Cross

Eija Heward made a stained glass cross for me a few years back. The cross itself mother-of-pearl. A sunny yellow circle surrounds the center of the cross, with blue and yellow rays angling out of it. It’s a sunburst cross. It matches my living room colors perfectly, and spends a good part of the year there on a high shelf. I’d like to hang it in a window, but my two cats jump for it whenever I make the attempt. When the afternoon sun hits it, my cross glows. When I see it, I think of Eija, my faith, and the beauty of the world. Then comes summer.

In the good weather, my cross moves outside to a wrought iron trellis shaped like a church window – pointed on the top, curving downward, and ending in straight sides. The cross hangs from the center point, suspended the trellis. Soon after the sun rises, its rays find the cross, sending blue and yellow light everywhere. If there’s a breeze, the turning cross flashes so brightly it can be seen all the way down the street. What is beautiful and serene in my living room is sparkly and brilliant in direct sunlight. Sometimes it’s so bright the cross itself disappears in the light. I’m amazed every time I see it flash and shine.

A cross is a symbol of the Christian faith, but this cross more than most I’ve ever seen. It is beautiful in any location, but only when it is filled with sunlight is it fully itself. To bear light so well that it’s form disappears, transformed into brilliance: isn’t that what faith and life are all about? Thank you, Eija, for the cross and the truth that shines through it.

Clock

God has made everything suitable for its time; moreover God has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

A square wooden clock with a round face hangs on the chimney wall in my kitchen. My son found it at a yard sale when he was in kindergarten – light wood with apples painted around the face. For him, it was love at first sight. In seven years, I’ve changed the batteries three times. It survived the kitchen painting and purge of 2011. It’s the clock I check most often. There’s something comforting about seeing the hands move through the hours, marking the passage of time by position as well as number. It matches my apple cookie jar – a wedding gift, and a replica of the one my grandmother had in her kitchen. Cookie jar, cookie jar, clock – connecting me, my son, and my grandmother through time and motif.

The earth turns, the seasons change, and every living thing ages. My apple clock doesn’t tell me anything about the passing of time beyond the dozen hours I’m living in right now. Clock time looks no different today than seven years ago, but time has transformed my son. The hands pass through the same numbers inscribed on the same circle, unchanged even though my grandmother no longer lives. This apple clock cannot display the beginning of my life or its impending end, it just reveals the when I am in right now.

I think clocks, like time itself, are double-edged. Knowing the time can help me appreciate everything this day brings. Every hour can be found on my clock, and in every hour is the time to encounter God and others. Love is given or withheld in today’s measured time, and my clock reminds me of this. But there is the other edge: no clock can show how my hours become days, weeks, months, and years. Clock time is the same whether I waste my days or live them well. If I don’t pay attention to what the clock can’t tell me, what’s beyond the numbers and hands, I just may miss out on the adventure of this God given lifetime.

Oven

Give us this day our daily bread.

 Two loaves of bread are baking this morning. Flour, salt, water, and yeast mixed together with a wooden spoon and two hands. Add time and touch. What comes out is simply wonderful. Enjoy with butter, PB&J, marinara or dipping oil. When it goes stale, toast for croutons, dip in egg for french toast, or give the birds and squirrels a treat.

Many people think there’s a trick to making good bread, and they are right. It takes the magic of heat to create a good loaf of bread. The source of my kitchen magic is basic – electric, four burners, and an oven of decent size.  Consistent heat with little risk that turns a puffy blob into bread, raw fowl into Thanksgiving, and cauliflower into something tasty wonderful. There’s even a timer that reveals when the food is ready.

I use my oven constantly, but I don’t often give thanks for the miracle that it is. Every day, I pray for bread without really seeing the way my prayer is answered. Fortunately, my oven does more than bake – when necessary, it can open the eyes of the blind.

Living Room

Kitchen and Living Room

 In my kitchen, I have a white bistro table where I eat breakfast and have tea. I’ve said twenty-five years of mealtime prayers sitting in its black chairs, head bowed over its small round surface – different towns and homes, but the same kitchen table. This morning when I lift my eyes, I see cranberry walls, shelves with food and dishes, and an old linoleum floor. There’s a bowl with scraps for the birds and squirrels, and pencil lines on the chimney wall that mark the growth of my sons. Coupons, recipes, and homework hang on the fridge, held up by polished magnetite. Art and poetry live on the magnetic wall. I love this space, and I am grateful for the time I spend in it. There is peace here, and room for prayers.

This 1950’s kitchen has limited cupboard and counter space. There’s enough room for the necessary appliances and a good space to prep meals, but no room for extra gadgets. I can’t add anything new without subtracting something old; all the space is in use. I think this is a blessing. If I had a bigger kitchen, I’d fill it up with things I don’t need. It would be too easy to confuse what is necessary with what is not. I suspect peace wouldn’t fit easily into a bigger space, and too much stuff might crowd out my prayers. My soul has room for the Spirit in this space, and I am content.

My mother often says that what we own also owns us – the space we live in also lives in us. If that’s true, then Spring cleaning can be an exercise of the spirit as well as the body. What are the necessary things in my home? What makes a good living space for my family, fostering interesting and faithful lives? Room by room, over the couple of weeks, I’ll ask these questions. I’ve already got a good start on the kitchen…

Eyes To See

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

It’s a beautiful Easter morning here, with sunny skies, chirping birds, and daffodils blooming in my back yard. My two cats move gracefully on the window sills, and the goldfish swim in their tank. Our visiting golden retriever, Montana, wiggles in joy when I get up. The house is quiet and I have time to pray.

Lent is done, and it is time to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. I won’t find him in the graveyard, in a crypt, in an urn. He is in the world of the living, not the land of the dead. He has passed through death into life. He finds me, just as he found Mary, usually looking for him in the wrong place, assuming he is out of reach.

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (Which means teacher.).John 20:11-16

Sometimes Jesus looks like the gardener, sometimes he looks like a science teacher. He appears as a cook, a banker, and a homeless man. He can be found on every street in every town. I encounter him every day. But do I recognize him? Do I know I’m in the presence of Jesus? This Easter, I pray for eyes to see, and a heart that recognizes Jesus when he speaks to me.

Love

By contrast, the action of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

What wondrous love is this, o my soul?

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. I Corinthinans 13:8

It ends with love, and love never ends. Agape in Greek. The agape kind of love is a choice and a way of living with God and neighbor in this world…

Love that is a fruit/action of the Spirit is meaning good things for others and working toward those good things. It involves sacrifice – dedicating time, talent, and resources to foster someone else’s life. This love is freely given, not the result of coercion or oppression. It enlarges the spirit and leads to a better sense of self. This love is a choice, not something forced. This kind of love is possible for us because we have been loved this way since we came into this world. This is how God loves us, and it’s how we are meant to love one another.

Often, we don’t love each other or God this way because we are afraid of loss and death. To avoid loss of self we strike out against love, hurting ourselves and our neighbor. We put Jesus on the cross because we fear the divine love revealed in his words and actions.

My mother talked to me about this years ago. She believed that many rejected the life of faith because they were afraid that God would ask them to die. Just like Peter, we denyJesus because we don’t want to die. We love life and are afraid to lose it. This is true.

But there is another truth at work here: we run away from Jesus because we know he’ll ask us to live. Living for Jesus is loving our neighbor and ourself, seeking and finding God in all people and things. I don’t know what we are more afraid of: losing life or loving life so much that death is just the doorway to the love of Christ. The love without end, Amen.

Pride

The demon of pride conducts the soul to its worst fall. It urges it: not to admit God’s help, and to believe that the soul is responsible for its own achievements, and to disdain the brethren as fools because they do not all see this about it. This demon is followed by: anger and sadness and the final evil, utter insanity and madness, and visions of mobs of demons in the air. (Evagrius Pontificus, 345-399, The Eight (Bad)Thoughts, found at Early Church Texts, public page, www.earlychurchtexts.com)

I didn’t come into this world self-delivered, and I didn’t grow without help. My life is connected to other lives – family, friends, mentors, and other practitioners of my craft. I build on the knowledge and work of others, adding mine to it along with every other person on the planet. While I write the reflections on this blog, I did not create the language. While my reflections aren’t anyone else’s, the help and encouragement of others was and is necessary. If I think otherwise, I kid myself.

The delusion pride plunges my spirit into is much worse than trying to claim full credit for my achievements. Pride puts me in a universe whose center is me, a creation all about me and all for me. My soul doesn’t need God’s help and I can do just fine all by myself. Dependency is for weaker souls, and it is only their blindness that allows others to question my self-efficacy and my self-sufficiency. Others may need God, but not me – a lie I want to believe. Pride pushes me to remake God in my image – the final idolatry.

Living such a false reality is exhausting, though. Other people break into my reality with their own, and the Spirit hovers over me in spite of my bad behavior;  God and my neighbors call me back from the brink, returning me to myself and to this God-given and God-sustained creation. My soul settles down and I can breathe again – no longer center of the universe, and no longer alone. It is more than enough: it is grace.

What about the mobs of demons that Evagrius writes about? Are they real? Oh, yes. I believe it’s the face of everyone else and the presence of the Spirit, distorted by the utter insanity and madness that is the reality lived in pride. The self-created false world is hell.

Goodness

The fruit (action) of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness(generosity), faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Gal: 5:22)

“Oh my goodness! For goodness’ sake! Goodness me!”

Goodness seems to be relegated to mild expletives, taking the place of God – no need to use the Lord’s name in vain! Not a lot of content to the word, even if used frequently. Do we think about goodness anymore?

Another translation of the word is generosity, and that opens up new ways of understanding goodness as a fruit of the Spirit.

Being generous is more than giving things away or sharing toys in the sandbox: it’s a way of seeing reality. Generosity sees a world of blessing, and a life held fast by God. There is no need to hoard money or material goods because abundant life comes from God. A generous person can give freely because God has given freely.

It’s opposite is stinginess – a great word, but not such a great quality. Stinginess grasps the heart and squeezes, making it hard to breathe and almost impossible to unclench the fists long enough to give anything away. The stingy person cannot give anything away freely because it might be needed later. Scarcity may not be a present reality, but it’s just around the corner. All things must be kept, just in case. Just in case what? It’s the “just in case” mentality that harms the soul and makes generosity impossible.

Generosity isn’t spending recklessly or foolishly. Running up credit card debt to lavish unnecessary gifts on others or live beyond one’s means is about self-image and keeping up with others, not generosity. Generosity is sharing what is ours to share, giving to enrich the lives of others because God has given so much to us.

Generosity/Goodness requires us to be who we are, and to know that who we are is good enough. When we know our worth isn’t the sum of our belongings, we can give without reservation – goodness that means something. Then we can say with the psalmist, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”   – and we can mean it.

Vainglory

Icons are created to point us toward God and help us be drawn into God’s reality. They are works of faith and prayer first, artistic endeavors second. They are created with a reverse perspective. The colors, poses, and objects are all part of a faith language designed to deepen the prayer life of the one who gazes upon it. We come before an icon with the expectation that God will meet us. The icon that we pray before drops away, and the Spirit comes to envelop us. Icons tell a deep truth and encourage us to participate in it: God’s reality is much larger than our own, and the Spirit draws us into it.

Iconographers don’t sign their icons. Their creations are meant to point to God, not indicate who created the icon. Putting a name on an icon may lead the faithful to concentrate on the artist rather than God. An icon that doesn’t lead to a deeper experience of God is pointless – literally! Iconographers create them with prayer and for prayer, not to be admired for their own sake.

Vainglory is seeking credit and admiration, wanting our name in lights. It is a hunger to be seen and admired by others, to make a mark on the world never to be forgotten. All activities and talents are self-referential, pointing to us and going no farther. But all the fame and credit in the world won’t create a satisfying, meaningful life, and we won’t meet God through them.

Perhaps iconographers know a truth about fame and recognition that is easily forgotten: If your life wasn’t enough beforehand, it won’t be enough after.

The thought of vainglory is especially subtle and it easily infiltrates those whose lives are going well – wanting to publish their efforts, and go hunting for glory among [men] people; it raises up a fantasy of demons shouting, and women being healed, and a crowd of people wanting to touch the monk’s clothes. It prophesies priesthood for him, and sets the stage with people thronging at his door, calling for him, and, even though he resists he will be carried off under constraint. Then, having raised him up with empty hopes like this, it suddenly leaps away and leaves him… (The Eight Bad Thoughts, Evagrius of Pontus, 345-399. Found on public pages of Early Church Texts, earlychurchtexts.com)

Roadside Assistance

Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul, and with firm conviction that thy will governs all. (Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow)

This morning was supposed to be a typical Thursday morning – get the kids ready for school, take care of the pets, and meet at Cravings Cafe for a Lenten study. All that changed just before nine o’clock, when a dump truck drove over the yellow line into the semi in front of me. A few noisy seconds later, the road was covered in metal, glass, antifreeze, and gas. The dump truck had spun around, coming to a stop beside my car; the semi was on the other side of the road, cab crushed.

Three of us got out to check on the drivers. The crash had crumpled the doors of the dump truck, but someone found a metal pipe to pry one open. One of the witnesses was a nurse, who checked on the other driver. Two of us moved cars and debris away from the  gas covered pavement. Within minutes, two police cruisers arrived with an ambulance. The EMT’s took care of the drivers and the officers secured the crash site.The three of us that saw the crash gave contact information and were released. Barely twenty minutes after the crash, I was back on the road.

Two big trucks crashing together isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I picture a day that brings my soul peace or reveals God’s will. Yet I know God was present on that roadside. No other cars were involved in the crash, no one was seriously injured, and no one got hysterical. Those of us who saw the crash were able to clear the area, get the drivers to safety, call 911, and let those expecting us know that we’d be late.There were no fires or explosions, and none of the stopped cars tried to drive through the debris. Everyone did what had to be done, working quietly and quickly. Everyone was fully engaged when needed and able to leave when needed no longer. There was a palpable peace that settled on the site, steadying each one of us when we most needed it.

My friends at Cravings prayed for me and all those involved in the crash while I was moving cars and talking with the police. I’ve been praying since the dump truck crossed the yellow line – prayers for everyone’s safety, prayers for timely assistance, and prayers of thanksgiving. Peace of soul was a gift given freely to all of us on the side of the road this morning. I cannot find the words to say how grateful I am.

Moving into God’s presence through words