Aug 25 2016

Introducing the Contemplative Cottage

Five years ago, walking up a street on Queen Anne hill in Seattle, I came to a corner house with a second lot as its backyard. I found myself frozen in wonder, standing on the sidewalk, looking at a mature garden, the product of years and tender care.

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Little rock paths threaded through beds for flowers and edibles. A fruit tree stood sentinel near a rustic shed. Everywhere, I saw loving touches: stones walls, statues half-hidden, little areas to sit and ponder. Even in its newly budding state, the love that emanated from it was a physical presence. It called up in my heart a longing so sudden and fierce, I found tears spilling down my cheeks.

Why?

I took the experience of seeing the garden as my lectio text for that day and let the reflective practice do its work: reading the experience, meditating on the parts that shimmered, and praying.

It was almost immediately clear why it had touched me so deeply. Ten years before, I’d had a little bit of earth behind the church intentional community house where I lived. In that garden, I planted wildflowers and loved watching the columbine bloom. Even earlier, I’d discovered an overgrown garden behind my college rental and felt like Mary Lennox as I worked to uncover it. Over the years, garden and farm experiences solidified my love of tending the earth, enjoying its beauty, and eating from its bounty.

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Seeing the hilltop house and garden plot filled me with longing because the possibility of having my own cottage and a bit of earth to grow healing herbs and edibles seemed so unimaginable–at the time, I was a PhD student, working as a house cleaner and a part-time adjunct.

God and I talked about my desire for a real cottage and garden someday, but rather than live in what seemed an impossible future, I set to creating a little garden on my balcony, growing wildflowers, herbs, and inviting hummingbirds to visit. It was enough.

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Now, five years later and three moves, including one that took me from my beloved Seattle community to the beautiful river city of Dubuque, I have moved into the cottage of my dreams.

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Feeling settled and joyful about life in Dubuque and at the University of Dubuque, I knew it was time to buy, but there was a certain “something” that the many houses I considered lacked. One day, on a trip to a friend’s house, I happened to walk through one of my favorite neighborhoods, a two-minute walk from my campus office, and also near where I attend church. I sighed and prayed, “Lord, it would be so wonderful if there was a cottage in this area.” And there it was. Right there. I had missed it in my online search. Three days later, I put an offer in. Five weeks later I moved in.

Welcome to the Contemplative Cottage in the flesh!

Contemplative Cottage photo

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Moving into the cottage has also encouraged me to “move” back into this blog. Over the next set of posts, I’ll be sharing details about the sanctuary space I’m creating and some of the spiritual practices that are aiding me.

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I hope you will join me on this journey in attending deeply to life: looking for beauty, practicing peace, and gazing with love.

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Christ’s grace to you, and peace,

Susan


Aug 18 2016

Rhythms of Grace

As we begin a new school year at UDTS, I made a short video exploring rhythms of grace for our incoming students: holistic ways to think about our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits, in the midst of the busyness of life. This is first video I’ve made, with the lovely Sinsinawa Dominican Convent as the backdrop. While it is addressed to our incoming cohort, I believe there is much that can speak to people in different contexts.  May it provide a moment of retreat and encouragement in your week!

(Before playing, I invite you to pause the Music for Dreaming in the right column >>)


Sep 6 2015

Creating a Scripture Study Legacy

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This past summer, I shifted my approach to studying scripture on an extremely practical level in hopes of finding a way to capture my engagement with a specific book or passage each time I read it, and keep that study for future reflection.

For years, I’ve simply used an NRSV pew bible with minimal notes and a journal to record insights. In the bible, I note the date each time I read a passage, giving me a wonderful record over the years. My three bibles record dates from 1988 to 2015, and for some passages, like Proverbs 31 (describing a most fabulous, creative, diligent, wise business woman), dates upon dates.

The book of Ephesians, which the Holy Spirit has kept me anchored in for the past five years, is another one that shows consistent engagement.

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While my two previous study bibles finally fell apart due to poor bindings, my current one is still intact, yet has become uninviting for new underlinings and notes.

The journal record of my study is also not easily organized, as they are mixed in with the days’ musings. My goal was to find a simple way to collect my study notes, commentary gleanings, Greek word studies, prayers, and insights with the text itself, and in a way that can be filed for future reflection.

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While I love the latest and greatest technology and know that software, such as Logos, offers digital ways to study, the price tag is daunting. Even more, I know that I learn better when I have a physical text to work with. Color is also important–making the page a creative, prayerful reflection as well as a reasoned meditation on the Word.

Research in cognitive studies also suggests that our brains learn by textual landmarks–where something is on the page, even where it is in relation to the whole book. The act of writing can further embed learning–physically writing out an insight in a journal or margin is more likely to remain in long-term memory, than one that is typed.

After some research, I discovered pre-printed KJV and ESV loose-leaf bibles. The wide margins seemed exactly what I hoped for, yet the price tag of $70 and the negative reviews of the thin paper stopped me. I use fountain pens and gel pens, so the paper needs to hold ink without feathering or bleed-through.

To create my own loose-leaf bible for study, I found a free Word doc of the NET bible. Other than the King James Version, the NET bible seems to be the only version on the internet that allows full printing, rather than just copyright-limited sections.  (If anyone finds others, please let me know.)

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Using a 28-pound paper with an incredibly smooth surface, I printed each book that I’m currently studying and put them in a binder. There is no need to print the whole bible. While it doesn’t allow for cognitive landmarks of where the text is in the entire canon of scripture, it still allows for mental page mapping within the context of the specific book.

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With a free resource like BibleHub.com, I can look at the interlinear Hebrew or Greek, recording key words with the text, have any number of commentaries open on my desk, and capture everything in one place, all the while staying close to the text itself.

So far, the experiment has been a success. One unexpected thing I’ve discovered using this format is that that blank margins invite insights and commentary–it actually encourages me to study. It allows me to approach the passage fresh, to hear what the Spirit is saying today.

I still love my well-loved and marked up bible–it’s a record of God’s faithfulness to speak through His word for 15 years.  I still use my current bible for church and to record dates when I wrestle with a passage (it’s especially powerful when a verse comes to mind and find that I had looked at it on the same date years prior.)

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I still have my two falling-apart former bibles on my shelf and occasionally take them down to smell their pages and go back in time through the notes of a young college freshman just falling in love with scripture. At the times in the past decade when I’ve lost my love of scripture, prayer, even God, God has called me back through their witness.

A bound bible is a legacy, but this new approach offers me a different form of legacy: to study, file away the notes, and over time collect multiple readings for comparing, contrasting, and deepening my personal experience of the text, and making it easier to share in teaching and discipleship.


Aug 15 2012

Lost and Found

 

For many followers of Jesus, today is the Feast of Mary. Rarely do I find stories that do her justice, but this one, a meditation on Jesus gone missing by Christin Lore Weber, never fails to constrict my throat, moisten my eyes, and open my heart.

It is not just for mothers, but for anyone who has lost what is most precious.

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Our boy is gone. I looked in every tent, asked every child, pleaded with our kin. Old Phanuel was bedding down the beasts and told me not to fret. Jesus is a boy, he laughed, and boys will do what boys will do. I wept, hiding beyond my veil. He could be dead. What about the bandits of the hills? He could be captured, enslaved, like Joseph of the tale we tell on winter nights circled round the fire. He would not have run away. Not my child.

I have lost a lot of things. The first veil made by my mother’s mother when she was a girl. It was rough spun stuff and woven crooked just a bit. I left it in the sycamore outside the village where I played when I was young. My mother wept and sent me after it, but it was gone. A string of lapis beads from Joseph when we were betrothed. I wore them like a promise everywhere and always. It was in Egypt they were lost, somewhere along the road where we spent a night without a moon. I’ve lost much simpler things: my favorite needle made of bone, the clasp that Joseph carved to hold my cloak in place when it was cold and I am drawing water from the well, a pale blue cup, a clear carnelian stone. Tonight my hands hunger to touch these things. I would lay my head on the rough weave of my grandmother’s veil and again and again, through my tears, whisper the name of my child.

Tonight we can do nothing. We listen to the wind. We wait. Joseph paces past the fire. While I watch he stops; he turns his gaze to the invisible hills and his body bends against the fire’s light, like that of some abandoned God whose image stands broken where once the young men danced. He looks to be the ruin of a man. After this night he will never not be old.

I will not sleep. The nightbird calls;  a desert lion prowls the outer circle of the camp. The watchman listens for a child’s cry, but not as I listen. I have schooled my heart to Jesus’ every breath so that for thirteen years I have rested only in his breathing. His dreams awaken me so I am kneeling by his mat the moment that he starts from sleep and calls my name. How can he be lost? I would have felt him go. Such absence would have split my soul. I cannot sleep tonight; I will sit facing East listening for the breathing of my child. Wherever he may be I will surround him like a lullaby and he will sleep in peace.

When I lost the lapis beads we retraced our steps to where I last remembered wearing them. Each round pebble seemed a clue. Beads scatter from a broken cord. I searched in clumps of grass and broke my fingernails digging in the sand one place I thought I saw a glint of blue. We walked, zig-zagging back along the road, our eyes sweeping every inch of ground. If I could have found just one blue bead I would have treasured it like the midnight sky for all my life. As the sickle of the moon fell beneath the twilight we returned to where we began. Joseph looked at me as if to say, “The beads are gone but you will wear my promise always as earth wears the lapis sky.”

At dawn our kin spiraled outward from the camp calling Jesus’ name. Rebecca thought she heard him whimper from behind some rocks. She cried, “He’s here!” and we followed her, scrambling up a stone outcropping toward the sound. It was but a lamb caught in a bramble. Young Asher saw a speck of red appear and disappear across the plains and thought it must be Jesus’ coat. We found just a tattered blanket blown here and there by desert winds. I lost him more that twenty times today. Whenever I close my eyes tonight to rest from hope and fear I see him in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s towers and sprawling streets lie just below. It is the third day. I want to run to the temple. I want to cry his name. I know that he is here. He would be sheltered by the temple like a womb. But my heart is tight with unwept tears. If he is in the temple could God have wished it so? When Sarah lost her only son because his father heard the voice of God, she also must have wondered and wept. How she must have run across the burning sand to meet him when he stumbled down the mountain with old Abraham blinded by fire. That night she must have arisen from her sleep a hundred times to look at Isaac and she must have asked the darkness, “Why are mothers not consulted in these things?”

I saw him first as any mother might, simply safe. He looked at us and smiled as if we’d never been apart. “We’ve sought you, sorrowing,” said Joseph and his voice was weighted with the desert nights and millennia of desert sand. I saw my son. I had not seen him quite this way before. “Why did your seek me?” His inquiry was innocent and wise. He had expected us to know. I saw our future in him then, the truth of all our lives. We all live in one another’s love. No one can be lost. I turned within, listened to the voice of my heart and he was there as he had always been.

He came with us. I had looked into the eyes of my son and seen God. Now he came along like any other little boy.

All that was years ago. Our son returned to Nazareth to learn wisdom from simple things of earth. Joseph taught him how to work with wood, respect the natural grain, rub it with the wax of bees until it glowed. With our cousin, Nathaniel, Jesus learned the art of growing grain to yield a hundredfold of fruit. He reaped at harvest-time and brought home riches from the earth from which we made delicious bread. He carried the basket for me when we observed the Feast of Loaves, sharing our riches of food with those more needy than ourselves. We go to synagogue and he learns the wisdom of the law. He also listens to the birds and asks me, “Where is the beginning of the wind?”

His eyes are lapis, deeper than the night and clear. All my life when silence wraps me like a shawl I will close my eyes and wonder at these things. I will gather bright blue beads wherever they are scattered in my heart and join them on a cord.

What I have sought is in my heart. I wear it like a promise.

Glory to the One who loves us with a mother’s heart. Glory where our life begins and to the home from which we walk to seek our names. Glory that our lives are scattered beads around the world. Glory to the One in Whom nothing is lost.

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(An edited repost from the archives)


Aug 5 2012

The Prayer Corner

“God works with the world as it is in order to bring it
to where it can be.
Prayer changes the way the world is,
and therefore changes what the world can be.
Prayer opens the world to its own transformation.”

–Marjorie Suchocki

Prayer has always fascinated and frustrated me. The scientist in me has often longed for more concrete information about how prayer works and what my role is.

Reading theologian Marjorie Suchocki’s book In God’s Presence transformed my prayer practice because it offered a way of thinking about how prayer—even the littlest of prayers—could impact the world. While no theory of prayer can possibly capture the full reality, her description helped me envision prayer as something tangible, a practice which invited my participation.

She describes prayer as adding something new and unexpected into the cosmos, creative material that God uses to mold and craft this current world into the redeemed reality of his Kingdom. When we pray, that prayer is something new, something that wasn’t there the moment before. The act of praying opens us (and the whole world) to transformation in ways beyond our imagining.

What’s even more amazing is that God has called us into partnership with him through the gift of prayer. The Holy Spirit, according to Paul in his letter to the Romans, prays in us, showing us God’s heart, his vision for the world as it can be. We pray in response to the Holy Spirit’s nudging and the world is changed, moved that much closer to the full realization of the Kingdom.

But what does this mean for us in everyday, ordinary life, where the cosmos is the dishes in the sink, work (or lack of work), the to-do list, busy schedules, all the while wanting to be faithful and hope-full?

If you’re feeling a nudge to the practice of prayer, or to go deeper, sometimes it’s hard to find a place to start, or to start anew, so the practice for this month is exactly that: create a small place in your home for prayer. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this visible spot is called the Beautiful Corner.

This space could be simply a bible, an icon, a cross, or some other visual call to prayer. Icons have been used for nearly two thousand years as reminders of the spiritual reality behind our everyday lives. I find photos of loved ones make wonderful prayer prompts.

If you have kiddos, let them help decorate it with things meaningful for them.

It could become a place to stop on the way out the door to work, a place to take a break in the midst of the to-do list, or a place to say good-night, recollecting the presence of God throughout the day.

Simple or elaborate, a prayer corner doesn’t add anything to our schedules, it just gives prayer a more visible place in our daily lives. Seeing the corner day after day can gently capture our attention and call our hearts to prayer.

It only takes a moment, and the world is changed.

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(The Prayer Corner was also printed in this month’s Bethany Briefs.)


May 23 2012

Into The Deep

I love the gothic, shadowed depths of a medieval dungeon or ruin. In fact, I was delighted to find a tea shop in the Christ Church Cathedral crypt, Dublin, down darkened stairs and wrapped in the muffled silence of stone and history and the tombs of saints. I pulled out my journal, and soaked in the delicious solitude. At least, that is, until the barista thought I would enjoy some American country music. The twangy lilt caused those same saints to turn over in their graves. Make it stop.

It didn’t. So I downed my tea and smiled pleasantly at the barista, leaving the depths to go to evening song upstairs. What I expected to be a simple service turned out to be a trip highlight. Two be-robed older divines prayed us through the psalms in rich baritones and lovely Oxford accents. They smiled and seemed to take joy at this sparsely attended service–just three of us tourists. After the benediction, I expected them to disappear quickly, but the priests turned and greeted us with warm smiles and handshakes, and genuine joy at our presence. The crypt had been an nice escape, but the prayer service warmed my heart.

A number of years ago a professor of mine asked her students to list the most influential people in our lives. I struggled to write names, focusing on ideas and concepts and their authors more easily. When I shared the list with the class, my professor made an observation I had completely missed: they were all writers, theologians or mystics who had been dead for a few centuries. I knew them and their ideas only through books.

Today, if I were to make the same list it would be completely different. My close friends. My parents. Pastors and mentors who have impacted me. Professors who have shared their passion for learning and faith.  And now, even for the authors on the list, I’m more interested in how they lived out their ideas in their lives.

Pursuing a PhD has had an unforeseen result. For most of my life, books promised a world in their pages where I could live, in relative solitude. The intensive study of the past 7 years burned that promise out of me–there are still books into which I can disappear, but not with the same abandon. And theology books simply don’t thrill me as they once did (I used to literally drool over them.)  The magic of the printed word comes now through its ability to engage life–beautifully, visually, poetically.

I have feared this new way of life. Prayed before my wall of books to love them again with the same passion and joy.  Wondered where I failed somewhere along the way to becoming a scholar.

But I think something else has happened, maybe more wonderful and amazing than I can yet see. Before, books were my idol. Now, the ones that matter, have become icons, pushing me through their pages to engage with life directly. I have kept going to them, on some days, demanding to experience God, on other days, to escape,  and the incarnated Emmanuel has wooed me to life and love, to living people, with all the risk, speechless pain and beauty.

Thirteen years ago, I had a brief glimpse of this and recorded it in my journal:

“But, turn to Me in life, in the world, with all it’s confusion and chaos and stark beauty and tragic pain, and love Me there. Love Me where it will hurt you, love Me where the beauty will break your heart, love Me in the confusion, love Me with your life, love Me as a living sacrifice, not as a dead one, love Me as a failure and see My glorious redemption.”

The challenge of the dissertation may be, at the very last, a call to commit and engage life deeply, and rather than look to a wall of books for experience, simply live and write about it.

I’ve gravitated to reading books in crypts and pondering life in cemeteries, alone with my journal. On the other hand, this practice–no, discipline–of writing for others, be it a blog or a dissertation, cannot be a solitary act. It requires more than putting on the trappings of depth, but a willingness to till the loamy soil of living, plant myself deep into relationships, and bring the fruit to the page.

Reading has often been my escape. Writing is calling me to grow.

 

(photos from my recent trip to Ireland: Quin Abbey, Inishmore cemetary, Ballyhannon Castle, and the Seven Churches, Inishmore.)

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