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.

Requiescat in pace/Rest in Peace/R.I.P

I’ve seen these words- Latin, English, abbreviated – on grave markers, obituaries, cards handed out at funerals, and on T-shirts. Rest in Peace. What does it mean to ask that a loved one rest in peace?

Perhaps it’s similar to my memory of running into the open arms of my mother when I was a three year old. Maybe it’s the feeling of total acceptance and joy when my father tossed me into the air and spun me around. Either way, the return was a delight to parent and child alike. If such things happen here, what awaits at the return to God?

Falling into the embrace of God is my best shot at describing death; everyone who has ever felt lost, grief-stricken, bereft, or broken returns to the arms of the one who loves completely. When I say rest in peace, I’m not praying for an eternal night’s sleep: I’m giving back to God loved ones and strangers alike, letting go of the limited love and incomplete understanding I had for them as they let go of this mortal life.

Rest from your troubles. Let go of your limits. These prayers I offer when I say rest in peace.

Priscilla, Rest in Peace.

Tipping the Scales

Readings: Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:46b-55; Hebrews 10:5-10

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty. 

He has helped his servant Israel, 

in remembrance of his mercy…

Luke 1:51-54, NRSV

Offered by Colin Fredrickson, artist, college student, child of God. This image was originally posted for Advent, 2015, and created when Colin was a high school student.

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

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.

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…

Between Garden and 10th Avenue

It’s now the High Line Hotel. Before that, the Desmond Tutu Conference Center; right before that, the Chelsea apartment I called home for a year. It stretched the width of the building, wrapping around the grand marble staircase leading to General Seminary’s vaulted refectory. Windows on one side revealed dumpsters, a dilapidated parking lot, and the 10th Avenue municipal maintenance facility for Manhattan’s trash and utility trucks. The window on the opposite side offered a leafy view of a quiet garden alive with birds, butterflies, squirrels, and brown rabbits. This gothic building, along with several others, formed the wall that surrounded the entire block along 9th and 10th avenues, between 20th to 21st streets. My older son learned to walk on its painted wooden floors and its hosta-lined garden paths while my husband learned how to be an Episcopal priest and I wrote my dissertation.

It’s a curious space to occupy, the residential barrier betwixt garden and city traffic. In recent years, I’ve come to see it as an image of the spiritual life. Cultivating a quiet space of reflection and communion with God on the inside while living in the world of noise, opportunity, strife, and beauty. Without the larger world as a reference point, my spiritual life can become disconnected – something that only has to do with me and my particular understanding of God. Without a quiet space of reflection and worship, the noise of everyday life drowns out angel song and prophetic vision alike.

There were a lot of inconvenient things about living between garden and avenue – car exhaust sprinkled fine black powder on the window sills every day, the closest exit to the street was a half block walk, and there were three keys necessary to get from street to my front door. But I am grateful for all of them: a deeply faithful life that connects inner peace with the broken, beautiful world isn’t lived at my convenience – nothing true and sacred ever is, was, or could be convenient.

[For images, go to www.thehighlinehotel.com or gts.edu.]

Prudence and Excess…the final couple

Where there is Mercy and Prudence,

There is neither Excess nor Harshness. St. Francis,  The Admonitions XXVII

[The Message of St. Francis, New York: Penguin Studio, 1999, p. 9]

Prudence: 1. The ability to govern oneself by the use of reason; 2. sagacity or shrewdness in the management of affairs. 3. Skill and good judgment in the use of resources; 4. Caution or circumspection as to danger or risk [Merriam-Webster online dictionary www.merriam-webster.com]

Being prudent isn’t the same thing as being a prude (a person who is excessively or priggishly attentive to propriety or decorum, Merriam-Webster). A prude fulfills the letter of the law for its own sake, or to feel morally superior to those who don’t. He or she may feel a smug sense of satisfaction by avoiding mistakes or pointing out the transgressions of others, but there’s no real life or love involved. Ironically, excessive focus on doing things properly in all times and places is also blindness to the rest of this life-giving world – the very opposite of prudence.

The virtue of prudence is sound judgment, a grasp on the bigger issues involved in daily actions, respectful and effective use of resources, and the good sense to stay out of danger. Self control isn’t for its own sake, nor is it a means of shaming others. The whole point is to live in a way that brings good things to self and others, to bring self and neighbor together.

I rarely think about the word prudence, but I do my best to practice it in my daily living. I don’t want to judge others harshly to feel good about myself and I don’t want to use more than my share of the world’s resources. I want to live a good, rich life with a minimum of worldly goods; I want to help others do the same. I can’t be prudent and a prude at the same time – if I can remember that simple truth, my blessings won’t be at the expense of others.

Mother and Child

 Picture by Jared Fredrickson

It’s Mother’s Day, and I’ve been up for almost three hours. I called my sister a few minutes ago, wishing her a good day. I’ll call my mom in another hour to wish her well and to say thank you for the life and love she’s given me – and for the prayers she continues to say for me.

The first time I laid my newborn sons in the crib at home, I gave them over to God in prayer. I said that same prayer every night, and still do with some modifications (For most of the year, it’s a long distance prayer for my older son). At sixteen and twenty years of age, they often stay up later than I do, so it’s now part of my going-to-bed prayers rather than a putting-them-to-bed prayer. I think it’s made being a mother more of a joy than an anxiety, and I’m sure it’s given me the strength to let them grow into their holy lives. I don’t own them and I don’t know what life holds for them. I do know that God loves them even more than I do. Perhaps I say this prayer to remind myself of that…

Gracious God, this night I give my son back to you in faith and hope. He is yours even more than he is mine. May you return him to me in the morning, to love and to raise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 Row house by Colin Fredrickson

[St. Francis’ Prayer will return in a few days…]

My True Dwelling

Where there is fear of God to guard the dwelling,

there no enemy can enter. St. Francis

Admonitions XXVII

[The Message of St. Francis, New York: Penguin Studio, 1999, p. 9]

I’ve never been a fan of the “fear of God” language. I think it’s too easy to mistake its true meaning for the false idea that God will harm anyone and everyone who makes a mistake or behaves in a less than morally perfect manner. My definition of the  “fear of God”:  Yikes! My life is laughably brief and limited compared to the age of the universe and scope of God’s creative action within it. Time didn’t begin with my birth and won’t end with my death. After all, I am a very small person in a very big cosmos. 

At the same time, knowing my relative size and duration within the universe is not a commentary on my value or significance. There is no such thing as an insignificant life. Every single one is unique, precious in the eyes of God. You and I may only take up a speck of space and moment of time, but such specks and moments change the very nature of this whole universe. 

When I accept my limited existence and my unique place in the grand scheme of things, then I claim the blessing of God’s love for me and every other being that ever has or ever will grace this vast universe. No one can take my place or steal God’s love from me. I dwell in God’s love, so do you, so does everyone else. Who can steal what is freely given? Where there is enough love for everyone, how can there be enemies? And with God, there is more than enough.