Oct 8 2016

Snail Mail

Day 8 in a month-long series on Cultivating Sanctuary.

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Snail Mail – Credit unknown

Only for a culture that values speed above all is snail a negative description.

Back in 1998, the movie You’ve Got Mail came out and everyone was in love with AOL (though I think I was on Earthlink). Remember the dial-up sounds? Or the cheery “You’ve got mail!” This new instant communication had finally taken the world by storm, and in a few short years Hollywood was already capitalizing on it.

Around that time, I bought my first laptop, an IBM Thinkpad, because my new church position only offered an ancient Macintosh. After moving from a software company into ministry, it was a shock.

Getting emails at work was not new for me, but after another pair of years I felt something had shifted in my life. Now I could get emails at home. Now I could take my computer to the local cafe and work.

And my postal mail box was more frequently empty.

I have an old fashioned suitcase that contains all the letters and cards I’ve received over the years from my parents and friends–it makes me cry with joy and gratitude when I read them. In a lovely wooden chest, I keep all the letters from past loves, tied with ribbon, not because of regrets or sadness, but because they are beautiful gifts from dear people and memories I cherish.

In one of my software jobs, I received letters from all over the world about product ideas. My job was to pass the letter on to the appropriate department for review and send a printed letter in response to the sender. Many of these letters were handwritten in lovely script, and I wish I had hand-written responses back to their earnest inquiries, answered their human contact in kind. Rather than throwing away the stamps, I was given permission to keep them and today, still marvel at their beauty.

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Personal letter writing is a practice that gifts a bit of beauty, and very often brings others joy and comfort. Nothing says, “I remember you, I’m thinking of you,” than a hand-written note. And these notes, letters, and cards are not pixels, possibly lost in a hard drive crash or easily deleted in a moment of pain, or forgotten in the cloud or the email archive. These three-dimensional bits of love and care create a landmark in our memories, to that moment, or that birthday, or that loved one, and the heart remembers again, like it was yesterday, yet with a new deeper layer of joy and poignant gratitude.

I want to be quicker at answering emails. But I’d love to be better at crafting letters.

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The best practice I’ve found is to have all the materials for a beautiful letter in one place–ready to go. For some reason, my kitchen table has become that place. Maybe because the kitchen feels like the homiest and most welcoming room, maybe because having the postage stamps and cards and sealing wax in such a public place creates a visible reminder. I found a lovely mail sorter at Hobby Lobby and each slot keeps cards ready for that particular month. There are also ink stamps and dipping ink, paper presses and stickers ready.

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Picking out stamps at the post office is such a classic errand and I love doing it. The postal clerks love when you ask what stamps they have. They bring out the view book and comment on the collection. I try to pick a variety of stamps–kids, professional, love, art, Christmas–so that I can try to match the stamp to the recipient. (This was difficult during the Harry Potter collection–who wants to get a letter with a Voldemort stamp!)

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But all the frills and fancies make no difference–the plainest, blankest card is enough, as long as it bears your words in your hand to the person you care about.

A number of years ago I was in a cafe and I watched a woman in her late 60s writing letters as she drank her coffee. She had a stack of notecards and envelopes and over the hours I was there, she filled them with brief hand-written notes. I decided to ask her about them, expecting that they were thank yous for a recent wedding or event. In fact, writing notes was her calling, she said. She enjoyed writing notes of encouragement to people far and wide that she had met over the years, keeping in touch with them through snail mail.

I want to be her when I grow up.

If this practice resonates with you, I encourage you to get a simple piece of paper or note card today and write to someone you care about–just a few sentences of encouragement. It will be meaningful for them just to receive it.

It will probably take longer to collect the paper, envelope, address, and stamps, than to write, but once it’s done, there is no obstacle to writing another…and another. And the next thing you know, you’ll be visiting the post office to pick out stamps!

Happy Corresponding!

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Oct 22 2012

Lullaby

The twindlers are so tired, they fight sleep. Luke sits up in the bed wailing, his brother Ben, next to him, smiles at me, eager for anything that will distract him from napping.

Luke knows by now that when I come into the room that nap time is far from over. He wails louder as I gently encourage him to lie back down. He hides his face in the pillow. After a moment his wails become loud rhythmic whimpers. Ben takes the cue and lies down again, burrowing under the covers.

Then I pat Luke on the back and start to sing.

Almighty Three, our protection be

Encircling we, you are around

Our life, our home, our protection be

O Sacred Three, Almighty Three

I’ve been singing this song to them since they were born, over and over, its low minor tones wooing them to rest. It’s called The Caim, a protection prayer that I heard sung years ago by the group Watch the Sky. Over and over, the song repeats, weaving together breath and word and voice, until eyes droop and fighting sleep seems too much effort.

Maybe its just that I’m novel. I’m not their mom or dad. Maybe by the time I go in, they are so tired that the song is just the last nudge they need. Or maybe this prayer for God’s encircling is not just a lullaby but something so much more. God loves the least and smallest, the weary and weeping. The wails of tired babes are heard, and prayers for their rest are answered.

Luke finally stops whimpering. His breath slows and he drops off to sleep.

We don’t outgrow our need to be wooed to rest. We don’t outgrow our need to know that the Almighty One encircles us. We don’t outgrow our need for a lullaby.

The God of the universe sings over us, too. Every day, every moment.

The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

The past weeks have been full to overflowing.  I find myself weary, even in the midst of incredible joy, eyes drooping, yearning to trust the Lord’s encircling presence.

As I sing to Luke and Ben, I allow myself to breathe deep and rest.

***

Counting gratitudes today:

850. Not one but two jobs. After two years of searching, I’m now on staff at my church, managing communications. And in January, I will start teaching a freshman course, Christian Formation, at Seattle Pacific University.

851. My church called a new senior pastor yesterday. What an amazing morning of worship and prayer and excitement.

852. Quiet mornings

853. Leaves bright and golden, blanketing the ground.

854. Morning carpool and conversation.

855. Tea and biscuits after a long day.

856. Drawing a tree with my favorite Jane.

857. Rereading LeGuin’s Earthsea books, swooning over the language. Remembering my dad reading them to me as child, now looking forward to sharing them with my students.

858. My church community.

859. Delighted hugs from little ones.


Oct 20 2011

{Day 20} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 4

Where there is no beauty, put beauty, and you will find beauty. –Francis of Assisi, adapted.

One of the books I read when I began to explore church and faith more seriously I found on my dad’s shelf. It now has an honored place with others that I “borrowed” from my parents. I love the fact it has the quintessential good book smell, my dad’s signature on the flyleaf, and his underlinings through-out.

Ernst Benz begins the discussion of Eastern Orthodoxy not with doctrines but with the role and understanding of icons. At the time I first read it, there was no internet (hard to imagine now), so I still remember how some of the concepts made no visual sense to me, never having been in an Orthodox church.  But the message was clear: images played an important part in the Orthodox life of prayer. This I understood.

Living in Germany at the time, I was aesthetically and spiritually formed by the medieval cathedrals with their murals and statues, hidden side altars and chapels. As one of my professors at St John’s put it, churches need secret space and shadows for those times when the soul is called into solitude with God, even in the midst of community. I loved those nooks and cranies of sacred space, the life and color of the images, and the warmth of the candlelight.

Benz’ book offered me two things that have stayed with me. The first is that images reminding us of sacred presence are important. In the violent iconoclast controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, icons were burned and the Orthodox church nearly went through a tidal shift in its manner of prayer. But theologians of the day called upon Colossians 1:15 where Jesus is called the image (ikonen) of the Living God, his own humanity as a way for our participation with the Trinity.

Icons are not idols, which demand worship for themselves, but windows for humanity to be drawn into the Kingdom through prayer and remembrance. Idols stop the gaze; icons direct the gaze through and beyond themselves to the Ever-Presence of God.

The second idea Benz offered me was the importance of dedicating a specific area of the home to God’s presence.

In the Orthodox tradition, this is called the Beautiful Corner, usually on the eastern side of the house.

Coupled with my love of the secret side chapels in the enormous cathedrals, Benz’ book encouraged me to create a beautiful corner in my bedroom. My parents, bless them, bought me a little table, white eyelet lace cloth to cover it, and some red, green and purple fabric for the church seasons.  On it I placed various images of the cross, Jesus, Mary, and found-objects from nature. Over the years, I’ve collected many different items and frequently change it depending on the liturgical season or what I’m praying about.

The first real icon of my collection I found when I was 14, the day before leaving Germany for the Pacific Northwest.  Mary icons often find their way into the corner because of God’s call to her to birth the Christ–a call I believe each Christian receives and responds through grace in some wonderful and mysterious way. As a woman, I appreciate her witness.

While a beautiful corner sounds peaceful and lovely, I’ve found that it can be a place of conviction and a call to repentance as well. Sometimes, the last place I’ve wanted to be near is a reminder of God’s presence. As I willfully choose to go my own way and ignore the still small voice, the temptation is to simply take back the space and live forgetful of the sacred.

One particularly difficult season a few years ago, I did just that. I took all the icons and images down and tossed them in a box. I thought, out of sight, out of mind.

I told God, “Enough. I’m through.”

For awhile, I went my way and God let me alone. But then slowly, I realized God was still there, still whispering. I may be able to remove the reminders, but God could not be put in storage. Slowly I took things out of the box and said a small yes again to God’s unrelenting love.

What I meant as tantrum, God used to remind me that his presence is more than my small ideas and certainly beyond my control (Thank God!).

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
 if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
 if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you. –Psalm 139:7-12

Practice: Is there a special place, a beautiful corner, that reminds you and your family of God’s loving presence? If not, where would you put it? What would you put there?

If you have a beautiful corner, how long has it been since you changed it? Sometimes what becomes familiar is easily forgotten. I invite you to spend some time rearranging and praying.

If you are going through a season where God is “in storage,” I invite you to wander your house and find one object that calls your heart and thoughts to prayer (photos of little ones always does it for me). Put the object in a prominent location, and slowly, as you feel led, add other reminders to pray or say “thank you”–maybe a leaf from a particularly glorious fall tree, a cross, a verse of scripture that tugs at your memory. Over time, items will be added and you will have a beautiful corner for prayer.

Get young people involved–I think they have a wonderful, playful sense of what makes sacred space beautiful.



Oct 3 2011

{Day 3} Noticing Thankfulness

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What is a memory for which you are grateful?

Take a moment to put yourself back into the memory, see the colors, hear the sounds, feel the emotions attached to the recollection.

Be there, just for an instant, stretch your imagination back to that moment. Breathe in the thoughts and feelings.

A precious memory I have is from when I was 8 or 9.  My family was living in Kentucky, at Ft Knox. If you are familiar with the area, you know that there are many little civil war cemeteries in the most unusual places. Some are forgotten in forests or sit lonely on top of hills. My dad and I loved to go on walks or bike rides together, exploring, and we’d pour over local maps to find these hidden pieces of history.

One of these little collections of stone monuments sat on top of a hill, right above the Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tallest obelisk poked out from tall grasses and my little historian imagination would go wild every time we drove past.

The problem was getting to it.

Kentucky wasn’t a place you went treading in grass above your head. Critters of the slithering kind were often minding their own business there. But I was not deterred, pestering my dad repeatedly, until one day, he agreed and we forged our way up the steep slope and unkempt path back in time to the 19th century.

The cemetery was small, less than 10 monuments, worn with weather and years. I was thrilled. The forgottenness of the place just made it more mysterious and separate from the commercial strip below.

And that my dad was willing to take me still makes me smile. I am grateful for this, one of many wonderfully clear memories of my dad’s love.

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Three years ago, I stumbled upon Ann Voscamp’s A Holy Experience blog where she challenges her readers to count gratitudes to 1000 and beyond, small and large. Since then, thankfulness has changed my life and my relationships. When I want to enter deeply into the present moment, especially with people close to me, I count gratitudes. Alongside paying attention, it is one of the foundations of contemplative living and makes any moment a moment of  worship.

Gratitude Journal

Gratitude Journal

When we look for what we are thankful, our hearts expand, hope is near, and love over-flows. We stop consuming life and start living it, with and through the presence of God.

***

Practice: Write down 5 things you are grateful for. Not what you think you should be grateful for, but the people, places, memories, sights, smells, sounds, feelings, that make your heart and mind sing, “Oh, yes, thank you God!” I’d love to hear what’s on your list.

And visit Ann’s blog for some printables to start your own list of 1000 gifts.

31 Days




Feb 23 2011

Telling Time

Sun Cat

Years ago, I entered a new world of desks

in straight rows, bells, and tasks like

see-jane-run and

m is for mr munching mouth.

I loved mixing more

paints and colors with gooey glue

all over hands and

paper blue birds with beak and tongue

(Birds need tongues too)

Time was everywhere at once yet now

smaller

faster

marked off by things to do

read. listen. repeat. write.

a start-stop world.

When Time-to-Clean-Up arrived

I always chose my favorite featherduster

to-ing and fro-ing far from the flurry to finish

unworried by missing mittens or colorful gluey messes made

and teacher let me be, for a moment

free

(an edited repost from the archives, Susan Forshey, 10/2009)


Nov 29 2010

Practicing Resurrection

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My immersion in Eugene Peterson’s books continued this past week with Practicing Resurrection. Alongside Answering God, it is one of his finest, and a great introduction to the lovely way his theology of God meshes with his theology of prayer and church and intimacy and God-human relationship, using Ephesians as the starting text.

Reading the book was more like having a series of conversations about life and faith with Peterson in front of a fire on a winter’s evening, drinking hot chocolate, all the while attentively reflecting on Paul’s text.  Gentle, yet direct, encouraging, yet challenging, he shares his love for Jesus and writes of subjects close to his heart. His words spurred me on to pray for and love others, more and more.

In fact, by the end of the book, I was even more convinced that loving and praying, and pursuing a life that cultivates loving and praying (not as abstractions, but loving real people and allowing my heart to break in prayer for concrete situations) is the best way to live.  Over the next few posts, I will be sharing more about this.

The book also confirmed a little desire that has been growing in me for awhile: to memorize an entire book of the bible.  As I’ve been slowly recovering the sacredness of words this past year, my love of scripture has been rekindled. Encouraged by Ann Voscamp at A Holy Experience to create a memory book, and then catching Peterson’s own love for Ephesians, I started last week.

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Memorizing does not take much daily time–20 minutes of re-reading the verses each day is enough to let the verses sink in deeply. And, memorizing gives me permission (and that is key!) to spend a week on the same verses, rather than move to new ones each day.  The focus is now on the verses, not on the scripture reading plan!

Memorizing is also a natural partner to the ancient Christian practice of lectio divina (Latin for divine reading), a centuries old way of reading and praying scripture (here is an intro). The movements of lectio divina are often described as a meal: reading the verses is eating, meditating on them is chewing, praying them is digestion, and contemplating them is that lovely full feeling after a good meal–and the words (the Word) are now nourishing our very being. Memorizing fits well into the reading stage and is closer to what Christians would have done in earlier times.

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If you are interested in making your own memory book, an example is here. Here is a lovely reflection on memorization as well as lots of suggestions.

If you’ve never memorized scripture, then start with a verse or two (and see how easy it is!)  Here is a great musical version of Philippians 4:6-7. I guarantee you will have the verses memorized by the end of the video!

***

Thankful today for…

“the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us (drenched us!) in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” (Eph 1:3)

Scripture and the written witness of Christians centuries ago to the presence and power of Christ in their lives.

Eugene Peterson’s books and the privilege of this time to immerse myself in them.

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A wonderful thanksgiving feast with dear friends.

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Wind swept views.

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Friendship…over time and experiences and years of conversation, grateful for the knowing and the being known.

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My godson Ben.

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