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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Nov 9 2014

Celtic Advent: 40 Days of Joy, Love and Gratitude

Please see the 2015 updated version of this post here.

 Celtic Advent 2014

For each day, from November 15 until Epiphany, I’ve thought of one thing I can do to practice joy and gratitude, and to give love, putting it on a calendar that draws on ancient Advent and Christmas traditions.

In the 6th century, the Celtic Christians celebrated Advent during the 40 days before Christmas, as a mirror to the period of Lent before Easter.  In this age of  blurring of holy-days and consumerism, I like the idea of starting Advent earlier, so that Thanksgiving is included, but also so there can be a longer, more intentional preparation for Christ’s coming.

Another tradition from around the 6th century (and probably earlier) is the “O” antiphons. An antiphon, from the Latin antiphona, meaning sounding against, was a repeated line of scripture used as bookends to the psalms in daily prayer and the Eucharist. The antiphon was a prayer “sound-byte,” capturing the most important aspect of the reading, helping those gathered remember through repetition. The “O” antiphons highlight a scriptural name of Christ and offer a jumping off point for reflection. Most people would recognize a version of these antiphons as the verses of the Advent carol O Come, O Come Emmanuel. They are still prayed in many churches–as they have been for more than 1500 years–from December 17 to December 23.

Finally, Christmas seems to end abruptly on December 26th in our consumer-culture celebration. Another lost tradition marks the Twelve Days from Christmas to Epiphany.  Epiphany means appearance or manifestation and remembers the Magi visiting Jesus; Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan–the public revelation that he is God’s Son; and the first miracle at the wedding feast in Cana.  The period from December 25 to January 6th is an ideal time for reflecting on the Light that has come into the world with the birth of Christ.

Pulling these three traditions together, I’ve created a calendar of ideas for living each day intentionally and joyfully.  Here is a PDF version. Please feel free to make copies and share with your friends and church.

The ability to give and experience love and joy doesn’t just happen, it needs to be stretched and strengthened. And over time, the capacity to love and to joy increases.

Let the Holy Spirit lead!

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(a yearly updated post from the archives)

Mar 23 2012

Friday Florilegium

I’ve been immersed in Karl Barth on prayer for the past 6 weeks, gearing up to write another dissertation chapter. Here are two tidbits:

“[There is a] tendency to omit, to leave aside as not too important, the question of what the Christian is commanded to be and to do in his personal life, and to turn instead to what he is to be and to do outside, in the church, and the world, in answer to the problems that await him there. This procedure usually avenges itself. What we are or are not in the innermost circle, what we do or fail to do there, what we do rightly or wrongly, will always be ultimately decisive for what we are and do in the outer circles. Faithfulness or unfaithfulness, seriousness or lack of seriousness in the one will sooner or later bring about the same in the others.” [And I would add, joy or joylessness.]

***

“God comes as the Holy One. He comes and creates righteousness, zealous for his honor as Creator and burning with love for his creature. He creates the righteousness which is the right order of the world that belongs to him.

He comes, and in creating righteousness, he abolishes the unrighteousness of people both in their relationship to him and also in their relationships to one another.

He comes and sets aside not only unrighteousness but also the lordship of the lordless powers, scattering them to the winds like the mists of the hypostatized fictions that they are, restoring to man the freedom over his abilities of which they robbed him, re-instituting him as the lord of the earth which he may and should be as the servant of God.

God comes, and with him comes that “peace on earth among men with whom he is pleased” (Lk 2:14), that is, among those who are elected, created, loved, saved, and kept by him. This peace on earth, actualized when God himself comes as King and Lord and creates and establishes it, is the kingdom of God.”


Oct 21 2011

{Day 21} Friday Florilegium

In honor of hearing Eugene Peterson speak at Seattle Pacific University Thursday evening, today’s florilegium quote is from his book, The Contemplative Pastor:

What does it mean to be a pastor? If no one asked me to do anything, what would I do?…

I can be a pastor who prays. I want to cultivate my relationship with God. I want all life to be intimate–sometimes consciously, sometime unconsciously–with the God who made, directs, and loves me. And I want to waken others to the nature and centrality of prayer. I want to be a person in this community to whom others can come without hesitation, without wonder if it is appropriate, to get direction in prayer and praying. I want to do the original work of being in deepening conversation with the God who reveals himself to me and addresses me by name. I don’t want to dispense mimeographed (!) handouts that describe God’s business; I want to witness out of my own experience. I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.

I know it takes time to develop a life of prayer; set-aside, disciplined, deliberate time. It isn’t accomplished on the run, nor by offering prayers from a pulpit or at a hospital bedside. I know I can’t be busy and pray at the same time. I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted or dispersed. In order to pray I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; to God than to my clamoring ego. Usually, for that to happen there must be a deliberate withdrawal from the noise of the day, a disciplined detachment from the insatiable self.


Oct 13 2011

{Day 13} You are an artist

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. –Annie Dillard

We are each artists of the lives we’ve been given.

Each morning we wake to a new set of moments that are crafted from our choices and commitments, loves and disappointments, joys and pain.

But they still have possibility.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can be artists of the our days. Slow down. Attend to the present moment. Focus on one task or activity at a time, as much as possible.

One of the most delightful aspects of my job with theology students was hosting Sabbath Space. Each Wednesday and Thursday, students come to a stain-glass and candle-lit chapel to feast on crayons, colored pencils, coloring sheets, and anything else I can find to tempt them to stop, take a risk and play for a moment.

Most of my students were right-brain starved on their academic diet of dense theological and philosophical texts, weary from wrestling with justice issues, or just tired from the frenetic pace of life. They come in, took a deep breath as they sat down at the craft table, and for 5 minutes or 3 hours, they experienced the eye of the storm. The art product was secondary–it was the moments of attention that they paid to the project at hand, choosing medium, colors, getting their hands and hearts involved, that gave rest.

Rest was also found through the moments of attention that others at the table extended to each other, “How are you? How are classes? What a beautiful color choice!” Some students started talking as they walked in, grabbing a blank piece of paper and random pencil, shapes and designs soon punctuating their narrative.

Something beautiful happened in Sabbath Space, but most who participated would not call themselves artists. Rather than focusing on production, I saw students gingerly walk or wildly run into their creative hearts, finding healing to take back into the rest of life.

Fittingly, the large, beautifully carved table used for creating and conversing in Sabbath Space was also used for a weekly community feast of the Lord’s Supper. Different gatherings, but both means of grace, renewal, and communion.

Practice: You are an artist and the moments, activities and relationships of today are your medium. What can you and the Holy Spirit create?  Get some crayons out, a piece of paper, and spend a pomodoro (25 minutes) coloring. I guarantee you will smile, especially if you include your favorite young person.


Oct 10 2011

{Day 10} Single-tasking, Pt 1

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“I’m beginning to feel the drunkenness that this agitated, tumultuous life plunges you into. With such a multitude of objects passing before my eyes, I ‘m getting dizzy. Of all the things that strike me, there is none that holds my heart, yet all of them together distract my feelings, so that I forget where I am and who I belong to.” –The New Eloise, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Many years ago, I read a book called Earthy Mysticism: Contemplation and the Life of Passionate Presence. The author, William McNamara, offered a basic rule of life for those seeking to live more contemplatively:

  • Live each day deliberately.
  • Do what you are doing.
  • Stop doing half the things you are doing in order to do the other half contemplatively, that is, with loving awareness.
  • Get up early in the morning.
  • Have a good read.
  • Enjoy as much beauty as you can.
  • Work as creatively as you can.

While each one of his points became important in my pursuit of living more attentively, the third on the list, “Stop doing half the things you are doing…,” has always struck me as both immensely desirable and completely impossible at the same time. There is so much to be done.

The more I reflect on it, however, the more I realize that contemplative attention is not in the perfection of single-pointed concentration, but lies in finding peace in the tension of both focusing on one thing at a time, and continued awareness of all the relationships, activities, and responsibilities which call for attention.

Finding that peace in the midst of life’s whirl (and some days, it doesn’t surprise me that the earth is spinning at 1000 mph) requires two practices: humility and trust.

To be able to let go of half the things we are doing, even one thing we are doing, requires something more than discipline or organization or boundaries, but a humble realization that we simply can’t do it all (no matter what our driven culture or internal voices tell us).

When we let go of whoever or whatever out of a realization that we cannot do everything, we can trust them to the God who has begun a good work and is faithful to complete it. We cultivate trust that we do not labor alone, and even more than us, God desires to bring all life to fullness in goodness, love, beauty, and truth.

Ultimately, this humility and trust leads us to acknowledge that God is God, and we are not. This isn’t a criticism or a failing. Receive it as God’s tender whispered love to you: You do not have to be God.

For your spouse.

For your children.

For your work.

For your family.

For your life.

The complex and mysterious structures of the universe flow and dance day after day, and we contribute in our tiny space and time to this larger tapestry. Our portion of responsibility, I believe, does have cosmic impact, but we trust that God is the One who will bring everything through to glorious completion.

So, to stop doing half the things we do may require a prioritizing of time, commitments, energy, and resources, and deciding that some things must be given to God.

It could also mean that we continue with the same schedule on the outside, but inside have released the drive to do it all or the worry about it all that can drive us in our commitments.  A day spinning too fast is a sign for me to pay attention, not so much to the number of tasks, but to the drain of drive and worry I add to the energy required to complete those tasks and see through commitments.

Practice: Consider your to-do list and schedule. No need to make any changes, no need to worry about prioritizing, just pay attention.

For each commitment, reflect on why you are doing it.

For each commitment, could you imagine life without it?

For each commitment, where is love moving?

For each commitment, how is God present?

As you reflect, if you find some questions or troubles rising to awareness, bring them to God.

31 Days


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