Aug 20 2014

September 29

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The date is lined in bright green (for life) on a handmade poster-size calendar that now hangs in my living room. Six weeks. What has been my constant shadow for four years will be coming to birth as I labor to finish a first draft and turn it in. Under the calendar is a list of things I’m looking forward to, not the least of which is removing the word “dissertation” from my vocabulary for awhile.

But before these hopes become reality, there is a the very real task of writing another chapter and the conclusion, revising and editing, and then defending, all during these next three months. And there is very real fear.

This morning as the anxiety churned, I listened to it, trying to understand its needs, playing the spiritual director with my inner self, hoping to coax some deep breaths and, as my dear friend recently explained, work with the labor pains rather than against them.

“You won’t find the words,” it whispered.

It’s an old fear, a reference to the comprehensive examinations when I feared words would fail me in the 4 hours allotted to each test, that they would evaporate, leaving me with sentences that made no sense, but even more, had no beauty or depth.

I didn’t sleep the nights before those 4 exams and while they were far from stellar examples of writing, I put words on the page, and pages increased, and then it was over. I moved through the experience, but not unscathed. Doubt had entered my process of writing which hadn’t been there before–a crack in my trust of myself, but also in the words themselves and their Source.

Finding words seemed more and more difficult. A vicious circle, the fear the words weren’t there–in their word haven someplace deep in my heart, fled, broken into component letters, devoid of meaning, or beyond my brain’s reach–led to the very thing I feared: no words, as I roughly demanded, begged, or tried forcing their return.

For long now, I’ve viewed my dissertation writing in the light of these blood-stirring words of Gandalf in his battle with the Balrog:

Through fire… and water… From the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought him… Until at last, I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.

But the seemingly mutinous words are not my enemy, nor is the writing process. No. Writing, when entered into humbly and reflectively embraced, forms a scholar, providing the boundaried space and time for the deepening of theological thought, to germinate ideas, nurture them in a fertile seed bed before sharing them with the world. Even more, a theologian is formed by the process to practice ongoing reflection; incarnate the reflective process in oneself and share it with others; and be filled with the reflective fruit, that the world may experience more love and justice through its birth.

There is much in my writing process that needed tending and pruning by the Master Gardener. Not the least of which is my shying away from the discomfort of being pruned.

Anne Truitt writes, “The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one’s own intimate sensitivity.”

Beautiful words, but not necessarily words of comfort.

Simone Weil describes the patient waiting of pen above paper as we wait for the word. For her, this practice strengthens muscles for prayer, and even more, to attend deeply to the person before us in their need. This is not an image of violent wrestling words to the page, but it is a call to breathe through impatience and discomfort.

Karl Barth argues that those called to be theologians are called into doubt, to always ask the difficult questions–fearful, at times–and live in this discomfort. Facing my doubt and distrust of words is the only way through.

And even as I write this post, even as I’m willing to enter in through the fear and reflect, I find the word haven–O sweet embrace!

Gandalf’s words are not for the dissertation, they are for that which whispers the lie, the haunting doubt that the words have fled, leaving me in front of a blank page and a deadline looming. They are for that which calls into question the Word spoken at creation–the source of all good words–and all life. They are for the temptation to distrust God’s own infinite storehouse of words. God has the cattle on a thousand hills, as the psalmist writes, so God the Logos, is Lord of Words.

Lord, I’m not worthy to receive You, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. 

May it be so.

As I write these next weeks, as I write in obedience to my vocation, the practice is to remain in this moment, and writing the word for this moment, humbly leaving the words for the next moment to hope and to God. I may not see them, and the lie may whisper they have fled, but moment by moment, they will gently be loved into sentences, paragraphs, and pages.

The only practice is to write and one day (soon), it will be finished.

 

 

 

 


Mar 2 2011

Guested by God

I simply sit at my desk this morning, in silence, pen in hand, paper ready for whatever words might come. My pinched heart stretches and expands and trusts a little more, to live a little larger, feel a little more deeply, ask more scary questions, hope more strongly in what I believe.

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The Spirit’s breath is like a hummingbird by my ear and God’s presence surrounds, the Love that weaves all moments of doing and living together.

But then my heart shrinks back from the Presence which is all that is Love and Joy and Beauty and Truth.

Too vulnerable, I whisper, too intimate.

So away from the moment and the face of God I flee, disconnecting and distracting myself with even the best of gifts and joys.

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It is not simply God that I flee, but myself:  All that I am, all I wish I wasn’t and all that I long to be reflected in that Face.

And God pursues me, until I stop and turn and be simply Susan. Here. Now.

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God names, calls, woos, loves us, to the ends of the earth and the farthest reaches of time, always whispering,

“Yes, I see that, and this, and even that, and I love you. I love you. Always. Keep your eyes on me.

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To welcome God’s presence in this moment means welcoming ourselves as well with God’s own hospitality. No posturing, not hiding, no fleeing, otherwise the hospital-now of graced healing cannot do its work.

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be she.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.
(George Herbert)

In every moment, we are guested by Love.

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And as we are welcomed by Love, and welcome ourselves, welcoming others becomes a way of life.

Love welcomes the weary and angry hearts, the dry and cracked deserts of lost dreams, the icy wastes of bitter memory, the apathetic spirit of nothing-will-change.

Then sweeping God goes to work with her broom and clears and cleans, finding the lost coins of gifts with laughing joy on her lips.

The shepherd God goes searching high and low for the wandering heart, finding it shivering and cold, alone and afraid, Come with me, little one.

The long-loving  God runs to us and welcomes us home with a feast to this gift of life, and feeds the famished with his own self.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Come, in this moment, sit and eat.

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Nov 12 2010

Lentil Soup for the Body and Spirit

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Yesterday as I sniffed and sneezed and shivered from the flu, the thought came to mind: “Surely, I can watch a movie since I can’t focus on anything else right now.” But alongside that thought was another, and thankfully, louder one: The whole point behind taking a break from 2-D screen stories was to practice not using them as an escape from unpleasantness. So I didn’t. And as I turned the heat up to broil and put on three layers and shuffled aimless from room to room, a story came to mind from the desert fathers.

Abba Antony was struggling with weary boredom in his life and work (it’s odd to think of those radical monks getting bored), and prayed for wisdom about how to deal with it.  Later, when Antony got up to go out, he saw a man that looked like him, sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray (desert monks stood to pray and then did a full bow, with knees and head to the ground), then sitting down and working, then getting up again to pray. Antony realized it was an angel of the Lord sent to teach and reassure him. The angel said, ‘Do this and you will be saved.’ Anthony felt both joy and renewed courage at the angel’s words.

Now, the desert fathers are best when not taken too literally.  There was more to Antony’s life than work and prayer. This story focuses on identifying and taking simple mini-steps in moments of challenge.

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I took a good look around my apartment and knew that, one step at a time and very slowly, I could pick it up (it had that 48-hour-sickroom-no-energy-to-put-things-away look) and choose to make something sustaining and healing to eat. My spirit was willing (sort of), but my body was weak.

Ah, yes. The body.

Somehow, even as a staunch believer in Jesus’ incarnation, divinity in human skin, my reflections on contemplative living have rarely mentioned the body’s role in spirit-full practices. And the body is important, because it is where we are and partners in all our choices.  If the body is not convinced, well, it’s going to be tough going.  The body can register a complaint quite loudly.

I firmly believe that contemplative living (meaning a prayerful attentiveness to 3-D life and God in the midst of said life) is possible in any circumstance.  It looks different for me than my dear friend with two small children and twinfants.  (I’m constantly in awe of her ability to deeply pay attention and prayerfully reflect in the midst of the physical and mental joys/demands of four children.) Or my former pastor, who shared that set-apart daily times for prayer and being in the Word were the only way he could keep going.

The particular situation, the embodied life, is the only place where the choice for contemplative living can be made–not a pretend “if-only-I-lived-in-a-monastery (or fill in the blank), then-I-could-pay-attention” life.

Sometimes the body needs a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge, sometimes it has a deeper wisdom that needs to be listened to.  The Holy Spirit meets us faithfully where we are at (in our bodies) and helps us to discern when to nudge it in a different direction or when to follow its suggestion. I did pick up my apartment and cook dinner, doing a single-task shuffle while listening to big band holiday music.

I also took a long nap in the midst of it. Resting is a step just as much as work.

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***

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In honor of the body’s (and spirit’s) need for nutritious and yummy food, and my current non-dissertation reading, Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, I will leave you with the most amazing (and easy) soup recipe, slightly adapted, from her food blog, Orangette:

Red Lentil Soup with Lemon

4 Tbsp. olive oil, plus additional good oil for drizzling
2 large yellow onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
2 tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. kosher salt, or more to taste
A few grinds of freshly ground black pepper (optional)
Pinch of cayenne or Aleppo pepper, or more to taste
2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups red lentils, picked through for stones and debris
2 large carrots, peeled and diced (optional)
Juice of 1 lemon, or more to taste
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

In a large pot, warm the oil over medium-high heat until hot and shimmering. Add the onions and garlic and cook until golden, about 6 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, cumin, salt, pepper, and cayenne, and cook for 4 minutes longer. Add the broth, 2 cups water, the lentils, and the carrots. Bring to a simmer, then partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Continue to cook until the lentils are soft, about 40 minutes. Taste, and add more salt if necessary. Stir in the lemon juice and cilantro.  (I left out the pepper, carrots, and cilantro.)

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Oct 19 2010

Stories

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Sun is streaming through the windows as I wait for the first hummingbird to taste test the new batch of sugar syrup. Earlier, I watched as one by one they hovered around the space where the feeder should be, then checking the wider area, “Maybe its lower now or over here closer to the plants.” Some nuz the purple ribbon holding the glass spiral my friend Holly gave me, hoping for sweetness from something so like a delicate flower.

Soon the leaves will fall and reveal more of Queen Anne hill and the trains. The weather changed overnight, it seems, from balmy fall to crisp winter. I woke this morning to fog erasing all evidence of the city, diffusing the light, and muffling the industry. The smell of brown leaves reminds me that All Hallowed’s Eve comes soon. No need to decorate, the spiders have set up house in every bush, between poles and rails, their nets glistening with dew each morning.

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Stories. Little snippets of life.

On Sunday afternoon, my friend Kelly gave me the gift of time and beauty, taking me to the Kabota Gardens. What was once the landscaping of an family estate and business now is a Japanese-American park gifted to the city. Trees of every variety, rocks rising up from the earth, a little copse of pine, narrow paths into secret sanctuaries, hydrangea blues and pinks, autumn reds, and water. We wandered upwards, following a rivulet, delightful as it rushed and gurgled and swooshed over rocks and under bridges, to a waterfall with fuchsia-blooming moss lining its spillway. On most likely the last sunny warm day, we wandered and talked, sharing stories and enjoying the visual story of the garden.

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I have been reading author Rumer Godden’s memoir of her writing life from 1945 to 1985. For all the fantasy and mystery novels , literary classics and theology tomes I’ve read, never have I been so taken by non-fiction, nor so delighted by the gift of story-telling. I’m mere pages from the end and find that I’m reading more slowly, savoring the little details, the artful turn of phrases, the insights.

Children know the joy and pain of stories, and they beg for them each night or at the dinner table, or wrestle with sounding out the words in their first books, undaunted, to be caught up and transported. They can hear a loved story over and over, never bored.

Rumer’s writing has returned me to that love, seeped into me and ignited both a gratitude for, and a desire to tell, stories. To use words and writing (so hard for so, so long) not for conveying information, or to teach, but literally, to see words, taking the lessons photography has been teaching me this past year and approach writing more as a way to capture a moment in its fullness, to savor, to remember, to share.

As I photograph moments, and now have tried to write out those moments in words, the feeling is akin to prayer, and why not prayer be the word-photo, whispering, laughing, yelling, crying our story to the One who delights or weeps with us in the telling?

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Ah, a hummingbird has finally arrived, glinting green in the slanting morning light. He takes a sip, then another, then gently lights on the perch, drinking long and deep. It is good.

In gratitude for stories…

God writing and joining our story

Tea and conversations, walks and sharing

The joyous story of an adoption

Listening to Jack read aloud The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

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Kabota Gardens, the story in their beauty

Lynne’s sermon and her gift of sharing stories

Photography’s continued lesson for living

Selling my first two photos and doors opening for more chances to capture moments and help stories be told with light and shadow.

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The Northern Flicker, whose visits add some lovely wild fun to my day, especially when he tries to land on the bird feeder–swinging it precariously.

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Feb 22 2010

A Moment in the Day

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A Wordle of my dissertation prospectus

Outside my window…sunshine and chilly wind.

Thinking…that life without migraines is phenomenal.  I had put up with them far too long (years too long) before seeking treatment.  Now it seems that the doctors have cured me, and cured a few other things in the process.

Thankful for…a wonderful office and great people to work with.  I’ve set up a tea station with hot water pot for anyone who needs some space to breathe and debrief.  Come visit!

Listening to…Hilary Hahn Plays Bach, Partita No. 3 in E Major: II. Loure.  Such a lovely movement, my heart and mind feel clearer for the listening.

Creating…a workshop on Cultivating Sabbath Space and Contemplative Living for the Passionate Spirituality Day at Rolling Ridge Retreat Center.

Looking forward…to celebrating my birthday in Seattle this Saturday.

Reading…lots of books on prayer. (Still!)

Hoping…for enough energy to get everything this week that needs doing before I leave.

Favorite thing so far…reading today a lovely, wonderful poem by Mary Oliver:

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness,
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

(Thirst)

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