singers on the right note at the right tempo. I may have lost a few bars, but that was better than playing on when I knew I was lost. It was also better to keep quiet and rejoin when I could than to give up altogether and leave the rest of the performance the lesser for my absence.

Losing my place happens in the larger sense, too. My life falls out of sync with the rest of the world and I cannot find my way back without stopping to listen to others. Some time out when I’ve fallen behind or gone the wrong way is the only way to get to where I ought to be. I may have to let the world go along without me until I find my place, but that’s okay. I won’t continue playing against the rest of the world and I won’t give up altogether.

Rejoining, finding where I ought to be, is the gift that keeps my imperfect self an integral part of this beautiful symphony we call life. Perhaps it’s the same for you…

Simple Gifts for Thanksgiving

It seems like November gets squeezed out of the calendar, serving only as a place-holder between Halloween and the Christmas season. In a world where Christmas trees line Lowe’s aisles before the inflatable ghouls and ghosts have been put away, the day of thanking God for the bounty of the earth is given very little attention – but only if I take my sense of priorities from Retail Reality.

Every morning, I wake up with a song running through the back of my mind. This morning, it was the Shaker song, Simple Gifts. The words are few, the melody easy to sing, the meaning profound. What better way to welcome Thanksgiving than spending time with Simple Gifts:

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

[composed by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. For more information, click Simple (Gifts) Thanksgiving above.]

Simple Gifts, Liz Story, performer; The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection, Windham Hill records, 1996; song recorded at Luna Recording Studio, Prescott, AZ, 1996]

Help Yourself

Do not eat the bread of the stingy; do not desire their delicacies;

for like a hair in the throat, so are they.

“Eat and drink!” they say to you; but they do not mean it.

Proverbs 23:6-7 NRSV

Hot coffee fills the urns. Pitchers of juice and water are surrounded by paper cups. The table holds cookies, crackers, cheese, and veggies with dip. There are pretty plates and napkins on either end. Sometimes there’s a centerpiece. Someone went to a lot of trouble and no little expense to provide the refreshments. It could be the reception at a PTA meeting, snacks for the school concert’s intermission, coffee hour after worship, or a neighborhood open house. Everything is lovely, until someone violates an unspoken rule. It might be kids must wait for adults to take food, or two items only until everyone has gone through the line, or you must eat everything on your plate before taking anything else. The rule breaker is served a pointed look, a roll of the eyes, or a cutting comment about the lack of manners to go with that extra cookie. If the rule breaker is a child, it might be a harsh word and a plate taken away. Whatever the consequence, the stinginess of the host is a far greater problem than the ill manners or ignorance of the guest.

I believe in teaching good table manners; I believe rules of etiquette evolved because they make communal life easier and more fair. Eating what’s on my plate rather than wasting food makes a lot of sense – it honors the bounty of the earth and the work it took to create the food on the table. But begrudging an extra cookie or an uneaten apple slice? If my generosity as a host is tied to a specific set of rules, I’m not really giving the food freely – I’m trading it for orderly behavior and obligatory thanks.

I don’t want to be an ill mannered or inconsiderate guest. Even more, I don’t what to be a stingy host. Whether host or guest, I want to be grateful for the food on the table, the hands that prepared it, the mouths that enjoy it, and the God who delights in true hospitality given and received.

God, grant me a grateful heart and the ability to be generous to everyone who finds himself or herself at my table. Amen.

Like it or not…

Twenty-six days ago, a stranger in a truck turned left across two lanes of Route 6 to pick up his dinner at Kool Kone. He didn’t see the white corolla coming the other way – the one my son and husband were in. In a flash of air bags and squeal of brakes, the truck gained a huge dent and the corolla became a total loss. Everyone walked away – just some stitches between fingers that might or might not leave a light scar. But the story didn’t end there. Insurance claims, paperwork, removing plates at the tow yard, and getting a rental car came in the accident’s wake. Once the settlement check arrived a few days ago, car shopping online turned into test drives and signing papers on a black 2016 Mazda. There will be a few inconvenient days until we can pick it up, but then life should return to its usual routine. But it won’t ever be the same.

The insurance check will pay about two years of car payments, and the Mazda’s slightly better gas mileage and lower odometer reading will save us some money at the gas station and garage. But we will spend thousands more than we would have done if the accident had never happened – if the truck driver had taken an extra few seconds to make sure there was no oncoming traffic or if my son and husband had driven past Kool Kone ten seconds earlier or later. One person’s error in judgement affects others; fortunately for everyone, the cost is only in dollars and inconvenience rather than debilitating injury or loss of life.

I think about it when I get behind the wheel. What I do as a driver connects me to the other people behind the wheels of every car I see and the one in the blind spot that I can’t. They are my road neighbors, God’s beloved in the traffic. I may not be responsible for their lives, but I am responsible to order my driving life in a way that doesn’t put them at risk unnecessarily.

Am I my brother’s keeper? Like it or not, every time I drive down the road I am.

Harsh Startup

A harsh startup occurs when a discussion starts with a critical, sarcastic, or contemptuous tone.

William Smith wrote these words in How the Other Half Lives [Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2010 p. 107], referring to John Gottman’s research into what strengthens and what weakens marriage relationships.  The gist of it: a negative beginning leads to a negative outcome. Resolving conflicts and keeping a positive relationship rely on partners approaching differences of opinion with affection and respect. It makes sense that this applies to all kinds of situations and relationships – positive regard for others, even when there is disagreement and conflict, fosters progress and preserves the dignity of everyone involved.

Why is it so hard to approach disagreement with respect for the person on the other side of the issue? Why is it so easy to move from disagreement to personal attack, especially since it doesn’t end well for anyone involved? Avoiding the harsh startup makes so much sense, but it can be difficult to do when discussing important points of disagreement and conflict.

I’d like to say that I never begin discussions with my husband, family, friends, and acquaintances with a harsh startup, but I can’t. Just a few days back, I opened with harsh words  in a discussion about what kind of car to buy and where to buy it. This wasn’t exactly a life-or-death issue, just a question about a possible auto purchase. Fortunately, neither of us chose to continue down a dark verbal path because of my thoughtless words.

Gottman wasn’t the first person to realize that cutting remarks lead nowhere good for anyone. Sarcasm didn’t start with my generation and contempt has been around for thousands of years. But so has the solution, and it was vital enough to be included in our sacred writings:

 A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1, NRSV

[For more on Gottman’s research in marriage studies, see Gottman, J. and Silver, N.; The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004). For more on this subject by William Smith, see Fredrickson, J and Smith, W; How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses & partners (Cleveland: The Pilbrim Press, 2010), chapter six]

What you can fix…

Today has been a day of getting things done. I spent time in my library’s learning garden, dividing perennials for families attending story time. After that, I was on to prepping and painting the bathroom ceiling and closet. Both of these activities have been a lot of work, and will require many additional hours of work to complete. But there’s something immensely satisfying about seeing the changes that my work brings – changes that will last well beyond this season. The garden is much improved for the weeding, pruning, and dividing; the new paint on the walls and ceiling refresh the whole room. Such tangible results for a day’s work!

But there are changes that will come from today’s efforts that are well beyond what I will see. The perennials I dug up today will grace many yards in this town and beyond – who knows how many times they will be divided in the coming years, growing out of a few plants hundreds more. The new bathroom paint is likely to last for years, providing a clean and bright space for family and guests.

Perhaps that’s why Proverbs was included in our holy scripture: to remind us that our daily actions and choices affect the world around us in ways that just may go beyond our own little communities and life spans. It’s not the only message that helps me honor God, self,and neighbor, but it certainly reminds me to do improve what I can through work and action as well as through thought and contemplation…

Cruelty and Kindness

Those who are kind reward themselves, but the cruel do themselves harm. Proverbs 11:17 NRSV

 

Another way to say the same thing: kindness is its own reward and cruelty is its own punishment. Perhaps it’s because kindness is fostering whatever lives and moves in this time and place and cruelty is putting every effort into maiming or killing it. Either way, it is sure to rebound on the person who is its source.