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Painting For A Change

My mother’s living room was showing its age, so my sister and I offered to paint it – a Mother’s Day gift of a fresh look. Off we went for a couple of cans of Bistro White (walls) and Dune Grass (doors) and a paint kit. An hour of cleaning, another for prepping the space, and we were ready to paint. A few hours later, the furniture was polished and back in place, curtains were up, and we were on the sofa looking at the results. Even though the color on the walls was the same, the difference that new paint and a little effort made was remarkable – to have fresh paint on the walls and things within the space given a good scrubbing has always been more than the sum of the labor and materials it took to do it.

The hundred and thirty mile drive between my mother’s home and mine gave me a chance to think back on the other rooms in other houses. Whenever possible, my mother let me and my siblings choose the paint color for our bedrooms; she and my father thought it was good to offer choices when possible – and that we should enjoy the spaces we lived in. It wasn’t so much the paint as it was the wish that we be at home in the world, accepted and loved for the unique souls we were.

I know that no amount of paint, spit, and polish can make a house a home, or a bad situation a good one. But I also know that every time walls are washed, painter’s tape applied, and gallon buckets opened a new opportunity emerges. I don’t know if it’s just the brighter and cleaner reality that a few hours of work ushers in, or if it’s the closer look at a living space necessary to get it done that matters most. Taken together, they open up the possibility to fall in love with the same old four walls I’ve barely noticed for years.

It’s been years since I’ve painted anything larger than a bedroom closet in my own home. But I’ve noticed lately that the bathroom ceiling above the shower has a few dark marks, and there are smudges near the light switch. It might be time to pull out the tarps, tape around the fixtures, and change this room through sweat, intention, and careful attention to detail. I just may get a glimpse of the grace I so often overlook – a place to call home, and the lovely way it holds everyone who lives here.

Thanks, Mom, for all the rooms and all the life you gave me within them. Thanks, Charna, for being my painting partner and lifelong sister and friend. I’m so glad I got to paint with you.

Go Out Weeping, Return in Joy

Readings: Psalm 126; Habakkuk 3:2-6; Philippians 3:12-16

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,

we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter,

and our tongue with shouts of joy;

then it was said among the nations,

“The Lord has done great things for them.”

The Lord has done great things for us,

and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,

like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping,

bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy,

carrying their sheaves.

Psalm 126, NRSV

I’ve never seen it in real life, but I’ve seen it dozens of times in movies and television shows: a New Orleans funeral procession. Musicians play a dirge, giving mourners a slow beat as they walk with the casket, heading for burial. Through streets they go, their grief on display for everyone – a bartender heading to work, a mother pushing a stroller, the tourist taking selfies and some kids with their homework. Grief cuts through all of them, keeping its own graveyard appointment. Memento Mori.

But the way back is something else. When the casket is lowered and the last prayers said, the band picks up the tempo. Those who buried a friend or relative leave the mournful music behind, dancing back to life with exuberance and joy. Those who went out weeping come home with shouts of joy, just like the psalmist said. The fruits of mourning and loss are joy and a renewed appreciation for life: the seeds of loss become the sheaves that nourish and enrich life. It’s Psalm 126, it’s the hope of resurrection, it’s an acceptance and release of death set to music, walking down a street.

The older I get, the more I like the idea of this kind of funeral. There’s no denying the loss – everyone sees it and no one attempts to keep it private. Grief walks every street in every city: New Orleans is just more honest about it. On the other side of the grave is a street celebration of life with drums and horns to get everyone moving back into life. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen? Accept the loss, share your grief, let it go, return to the land of the living in joy.

It’s an old pattern and a modern one, found in two thousand year old psalms and New Orleans funeral processions and Irish wakes. Mourn, let it go, return to life a bit wiser and a bit more joyful. It’s a holy pattern, one of the gifts of faith from a God who wants even our greatest losses to end in jubilation. May I have the strength, courage, and wisdom to follow it.

The Blind Boy of Alabama, Uncloudy DayDown in New Orleans, 2008 Available on iTunes


But for the grace of God…

I’ve seen several car accidents in the past seven days. Last Thursday: A high school driver and a minivan crashed at a four-way stop, a sedan side-swiped turning left onto a busy road, and a truck running through a red and into a four door Corolla. Last Friday: two SUV’s crumpled on the side of I495 and a dump truck rear-ended on Main Street in Carver. Tuesday: three police cruisers, an ambulance and a firetruck tending to the drivers and passengers of two wrecked vehicles in front of Carver’s Rockland Trust. Miraculously, no one involved was seriously injured. In fact, only one person out of all the crashes required assistance to get out of a car. Thank God for the life-saving automotive technology!

During this past week, in the same areas as these accidents, I’ve been passed in a double yellow zone by drivers frustrated by the reduced speed in school zones and thickly settled areas. A woman in the car behind me beeped and flipped me off for not turning left into oncoming traffic. A pick-up truck driver laid on the horn because I yielded to oncoming traffic at the end of an off-ramp. Fortunately, none of these ended in dented fenders.

I understand that people are in a rush, and that life pace pushes drivers to take risks they might avoid if they weren’t constantly hurrying. Passing all those crashes, I wondered how many of the drivers and passengers in the other cars paused long enough in their busyness to be thankful for the lives of strangers that weren’t lost – and for their own good fortune to be observing an accident rather than in one. I also wondered how many accidents I’ve passed in my lifetime that didn’t register more than a passing glance. I suspect the number is higher than it should be.

Today, I’ll drive to Plymouth for a weekly Bible study and carpool pick-up. I hope I can remember that the slow cars and the speeding cars, the beeping horns and squealing brakes are not inanimate annoyances – they are the carriers of God’s beloved children. May I have a grateful enough spirit to value each life without needing the reminder of roadside wrecks.

Stony the Path

There’s a turn-of-the-century Cape on the corner of Gibbs and Bodfish. New people moved in a couple of years back, writing the latest chapter of the house’s biography. They’ve cleared out the scrubby bushes, repainted the trim, and laid new garden beds to the left of the driveway. It’s one of my favorite homes in town, and I enjoy seeing how it changes with the seasons – Spring crocuses, Summer hydrangea and tomatoes, Autumn pumpkins and trick-or-treat candy, Winter wreath and twinkling lights. But today, something I’d never seen before lay before me: a stone walkway connecting the front steps to the sidewalk.

The stones in the path are old, irregular in shape, varied in color and kind. They are large, well worn, and have been submerged in grass for at least as long as I’ve been living here. Someone stripped away the grass and dirt to reveal what was hidden underneath – an old path that was lost has been reborn, restoring a way for neighbors to reach the house and owners to visit neighbors.

I wonder how the owners found it. Did they see a stone or two in the grass and realize they were visible parts of a much larger but hidden design? Did they have old photos of the house that showed the walkway? Short of knocking on the door and asking, I’ll never know. I do know that it took a lot of work to restore that walkway, and an appreciation of the work that went in to laying it in the first place.

I’m writing curriculum this week for a Sunday morning high school class, delving into sacred stories, creeds, and prayers. Seeing that beautiful, old walkway rediscovered and restored gave me a new way of seeing my own work. The history, theology, prayer practices, and stories of faith provide a solid path from our faith home to the faith homes of our neighbors. It’s an ancient road, and I had no hand in its creation. But it is my privilege to do my part to uncover it, clearing the path that connects neighbor to neighbor.

For more in this series, check out “Retracing My Steps.”

The Stores Not Shopped

Sid Wainer’s, Barnes & Noble, L.L. Bean, Ikea,  and Trader Joe’s are my favorite places to shop. I also love going to the King Arthur Flour Baking Center for a class and some time in their store. I can spend hours in used book shops, pulling out dusty hardbacks and reading their faded inscriptions, loving words penned by strangers I’ll never meet. In the past few weeks, I’ve shopped for groceries and bought a book that my older son needed for a class. I found a pair of Land’s End pants and a winter jacket for my younger son, replacements for the ones he outgrew this winter. My husband and I picked up a few hardware necessities at Lowe’s, and I replaced the necessary toiletries at CVS. But that’s about it, because I’m taking a shopping break for Lent this year. It’s not a crazy or drastic change – I’m still buying food and I haven’t extended the shopping hiatus beyond myself. Until Easter, I’m living with what I have and living without what I don’t.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

I don’t  miss buying stuff. I’d rather have an uncluttered home than a lot of possessions.

If I don’t go into stores that do not sell necessities, I won’t be tempted to buy the little extras.

I have a better idea of what I already own, and how much of it I don’t use. Spring cleaning this year will involve sorting through clothes outgrown or rarely worn, and I’ll donate the kitchen gadgets no one uses.

I’m not one to spend a lot of money shopping, but I’m surprised how many things I buy without much thought or appreciation. When Easter comes, I’ll return to Ikea for housewares and I’ll pick up a book at Barnes & Noble every so often. But I’ll try to be mindful about whatever I buy, everyday necessities or occasional splurges – more aware of the value of things and less likely to mistake an extravagance for a necessity.


Eat, Drink, and be Merry…

macIt’s all about the food some days: growing, shopping, canning, cooking, plating. Some days, it’s about what’s in the mug, flute, or tumbler: coffee, hot chocolate, sparkling gold, or milk. No one lives long without eating and drinking. It can be a monumental undertaking to get food on the table and the family around it. Offering this necessity is a privilege, a sign of hospitality, and a whole lot of work. With Lent starting tomorrow, it might seem an odd time to focus on eating and drinking. But looked at from a slightly different angle, it’s the perfect time to ask the question: how do eating and drinking reveal my love of God, self, and neighbor?

I won’t be the only one writing about this. So grab a tasty beverage and a seat at the table.

Among the Vines

The laborers whom the owner of the vineyard hires at increasingly late hours of the day are waiting around in the marketplace because no one has hired them. In other words, they are ready to work, hoping to work…

If some are ready and willing to work but cannot get hired, then should they go hungry, or be viewed as moral or social failures?

[Ray, Darby Kathleen, Working, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011, pp. 53-54]

Looking at how work shapes our lives as individuals, family members, and part of the larger world, Ray explores Jesus’ parable about the workers in a vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Rather than going with the usual focal point (the same pay for everyone, regardless of how much work they did), she looks at the story in light of employment and unemployment. All the workers wanted to work, hoped that their sweat and toil would put food on their tables and a sense of accomplishment in their hearts. Ray points out that work is a gift here, not an inconvenience or an entitlement. To be able to work, to provide for needs of self and others, isn’t a curse or a necessary evil. It is a way to give something to the world through our own efforts.

Then she asks the hard question: if willingness to work is no guarantee of getting work, is it fair to consider the employed as somehow morally ahead of the unemployed? In times when work that provides a living wage is anything but guaranteed, it’s a good question.

I can’t say I’ve thought much about it. I haven’t really considered employment a measuring stick of morality or worth. But I know how hard it is on people who can’t find enough work, who feel more like burdens than blessings. The unemployed are a diverse bunch: the middle-aged, middle management exec downsized, the mother of toddlers not hired because it might cause “reliability” issues, the teen with no work history trying to get into any position for any number of hours.  They just need someone to give them a break, to give them a chance.

In the parable, the workers get that chance. The late comers and the ones who worked the whole day long receive a living wage. Going home, each worker brings enough coin to buy that daily loaf of bread. Perhaps that’s the point Ray is making: everyone deserves that daily loaf of bread. Everyone deserves the chance to earn a living. No one should take for granted the blessing of work, and no one should begrudge others their bread.

Things Handed Down

Were he still alive, my father would be 76 years old today. With his birthday being so close to Thanksgiving, it’s a simple thing for me to remember him with deepest thanks. Because of him, I am a part of a loving family. I didn’t choose them and they didn’t choose me, but this unplanned life has been nothing but a blessing.

My mother is 76 years old. Because of her, I am a part of a loving family. I give thanks for such a blessing every day.

The same can be said of all those who came before me, unfamiliar names on a family tree that handed down my particular genetic pattern. How can I be anything but thankful  – to those with me, to those who came before me, and to the God who made us all?

Marc Cohn, The Things We’ve Handed Down, The Very Best of Marc Cohn, 2005