Category Archives: observation

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.]

Free For or Free From?

‘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.

[by Elder Joseph Brackett. For more information, click simple (gifts) Thanksgiving above]

Freedom is an interesting word, often understood in one very particular way: Freedom From something – want, fear, duty, work, responsibility, etc. A winning lottery ticket may buy freedom from a job and from having to curb spending because of budget restraints. Needing no job may bring freedom from a work routine with its inevitable irritations and time constraints, and freedom from holding one’s tongue around the one who signs the paycheck. Money can buy the latest security system to safeguard expensive items, and it can buy the services of others to clean the house, cook the meals, even transport the kiddies to school and soccer practice. 

I doubt freedom from is what Joseph Brackett was writing about; “to be free” is followed by “where we ought to be,” “simplicity,” and “to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed.” This isn’t a freedom from something: it’s a freedom for something. Freedom means the ability to find ourselves in the right place, which is defined by love and delight. It means recognizing what is eternal and holy, bowing down before it and bending our wills to the loving guidance of God the Almighty and Compassionate.

We will all serve someone or something – our own desires, the interests of others, an addiction, or something else entirely. Freedom lies in recognizing this truth and choosing what or whom we serve. I suspect that choosing to serve God freely is the only thing that frees me from anger, greed, anxiety, and selfishness.

It may be a simple choice, but it’s not an easy one…

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

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…

None taken…

Fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult. Proverbs 12:16, NRSV

 

I’ve known a few people over the years who would say nasty things just to get a rise out of someone. For whatever reason, they enjoyed upsetting their friends, relatives, coworkers, and the occasional stranger. The person on the wrong side of their remarks usually responded in one of two ways: strike back with angry words or keep a hurtful silence. Either way, they gave the instigator the satisfaction of a response, a reward for his or her bad behavior.

Ignoring an insult isn’t the same as taking it in hurtful silence; ignoring is acting outside of direct engagement, leaving the insult with its speaker. This isn’t an easy thing to do, but there are two very good reasons to give it a try. 1) If insulting behavior isn’t rewarded, it will cease (this may take some time, but it will work). 2) Once the bad behavior stops, a positive relationship becomes possible. To do this takes strength and patience – in other words, prudence.

It’s something I’m hoping to grow into…

 

One Liners…

The first nine chapters of Proverbs are concerned with showing the difference between Wisdom and Foolishness – and an exhortation to a child to follow the first and avoid the second. After that, there are hundreds of pithy one-liners, practical advice offered in catchy phrases. Some of them still apply to life, even a couple of thousand years after they were written. Let’s take a look at a few in the coming posts…

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses. Proverbs 10:12, NRSV

 

Words that demean and embarrass are everywhere, so much so that it’s barely noticeable when they fill the comments of judges in any number of reality shows. Getting a negative reaction or bringing someone to tears makes for good ratings, or so it seems. I have to wonder: is an imperfectly prepared omelet really an insult to the judge’s delicate palate, or is it a common mistake made by someone doing their best? Verbal attacks may not be hateful in intent, but they are hurtful enough to elicit an equally damaging response that begins an ongoing exchange that damages and divides. Harsh judgement and verbal punishment don’t lead to positive and sustained growth – they lead to ongoing judgement and punishment.

Love isn’t a warm emotion in this proverb, it’s the willingness to work for the good of others in an honest and intentional manner. It’s possible to tell a cook that the omelet wasn’t perfect by teaching the technique to fix it. Honesty that transforms the world honors everyone involved, leading to better relationships and improved performance. No offense offered means no offence taken. Everyone walks away better for the exchange.

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?

The Source and the Message

Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching. Proverbs 1:8 NRSV

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching. When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother’s favorite, he taught me, and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments and live. Get wisdom and insight: do not forget, nor turn away, from the words of my mouth. Proverbs 4:1-5 NRSV

If you want to see good parenting, look in the grocery store or the public library; if you want to see atrocious parenting, do the same. In any number of shops or schools you will see parents ignoring their children, or speaking to them in ways that demean and humiliate. You will also see loving glances between parents and their children, and hear patient and respectful dialogue even in difficult situations. The power these words have to foster or maim the spirit isn’t immediately visible most times – it’s five, ten, twenty, forty years down the line that it’s revealed in the beauty and the ugliness, the soundness and the brokenness that mark the men and women the children grew into.

What happens when a parent says to a child: listen to me! What happens when a mother or father tells a son and a daughter that life and wisdom comes from listening to what is said? I think the answer depends not so much on the exact words as much as the actions of their source. If love and respect are offered to a child, parental mistakes and shortcomings will be forgiven and advice will be experienced as an offering of love. If fear and insulting judgement are offered, parents will be unable to admit mistakes and faults, foisting whatever is imperfect upon their child’s narrow shoulders – a burden rather than a blessing. It doesn’t matter how good and true the words used might be – they are weaponized, harming the child and even the child’s child.

The source and the message are never truly separate either way. For this reason alone, it should make us think very carefully and deeply before we say these three words: listen to me! Because our children will…

Happy?

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. Proverbs 3:13-18 NRSV

Once the basics of food, clothing, and shelter are met, happiness doesn’t have much at all to do with wealth or possessions. That’s why wisdom is better than a pile of precious metal: gold and silver can’t make an unhappy person happy in anything more than a momentary sense, and a happy person will be happy with or without them. Wise people know this vital truth.

I don’t know if wise and happy people live longer in terms of years, but they live more in the days given them. Whether they are monetarily richer or recipients of more accolades, I can’t say – but they consider what they have more than enough and do not take offense at the slights (intentional or unintentional) that come their way.

The wise walk down the street, seeing in the world around them life, love, and infinite possibility. Could the street have been straighter and the weather better? Perhaps. Could it have been worse? Sure. But isn’t it enough to be alive in this God-given world, in this time and this place? Isn’t what life offers marvelous? How we answer those questions reveal our wisdom or folly, our abiding happiness or impatient discontent.