Sep 26 2018

Ordinary World

My students are reading Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren. A delightful, restful book, she ties the daily activities of waking up and making beds and brushing teeth to the wider liturgical patterns that mark our lives as disciples. The simplicity of her prose and the grace she approaches our foibles is like a summer rain on a thirsty garden. I find myself looking anew at all the practices of my life, ways that I’ve always looked, but forgotten in the rush and busyness of long days and yeses to too many tasks. We need reminders. We need voices that invite us to slow down and pay attention.

Annie Dillard’s quote, found many times in these blog pages in the past 10 years, has jumped out at me repeatedly this past week: from Tish’s book, websites, other articles, lectures I’m giving, and my own journal:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

The Contemplative Cottage represents the way I hope to spend my days and, ultimately, my life. It is more than a house, but a way to pay attention to the ordinary things of life and see their beauty and experience them as means of grace.

But even in a life that is filled with teaching theology and reading and pondering how to make space for God, the very teaching and reading and pondering can fill that space. The performance aspect of teaching and productive drive toward scholarly work make the focus on daily life in the Cottage, well…quite ordinary. And I have found myself asking, is it enough? Are just simple reflections on attending deeply to life enough?


Because it is in the ordinary, the daily, the little practices, beauties, and simple joys that a life is lived. The mystics call us to “follow the savor,” so sharing these moments in the Cottage allows me to savor, and invite you to attend deeply to your own life.

The air has that slight touch of chill now as October approaches, the leaves are curling, flowers fading, and the Harvest Moon hangs brightly. What could be more ordinary and more wonderful than a healing autumn soup? My friend introduced me to this recipe, which I made and then promptly made again with some adaptations. The tastes meld together–not too spicy, just enough to warm one on a cold, blustery day. The colors celebrate the brilliant yellows and reds this season brings, with a touch of dark green as summer leaves give way to autumn gold. The garlic is an excellent remedy to chills and colds, and the spicy heat will gently clear sinuses. May it nourish your body and, in the making of it, help you to celebrate ordinary beauty.

Coconut Red Curry Soup with Butternut Squash and Chard

  • 4 teaspoons of oil
  • 1 large sweet onion, diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, pressed (or more if you like!)
  • 1 tablespoon, fresh grated ginger
  • 1 small to medium butternut squash, no skin, small chunks (about 3 cups)
  • 1 medium or 2 small limes, zested and juiced
  • 1 teaspoon of turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons of Thai Red Curry Paste
  • 1 quart of either chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 tub of silken tofu (silken is important); you could use chicken, already diced and cooked.
  • 5 small chard leaves, chopped (small is about 10 inches)
  • 1-14 ounce can coconut milk
  • 1/3 cup of chopped cilantro or flat leaf parsley

Cut squash in long halves, clean out seeds, then microwave for 10 minutes, or until the skin is easily removed. Let cool and then cut into small chunks.

Sauté onion, garlic and ginger for 5-7 minutes. Add lime zest, turmeric, salt, and curry paste, and stir. Stop and savor the smell as the different ingredients come together.

Pour in stock, stir. Add squash and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 20 minutes.

Stir in loosely diced silken tofu (I dice it in the tub–it will fall apart anyway), chopped chard leaves, and coconut milk. Warm through, about 5 minutes. Add cilantro (or flat leaf parsley), and lime juice (very important!). Stir and let mingle for about 10 minutes.



Painting by Carl Vilhelm Halsoe (1863-1935)

Oct 12 2016

Sweeping God

Day 12 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.


During the student years, I had a little house cleaning and home organization business. Cleaning is one of the ways I enjoy bringing a bit of order, good smells, and beauty to people’s lives in an often chaotic world. It’s also a practice that puts me into creative listening mode–my house is never cleaner than when I’m writing a sermon. Sometimes, if I don’t know what to do next, I grab my broom and sweep.

One of the eight items that I intentionally brought into the Contemplative Cottage the first day was a broom, brand new, made by hand in a Amish community. Broom lore in many traditions suggests that old brooms should stay in the old house. On an allegorical level, this makes sense: start fresh and clean, don’t bring old dirt into your new home.


For me, the broom symbolizes one of my favorite parables.

Jesus tells three stories in Luke 15, one after another: a shepherd and a lost sheep; a woman and a lost coin; a father and a lost son.

Each talk about seeking what is lost, and then rejoicing that it is found, tying it specifically to repentance (a return to life-giving place, purpose, or love). The sheep, coin, and son are treasured in different ways, but in each case God (shepherd searching, woman sweeping, and father running) is the finder and we are the found.

As a lover of hearth and home, Sweeping Woman God warms my heart. And yes, a man can use a broom, too, but we have already more readily imaged God as a male shepherd or father, rather than a female shepherd or mother. We are more likely to leave the woman sweeping simply a woman, rather than allow her to embody one more beautiful image of God searching for us.

So when I sweep, I remember I bear the image of this sweeping God.  I sweep the corners and under the furniture of my life, finding grace. I sweep up the bits of litter Minerva tracks everywhere and all the dirt that seems to accumulate through no one’s fault, both on my floors and in my heart. I ponder scripture and sweep, cleaning out my blindspots. I pray for people as I sweep that they may find what they seek and know order in their chaos. I sweep my confession, not under the rug, but out of the house, and receive a good ol’ dust pan absolution.

And when I’m done sweeping, I realize, I’ve been swept free, a treasure found and rejoiced over with singing by a God who enjoys sweeping, too.


Sep 27 2013

The Friday Florilegium Returns…


As the days grow shorter and the slight chill weaves its way through yellowing leaves, I dream of cozy evenings, firelight, soft woolens, and holiday meals with family and friends.  A song that always begins this time of year for me is Winter Song by Scottish singer Emily Smith:

The leaves are falling from the trees
Farewell for now warm summer breeze
Weather has been good this year
Now the winter will soon be here
The nights are drawing into shorter days
I hear the old folk and the country people say
Don’t fear the dark, nature has it all in hand
Time to reflect and renew the tired land

So we’ll stoke the fire and light the lamp
Turn our backs in from the damp
Settle down beneath the starry sky
Endure the winter passing by

I see the frost etched upon the glass
In the morning sun he soon moves fast
But he’ll be back to claim the frozen ground
With each clear day he surely will be found
The geese fly south to find a warmer home
While the weary bull he soldiers on alone
Children’s laughter it crackles in the air
Sparks fly high and they catch them if they dare

So we’ll stoke the fire and light the lamp
Turn our backs in from the damp
Settle down beneath the starry sky
Endure the winter passing by

With carols sung, the trees been taken down
We’ve passed a dram and the bells no longer sound
Snowdrops rise with promise of the spring
There’s talk and wonder
At what the year might bring
The blackbird starts to thicken up her nest
While the early lamb, he takes a snowy step
But the north wind’s grip it tightens with his chill
And holds the buds closed against their will

So we’ll stoke the fire and light the lamp
Turn our backs in from the damp
Settle down beneath the starry sky
Endure the winter passing by

You can listen to her song here. Please first pause the Music for Dreaming in the right column >>>

Oct 27 2011

{Day 27} Vegging Out and other Habits of Distraction

Over the past month of considering contemplative living, I’ve invited you to reflect on your activities and start to make cause and effect connections. I would imagine that you’ve discovered that some activities encourage your intention to pay attention to the present moment, and some distract, escape, or numb you–heart, mind or spirit–to now.

Anything can be used as a distraction to contemplative attention. As I suggested in an earlier post, sometimes the present moment is simply too much and we have a desire to take shelter, to feel safe or “get our mind off” something. It’s an understandable response and often a self-protective skill.

Today, I’d like for you to consider that response without judgment.

When used occasionally, sheltering activities are often enjoyable and allow us to relax. But they can over time and practice, become habits of distraction. Then, whenever the troublesome feeling or weariness or need to escape arises, we distract ourselves. Rather than exploring, gently and patiently, what may be the cause of the unpleasant emotions or thoughts or physical feeling, we choose to focus attention elsewhere.  I have a theory that people who are drawn to contemplative living often face stronger temptations to escape the present moment.

Let me offer an example from my own life of how a common activity can easily become a distraction from the present moment.

I’ve always loved stories–I easily get caught up in them. I’m also an introvert. For me, screen media offers the enjoyment of adventure, people, places, ideas, and relationships, all from the safety of my own desk. I need only watch.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a growing conviction of mine that screen media had encroached upon my ability to pay attention to reading, academic study, and people around me. I had given away my TV years ago, but found that the time I was spending via the internet, involved in the story lives of so many characters were taking a toll. I was no longer simply enjoying the experience, but using the screen stories to distract myself from dealing with my own life. At one point, I asked God about some of my struggles with living a contemplative life and his response was clearly, “Are you willing to do what it takes?”

What it took, initially, was a 40 day fast from all screen media. I told my dear friend Kimberlee and asked her to hold me accountable. For good measure, I put internet blocks on websites like Hulu and cancelled my Netflix account.

The first week was difficult, especially when I was tired. At one point, I found myself pacing my apartment, wanting to escape the silence, wanting desperately to get lost in a story.

What God showed me is that these stories were only a substitute to deeply paying attention to my own.

By the second week, I found my thinking clearer and the sense of resistance that I’d always felt, but could never figure out its cause, disappeared. Everything seemed more real. I had more mental and emotional energy.

Rather than getting lost in a story, I sat with what I was feeling or thinking. Gerald May, in Addiction and Grace, suggests that the way out of attachments is not to find a replacement attachment or addiction–something healthier, yet just as much an idol–but to sit in the spaciousness of what was once present, in all the scary vulnerable openness.

Or I simply rested, since most often the desire to watch a show or movie came when I was weary.

After the initial 40 days, I completed two more 40 day periods.  It didn’t become a permanent change in my life, but I did learn to stay in the moment more often than escaping. I’m currently allowing myself some screen media each week, but very aware that (for me) it is just shy of becoming a distracting activity again. I will most likely be doing another fast for the 40 days of (Celtic) Advent.

What is important about paying attention to our distractions is that, while anything can become a distraction, nothing really is. Just by paying attention to the coping mechanisms you’re using, just by noticing, “Oh, I check my email when I’m craving human interaction,” or “I click over to Facebook when my work starts to bore me,” transforms the distraction into food for contemplative reflection.

Sit with the craving. Sit with the boredom. Let it share its wisdom. Let God meet you exactly where you are.

While the distraction can take you out of the present moment, paying attention to the distraction (and the vulnerability it is masking) brings you right back in.

And, whenever we begin to pay attention, we can asked the question, “Where is God with me right now?”

Practice: You probably already have some ideas about an activity that has become a distraction for you–TV, movies, internet, social network, exercise, shopping, cell phone use, work, a relationship, the list could hold anything.

Choose the one that you are most likely to do when you are tired–the “vegging out” activity.

I invite you to let it go for a time. Instead, sit with your weariness, frustration, sadness, loneliness, whatever it is you’re wanting to leave behind.  Listen to it, don’t leave.

Bring how you are feeling into your conversation with God.

Oct 18 2011

{Day 18} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 2

I’ve always been a “I’ll do it in the morning” kind of person. Dishes stayed in the sink and on the counter until I shuffled out into the morning dark to put on water for tea. While the water boiled and the tea steeped, I’d clean up from the day before and then take my tea in for some quiet moments of reflection and prayer.

One evening, I cleaned up before I went to bed, not really thinking too much about it.

The next morning I walked into a delightfully clean and orderly kitchen–the counter, bare and ready for possibility. Muffins? Bread? Or simply time to wander out and look at the sunrise while my tea bag soaked.

I smiled that morning–and while I’m more of a morning person than an evening, smiling is usually beyond my capacity before tea. The clear counter made the day feel spacious and ready for creativity (though my sleepy brain was not thinking about it so eloquently at the time).  And, the rest of the day did go better, and from that point on, I began to practice life as a “I’ll do it now, for the joy of later” kind of person.

Do I always keep my counters clear now? No. But I know that when I do, that same early morning joy awaits me.

This is one of the ways contemplative living–paying attention to the present moment–can lead to little changes without much drama. If you take the time to notice how something subtly changes your internal mood or thoughts positively, this energy can be used. It’s a much better way for creating a new habit than teeth-clenched willpower. In fact, Thomas Aquinas, a major medieval theologian, was convinced that the best way to learn how to live virtuously was through experiencing the delight that was the consequence of the virtuous action, not guilt from, or punishment for, wrong-doing.

Cleaning a counter isn’t a virtue, but the underlying motivation may have some similarities. After I was awake enough to reflect on my experience of joy that morning, I realized that I’d always cleaned my counters because I thought I should. This was the first time I made a clear connection between the action and its joy-full consequence.

We’ll delve into this more next week as we consider challenges to contemplative attention, ways we can purposely distract ourselves from the joy-full consequences of paying attention to the present moment. But for now, let’s return to the home.

Considering our homes an an important companion in our family’s life may help create new awareness in two ways. First, it helps in dealing with the space as it is, rather than as you wish it would be, and second, it underscores the reality that your daily living space has an impact on your thoughts and mood, and the climate of your family life. This leads to both flexibility and initiative–flexibility to make compromises for where the space falls short, and initiative to make changes in how you interact with the space for the joy of later.

If you walked around your home and took some notes in the Day 17 practice, consider the areas that cause an energy drain. Maybe every time you go into your bathroom, you feel tired. Maybe the dining room is a place of arguments and tension. Maybe the bedroom doesn’t invite you to rest. Or maybe the closet feels like it’s hiding the weight of everything on your to-do list.

Ok. Breathe.

One little change could transform how you and your family live the rest of the day, and over time, daily joy accumulates.

Practice: Pick one space, or a part of one space, that you interact with daily and set your clock to a pomodoro (25 minutes). Single-task your attention as much as possible–though listening to some favorite music might be helpful.

Work with the objects in the space. Move them around, neaten them up, sort them. Sometimes, taking everything out and cleaning is enough to get the energy moving. As you work with the space, imagine what would give you joy in that space. Follow your joy, for the joy of later. It may be something simple, like a clean counter, or organizing one shelf of a linen closet.

Get the munchkins involved–getting to set the pomodoro clock can be part of the fun.

If you are feeling energized, do another pomodoro after a 5 minute break (and be sure to take the break!)

Artwork by Carl Holsoe

Oct 17 2011

{Day 17} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 1

My first place I called home after college was also called The Hedge among those in my college Christian fellowship.

I’ve lived in many places and had the freedom to decorate many bedrooms over the years–my pink and white frills in elementary school, my high school room with a Rapunzel window high up in the lofted ceiling above the living room (my family called it the Zugspitze after the tallest mountain in Germany), my first college dorm room.

But The Hedge was a place I had complete freedom to pick. Some would question the wisdom of that decision. It was a spooky Victorian mansion painted gray with black trim and surrounded by an intimidating 10 foot hedge. The landlord told me not to look at the wiring and if a fire started, to just run. My mom cried when she came to visit, before I and my roommates had cleaned it up.

Clean it up we did. Previous tenants had left trash mouldering on the back porch. The walls needed cleaning and touching up. The windows had decades worth of spiders’ webs between the inner and outer glass.  The garden was a mass of vines and bamboo.

But it had a huge mantled fireplace and bay window in the living room, 14 foot ceilings, crown-molding, and enough character for 10 gothic romance novels. The buried garden had a stone bird bath, flag stone paths, and rose bushes. All I could see was possibility and the year I lived there, I sewed poet’s blouses and long skirts, listened to Vivaldi, and was adopted by an abandoned blue Siamese kitty I named Earl Grey.  Every night he would take a running leap from my bedroom doorway to my bed, curl up and go to sleep.

The house came to life at Christmas. In Bellingham, there was never need to buy pine boughs. Just wait for a wind storm and take a walk on Sehome Hill with a trash bag, Mother Nature never failed to provide ample branches. I decorated the windows and mantle and we had a party. The house was loved and it shone again with warmth and magic.

Since The Hedge, I’ve done similar things with many different homes.

A basement Seattle apartment with a lovely window to a secluded garden. It boasted the most, and largest, spiders I’ve ever seen outside a zoo and required three hours of vacuuming just to see the color of the carpet. Once it was clean and decorated, I loved the evening light on the windowpanes, shining through the hedge rose bush.

The Howe House, a lonely, but lovely Craftsman, right next door to and owned by Bethany Presbyterian–oh, the fun of those years!

A little studio on Queen Anne which I waited 9 years to live in.

A 200 year old house in Massachusetts  with crazy wallpaper that nearly knocked me over with it’s busy pattern.

An urban studio above a bar in Boston. I called it The Anchorhold after Julian of Norwich and her small cell right at a noisy, major (for medieval times) intersection .

And the list goes on.

I learned this home-loving skill from my mom. Over our years moving with the Army, she was a master as taking a tired, drab and spiritless place and making it a home.

Now, I live in a 1962 apartment, the first official Contemplative Cottage, and while it does not boast a century-old pedigree, it has become one of the most gracious homes yet.

The past two weeks we’ve been considering Contemplative Living–paying attention to the present moment, and engaging with how God might be present in life right now. We’ve practiced listening and looking, taking Sabbath rest and coloring, single-tasking and the pomodoro technique, now I’d like for us to reflect on our environment, and specifically where we live.

Practice: If I tell you that your home is alive, you might think me odd, but for just a moment, look at your house or apartment with the eyes of love, as if it was a living, breathing companion in your life. What makes you smile? What areas draw you? What areas drain your energy? No need to make any changes, just notice. Walk through your home and take some notes about what your see, feel, hear, sense. While you are at it, pray for each room and that God would reveal himself in this gift of shelter.






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