My older son headed back to college this morning; my younger has returned to his usual high school schedule. For the first time in over a month, the family routine has returned to its usual configuration. A look over the recent holiday vacation brings to mind: nothing in particular.
We ate the usual meals at their usual times, with conversation spanning a wide range of unimportant topics. There were trips to buy clothes and groceries, and walks around Wareham – solitary, in pairs, and with all four of us. Sorry, Carcassonne, and Risk were set up on the carpet, and jigsaw puzzles took shape on the coffee table. Chores got done and each of us got bored every so often. None of it was remarkable or memorable.
It takes some unstructured, nothing-in-particular time for me to regain the awareness of the mystery that is every person; focus on particular talents and accomplishments can bring a blindness to this sacred truth. For whatever reason, sometimes it’s hardest to see God in those who share my address and name. Looking over a game board, the dinner table, and jigsaw pieces, I caught more than just a passing glimpse.
I like to cook, and I spend a lot of time trying new recipes from Bon Appetit, King Arthur Flour, and my favorite cookbooks. I can work around food allergies and preferences, usually with no more than a minor adjustment here and there. But a weekend guest shined a light on something I hadn’t seen before: I don’t know how to create a good vegan meal, and I don’t have the ingredients necessary to do so. Almost everything I make requires dairy products, eggs, or some form of animal product. Cookies, muffins, rolls – none vegan. Outside of a couple of soups, my basic baguette recipe, granola and hummus, I could offer no more than a cup of coffee, a few nuts and a pbj. Vegetarian I can do: vegan, I can’t.
My vegan guest wasn’t around for any meals except a quick bite of breakfast before heading up to Boston – granola, toast, and coffee covered those. Still, I’m grateful for the awareness of my inability to offer vegans the same hospitality I can offer non-vegans. I’ll enjoy finding a few more recipes, or learning about how to adapt the ones I already know and love. I’m also grateful for the awareness of my dependence on animal products – those that don’t require loss of life and those that do. It brings with it the chance to live life with greater intention and thanks.
I ordered them from the seasonal sale catalogue, September 2000: LLBean leather ankle boots, stitched in Maine. They have kept my feet comfortable and dry for nineteen plus years. I’ve raked leaves, dug garden beds, trimmed shrubs, and chased children in them. For $45 and the cost of two sets of replacement laces, these boots have made my life richer for the miles they’ve carried me. I don’t know who put in the time, effort, and expertise to stitch leather onto sole, but I’ve said many a thanks to him or her. In a world of the disposable, it’s a rare blessing to find a classic designed for long term wear.
I took my last walk in these boots yesterday. The holes and cracks in the soles let in too much water, sand, and mud for use in bad weather or damp terrain. After almost two decades, the time had come to say good-bye. With a prayer of thanks for the life they gave me, I let them go.
For me, these boots hold two truths:
Good craftsmanship enhances life, well worth paying for.
Everything has its time, and that time is finite.
Like these boots, I hope my life’s work turns out to be an example of both.
Life begins with a clean slate of potential, but with no experience.
Then comes the changes life brings – things that split us into different aspects, different ages and stages.
Life turns us around, revealing sides we didn’t even know we had. The people we know leave deep impressions.
God’s presence shapes us in ways we cannot understand. The process isn’t easy or quick.
Some of the changes are big, others small; some are nearly invisible from the outside.
But in the end, the shape of our lives can reveal the love of God in ways we could not imagine when we first entered this world.
As 2020 begins, I am thankful for the blessing of God’s hand in shaping my life.
[Handrail detail, Christ Church Parish, Plymouth, Massachusetts]
A fresh set of eyes and a beginner’s mind find a whole world of wonder and meaning in the very things that most people take no notice of. I’ve run my hand along the rail for years without really seeing its beautifully carved detail. It’s only because I’m working on a “find the image in the sanctuary” game as a way for children of all ages to learn more about their faith that I’ve managed to see what has been in plain sight all these years.
The beauty of the sanctuary as a whole can obscure the details – symbols, words, and colors that tell the story of Christian faith lived in a particular time and place but also taking part in the much larger world of faith. Too much focus on one or two details runs the risk of losing the larger picture. Big picture or small detail: God can draw my spirit into loving communion either way.
One of the blessings of 2020: beauty prayerfully made that deepens faith.
In a few hours, 2019 will bow out and hold open the door for 2020. I’ll be toasting in the New Year with friends – an almost every year gathering for the seventeen years I’ve lived in Wareham. When the festivities end and my husband and I are back home, I’ll take a few minutes to thank God for the year just past; then, I’ll begin 2020 by writing about blessings – the happy ones, sad ones, hard and easy ones. I hope you share a few of your own along the way – conversation is so much more fun than monologue…
Sisyphus spends every day pushing a boulder up a steep incline only to have it fall back into its original position – a punishment for trying to cheat death through trickery. No matter the effort, the result is the same: eternal lack of progress. Sisyphus will never get his boulder up the incline, and all his work won’t change a single thing.
I wonder about my own work sometimes. Does anything I do change my life and the life of the world? All the labor I put into my garden beds doesn’t stop the weeds from moving in the minute I take a breather, and the perennials I cherish will return next year with or without my help. The words I write might have a negligible effect during my lifetime, but will fade into obscurity when I leave this mortal life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. No one will remember my name a hundred years from now.
But that’s not really the point, and it’s not really the truth that matters. Who I am as far as a recognizable name isn’t who I am: it’s just the outer edges. If that were all there was to me, life would be a tragedy. Not just mine, but every life. But that’s not the whole truth or the heart of the story.
I am, before anything else, a child of God. Through my life, God rejoices in creation. In my unique existence, I can see the wonderful creatures God has created; I can see in their beauty, loving acts, and never-to-be-repeated lives a glimpse of eternity. No life is lived in vain, even if I can’t see it or understand it. God’s purposes will be accomplished in surprising ways and on a scale I can’t begin to comprehend. But I can see it in my own, very limited way – and I participate in it through the work of my hands and the prayers of my heart. Nothing isn’t the final word or state – not for me, and not for you. God is.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [Isaiah 55:10-11, NRSV]
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? [Isaiah 55]
How much of my money do I spend on things that do not nourish me, or anyone else for that matter? Bread in the literal sense, and in the necessities-of-life figurative sense, is anything that is required to support a healthy and holy life. Those things that sustain body, heart, mind, and soul are bread. A quick review of recent receipts and my finances overall confirms what I don’t like to admit: I spend quite a bit of money on things that subtract from my life more than they add to it.
How much of my time, talent, and effort do I give over to attaining or experiencing things that do not and cannot satisfy me or anyone else? It’s not just money I’ve spent on things that lessen my life and the life of the world: the time I’ve devoted to meaningless things can’t be retrieved. The energy I’ve given to feeding anger or resentment isn’t recyclable. I’m kidding myself if I think having one more possession or obsession beyond the food/clothing/shelter basics is going to satisfy my longing for a good and holy life.
The bad news: I can’t earn or buy a good and holy life by spending my limited time and money on additional and unnecessary things.
The good news: I don’t need to buy with my money and life’s time a good and holy life. God grants that gift freely. Once I accept this as the gospel truth, I can devote my inner and outer resources to the bread that feeds this beloved world.
[For more on this series, click Isaiah 55 above.]
Be careful what you wish for: you just might get it. When wishes come true, there are consequences rarely considered beforehand. In some ways, the same can be said for prayers: be careful what you pray for, because there is power in articulating the heart’s deepest desires and fears; no one who comes before God in prayer leaves unchanged by the experience.
Unlike wishes made on stars and birthday candles, prayers are offered up to God with the hope and faith that God is listening with love and concern. We offer our words to God, knowing they are limited because we are limited; we release control to God because we cannot fulfill prayers out of our own resources.
Amen is owning up to our prayers, with all their shortcomings and finitude.
Amen is asking for God’s transforming and infinite love to make out of our lives and the whole of creation something holy.
What an extraordinary grace to be able to say amen. What a miracle that our amens are heard.
It’s rare that I have the house to myself for more than a few hours, and even rarer that I am home alone for the night. But one such occasion happened last Thursday; sometime around midnight, I checked the doors, turned out the lights, and went to bed. I read for a few minutes, said this prayer, and closed my eyes to sleep. It was later than my usual bedtime, and I slept a bit lighter – pretty typical for me on the first night I’m alone.
A week earlier, my eighty-something neighbor, Barbara, was found wandering the neighborhood in the middle of the night. When I visited her in the hospital the next day, she told me that she woke in the night and saw a man standing in her living room. She ran outside because he was a stranger and didn’t answer her when she spoke to him. She didn’t remember how she got to the hospital, and didn’t recognize me; she wondered why her husband, daughter, and aunt hadn’t visited. She didn’t remember that her husband and aunt had died years back, or that her daughter lived in South Carolina. All she knew was that she didn’t feel safe enough to stay in her home that night. It wasn’t the first time an imaginary stranger interrupted her sleep.
I’ve never prayed to be spared from frightening hallucinations, or to be saved from memory loss because I’ve never had to. I’ve rarely questioned my ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, and the handful of nightmares I’ve had that frightened me ended the minute I woke up. But when I awoke this past Friday, I said my first prayer of thanks for being spared such harm. I prayed that Barbara might be spared as well: imaginary strangers and the absence of long dead loved ones may not be real to the rest of us, but they were enough to send a good neighbor into a deserted street – and rob her of the truth that help was behind any of her neighbors’ doors.