In Memoriam, Rachel Held Evans

A few years back, I attended a writers’ conference at Princeton Seminary; Rachel Held Evans was one of the seminar leaders, and I had the privilege of hearing her speak about her experience as a blogger and published writer. After speaking about how she approached the writing process, she answered questions from the group. At the very end, she had one bit of advice: don’t mistake followers of a blog or readers of your books for a yardstick of personal worth or happiness. At the end of the day, it’s the people you love and the ones who love you that matter (and the God who made everyone, of course). Good advice from someone in her early thirties.

Yesterday, at age 37, Rachel Held Evans died. She leaves behind family and friends who loved her and a whole bunch of people who admired her work. It’s an unexpected loss, and she will be missed. In a world sorely in need of thoughtful and compassionate writing, she blessed us with both.

Jimmy Buffett, Wondering Where the Lions AreHoot soundtrack, April, 2006, Mailboat Records

Seating

“It’s a full train. Move your things off the seats to make room for others.”

Amtrak announcement

Just as Manhattan was coming into view, a conductor’s voice said these words. Some passengers were getting off at Penn Station, but many more were boarding. As people stood in the aisle to get off, some riders moved into their newly vacated seats. The odd thing? In spite of the announcement, many who moved placed their belongings on the empty seat next to their own. Ten minutes later, new passengers boarded. Several of the seated passengers only moved their belongings off empty seats after being asked by someone who needed a seat.

I sat next to four people on my trip to and from New Jersey – a public school teacher/administrator, a vacationer, a man going home to New Rochelle, and a senior from Tufts returning from a job interview. Two were seated when I boarded, two sat down next to me; none of us had taken up a second seat with our things, and all of us offered a friendly greeting and direct eye contact right away.

What if we’d filled the empty seat with our things, only clearing it when absolutely necessary? I doubt that I’d have sat next to the same four people. When entering the train, I looked for an empty seat. Sitting next to someone who acts like I’m a major imposition isn’t nearly as appealing as the courtesy of a passenger who has already made room for me before being forced into it. Since the empty seat next to me was filled almost immediately when passengers got on at Penn Station, I think others felt the same way.

I understand the appeal of extra room and solitude. An empty seat means no violation of personal space. But I’m not entitled to that extra space; if I’m carrying so much stuff that one seat and the luggage rack isn’t enough, then maybe I should leave some of my baggage at home. Good companions on the journey may be more than a matter of luck: they may be the gift that comes only when I make a space and receive them courteously. A life lesson, courtesy of Amtrak.

Privacy Please

I spent two days in New Jersey this week, attending a symposium in honor of a friend and mentor. I stayed in guest housing on a seminary campus and found these words hanging on my doorknob. I’d never seen such a sign.

Maybe there isn’t much difference between “do not disturb” and “privacy please.” Both are asking for the luxury of sleeping in without interruption, regardless of the usual housekeeping schedule.

I much prefer “privacy please”; I’m asking a favor from someone I’ve never met, causing inconvenience if not additional work. The least I can do is ask politely…

For more on Use Your Words, click “About.”

Profession

A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.

(New Oxford American Dictionary)

My high school violin teacher disagreed with this understanding of profession. “Your profession is what you do with excellence and respect, whether or not you make money.” Dedication to craft and pursuit of excellence were the hallmarks of a true profession, payment for services rendered a secondary matter.

I prefer this second definition. It involves dedication and a deep connection to a field and its practice. It also honors people who offer their services for the good of the world rather than the increase of their fortune.

My field is theology, seeking to understand and proclaim the presence of God in this good creation. It’s full of wonder and mystery, poetry and sacred texts. It’s also full of required reading so dull and so poorly written that purgatory becomes a believable concept. It usually falls into a different, less common definition of profession: a declaration of belief in a religion. Oddly enough, this is found under a general definition that goes like this:

An open but often false declaration or claim

(New Oxford American Dictionary)

This is a cautionary tale. To claim a profession which involves the sacred, and to earn a living doing so, is walking a narrow path. To profess the faith is one thing, to treat God and others as tools of the trade something else entirely. Sacred things and the holiness of all living creatures should be approached with humility, and the work involved done with fear and trembling. Otherwise it will surely earn the adjective false.

Psalm 115

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.

They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.

They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk;

they make no sound in their throats.

Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.

If I’m not careful, what I make with my hands becomes my heart’s treasure and my soul’s captor. The idols I make in my own image and to my own glory unmake me. My eyes turn blind, hands numb, voice silent; I harden into stone, by all accounts dead to the world.

The real zombie apocalypse isn’t the special effects and make-up drama seen on big and small screens – it’s walking through this world untouched by its God given beauty and unmoved by compassion for God created others. And the worst part of this living damnation? It’s self-inflicted.

Shake Well Before Use.

(Thompson’s Water Seal)

Good friends gave time, talent, and labor to build red cedar benches for the library’s learning garden. I agreed to do the waterproofing before the benches get anchored in place just outside the children’s library. Since I’d never done this before, I made sure to read the instructions, including shake well before use. A few lines down from this advice, I was also reminded to stir often for best results; shaking keeps the various elements from separating – necessary for the sealant to work properly.

Oddly enough, the same advice can be found on shampoo, apple cider, and zesty italian dressing. All the different parts separate, like sticking to like, lining up according to weight or viscosity. It takes a good shake to bring everything together, and an occasional stir to stop the separation from returning.

I think this is wise advice for life. Sometimes things need to be shaken up to work well. Prayer, work, and play are all wonderful and necessary for a good life – a life that preserves the body and soul, a life lived serving others wherever it is anchored. Our vital elements should be mixed up every so often. Playful prayer, prayerful play; prayerful work, working prayer. Play with work, and work on keeping play a central part of life. Without a good shake and the occasional stirring, things come apart; like unshaken salad dressing, it leaves a bad taste to life.

As with all words of wisdom and power, it’s important to know when these particular words apply. Shake it up when it fosters the best life possible. Don’t shake fragile things or people. Like glass, they’ll shatter. That’s when these directions come in handy: Handle with care. Ask for assistance.

For more information on this series, see “Use Your Words” on the About page.

Enough Already

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

(So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.)

Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

I ran across sufficient unto the day in a novel I read in high school. For whatever reason, the line stuck. It’s been a favorite verse of mine for over thirty years, and it has woven its King James wisdom into my life.

I’m a list maker, a planner, an arrive-ten-minutes-early-to-appointments person. In many ways, being like this serves me well. I have little trouble meeting deadlines, preparing Vacation Bible School in February, or getting my annual Christmas letter written by Thanksgiving. But there’s a shadow side to it: pre-worry. An anticipated difficulty can grow to a major problem in my mental landscape long before anything happens in real time, bringing a storm of worry along with it – worry about nothing that’s actually happened, is destined to happen, or even likely to happen. How is it possible, let alone helpful, to feel anxious over phantom troubles?

Usually, I can resist borrowing trouble from the future. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, rises like the sun, chasing away the dreadful, anticipated projections. Difficulties do come, usually without anxiety tagging along. Each day brings enough strength and grace for its problems. To turn the phrase, sufficient unto the day is the grace therein.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow will bring its own worries. Just like today, tomorrow’s grace will be more than sufficient for them. But that’s not today’s agenda..

An Autumn Frost

I have been treading on leaves all day until I am autumn- tired.

Robert Frost, A Leaf Treader

Fallen leaves are adrift in my yard, filling streets and sidewalks, gathering in front of walls and fences. When I walk to CVS, I have to wade through a knee deep stretch of them. They are a beautiful red-gold-brown hindrance to my quick pace, and they smell wonderful. Sharp and earthy, crunchy and scratchy perfume.

Autumn-tired. Not from skipping over but from treading on leaves all day. Walking over what shaded me on a hot summer day. Treading on the final form of what began as small green knots, a Spring promise that new life was on its way. To put underfoot the last blaze of glory, muddying up New England’s Fall miracle, makes me a special kind of tired. Autumn-tired.

Raking and jumping in them is exhilarating, running through them a joy. Perhaps treading on them is so exhausting because there’s a darkness to it. It’s a callous soul who can put boot or shoe upon such God created and sustained beauty without remorse or regret.

Robert Frost’s A Leaf Treader can be found in Robert Frost’s Poems(New Enlarged Anthology), New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1971, pg. 237

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Hear, Read, See

A Person should Hear a little music,

Read a little Poetry and

See a Fine Picture

Every day

in order that Worldly Cares may not obliterate the sense of

the Beautiful

which God has implanted in the Human Soul.

Goethe

My friend Penny sent me these words years ago on a birthday card. I framed them soon after, placing them ever since where I can see them. They are important because they came from a friend and because they tell a truth: ignoring the beauty I hear, read, and see because I am occupied with whatever task is at hand puts my humanity at risk – the humanity God created and sustains.

Music, Poetry, and Painting are about revelation. They help me know the world as something mysterious, something whose reality transcends my individual cares and lifespan. Specific creations that expand my awareness of the universe, bringing no reward beyond profound gratitude at the blessing of hearing, reading, and seeing. In the presence of such beauty, I know that my life is extraordinary – just like everyone else’s.

Today, I listen to the Mills Brothers, read Robert Frost’s A Leaf Treader, and spend time with Kay Chorao’s Tree Shadows illustration. Worldly cares can’t compete with that.

I also read Psalm 125 – not an easy or favorite psalm. Psalms are part of the Beautiful, but remind me that I cannot hide from Worldly Cares behind melody, meter, or palette. Beauty and Worldly Cares: one without the other is incomplete. Together, they are a sacred complete.

For more about the Use Your Words series, see “About.”