Oct 8 2016

Snail Mail

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


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.


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.


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.


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!)


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!




Aug 20 2014

September 29


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.





Aug 24 2012

Friday Florilegium

I’m hard at work on the next chapter of the dissertation, focusing on lectio divina (divine reading). Here are some highlights from my reading:

[Lectio divina] is, above all, a daily, personal, intimate contact with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a contact with Jesus Christ, our Lord and Brother, which takes place in Holy Scripture. As its name indicates, it is  “reading God.” [It is a] reading with faith–God speaks, God speaks to me here and now–and with great attention; a slow, meditative, savored reading; a reading that seeks primarily the literal and precise meaning of the text in order then to seek and discover what the Spirit of God deigns to manifest to the readers; a reading so active that it engages the entire person; yet at the same time, it is passive, that is to say, a reading in which we (the readers) permits ourselves to be influenced by the Word of God who speaks to us personally, who speaks intimately heart to heart; a reading made in the bosom of the Church, the body of Christ, “with the loving eyes of a spouse”; an assiduous reading made every day without exception; disinterested reading, [meaning] to read for the sake of reading and not for having read, reading in which we seek nothing else than the reading itself.—-Garcia M Colombas, Reading God

From the quality time with the Word required by lectio divina one learns “reading” as a way of life, not just an exercise for a set number of minutes each day. Becoming adept at lectio is like mastering a language. It opens up communication with an even larger world. Reading the Scriptures is a springboard to reading the larger world that surrounds us.  For while the scriptural texts are the first material of, or prime matter for, lectio, reading them trains people to read the other texts life provides. The God who speaks in the Scriptures speaks in human experience as well.  Lectio that begins with the Scriptures speaks in human experience as well.–Raymond Studzinski, Reading to Live: The Evolving Practice of Lectio Divina

[In practicing lectio divina,] we tend at the same time to rediscover the value of the otium (leisure) of the cloister, that is, the importance of “free time” to dedicate to God and affairs of the soul…We need to react valiantly against anxiety, against the inordinate urge to produce, against the habits which our consumer society imposes on us and which oblige us to devote extraordinary hours…to mental or physical labor. It seems indispensable that in the daily monastic horarium (a schedule of work, prayer, and free time), leisure must be allowed for slow… reading, penetrated by prayer.–Garcia M Colombas, Reading God

And for another Friday literary bouquet, join Kimberlee Conway Ireton.

Photos: St John the Evangelist Monastery library, Cambridge; Proverbs 31; a Wordle of my dissertation prospectus

Jun 12 2012

Practicing Thirst

One of my good friends has a life practice of reading and reflecting for a year on the Isaiah chapter that coincides with her age. I love that idea. Admittedly, I don’t really understand much of Isaiah–oh, there’s awesome parts like the burning coal passage in Isaiah 6 (though, can I just say, Ouch!), or Isaiah 40:31 about eagles and renewing our strength by waiting for God, or the Christ passages in chapter 42, or the calling of the teacher “to sustain the weary with a word” in Isaiah 50:4, or my all time favorite “Ho, everyone who thirsts come to the waters…” of Isaiah 55, or the call to ministry with the poor in Isaiah 58.

Okay. Isaiah is amazing. But I, either from a misperception of the rest of Isaiah (which God will remedy, I’m sure) or a real leading of the Spirit, I decided to meditate each year on the psalm according to my age.

Psalm 42. (And yes, there was a brief instant of, do I really want to put my age out there?)

I made the decision to do this before reading the psalm and was stunned by how perfectly it captured my experience of prayer this year. (A good sign that God pointed me to the psalm.)

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday. Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance. –Psalm 42:1-5 KJV

I’m using the King James version because the language forces me to stop and think through the text more deeply. It’s also beautiful to read aloud, something that can enliven scripture.

(Try it sometime, if you find scripture uninteresting. Speaking the Word aloud is akin to proclamation and we are promised that “God’s Word does not return void.” Oh, right, that’s another cool Isaiah passage, 55:11.)

Reading between the lines of some of my posts, you may have picked up on the tears, transitions, and general turmoil during these past months as I (and many others) deal with job-hunting and downsizing, alongside discerning some difficult ministry decisions and dissertation writing in a world where higher ed has become a huge question mark.

The line “My tears have been my meat” made me laugh and cry at the same time when I first read it because it captured my experience so completely. I felt God saying, See, I do listen.

As I continued to read, the old praise chorus played in my mind, “As the deer panteth for the water, so my so longeth after thee O God.” When I glibly sang it in my twenties, I didn’t understand.  Longing for God seemed so romantic and epic, and fit my long-skirts, long-contemplative-walks all-for-God persona. I had zero compassion for the deer.

Reading it now, it hit me painfully:  Panting is unpleasant. Thirsting, even in KJV language, is not epic, it’s uncomfortable.

I feel sorry for the deer. Imagine the last time you were parched on a hot day and knew water was not readily available.

I think of West Texas in the summer, where my parents live, with temperatures over 100 degrees and a horizontal hair-dryer wind. After a few moments of walking in that sun, this Seattleite wilts. Dusty mouth. Dry eyes. Weary limbs. My usual dislike of water transforms into desperate need.

At the beginning of this year, I begged for a sense of God’s presence. I remembered how it used to be years ago, as the psalmist does in verse 4, how prayer and worship was easier and more joyful back in the day (whenever that was). I wanted that again. Now.

God used this psalm to reveal that, first, I was thirsty, desperately so, and that all my tears and nostalgia prayers were an expression of that thirst.

And second, he revealed that I needed to stay thirsty for awhile. God was not going to take it away, at least not immediately, and then never completely, this side of heaven.

It is so easy to reach for distraction–media, internet, smartphone, facebook, work, relationships, even worship, when it’s focused more on the experience, not on God.  We often expect all our interactions with God to be sweet and peaceful, and take away any discomfort. But the danger is that we stop looking to God as the Lord and Almighty Other with whom we are in relationship, but a good-feelings vending machine. We can forget that we are travelers and that this current experience of life cannot be completely satisfying.

Thirsting for God is only quenched by one thing–one Person–God himself, and everything else that offers to quench that thirst, as good as it may be, will only make the heart sick if it’s put in God’s place.

It’s like a dehydrated person drinking only salt water.

Staying with the thirst helps us discern what’s really going on. It reveals our coping mechanisms.  It’s teaches patience and grace with our human relationships and circumstances. It helps us to not react unwisely in an effort to find relief. It inspires compassion for the thirstiness of those around us and around the globe.

But just as our bodies need water, so do our spirits.

Thirst invites us to follow our thirst back to God and allow God to quench our thirst.

The choices involved in my moving, taking on a new ministry responsibility and saying no to others, trusting God for job, living situation, and finances, and focusing on the writing, brought me to a place where I asked myself verse 3’s question, Where is your God? I realized I couldn’t do it on my own, that I needed–thirsted–for God to show up, any way He wanted. I wasn’t going to dictate how anymore, in nostalgia for the good ol’ days, that worship would be a great experience, that prayer would be renewing, that I’d enjoy writing.

Just show up, God. Please.

And oh my, He has!

The promise: God is the living water and all our thirsts will be quenched in him.

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters!” (Isaiah, of course, 55:1)

What are you thirsting for? Stay with it and look for God to show up.

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.)

Oct 6 2011

{Day 6} Living in the Midst


To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact , you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in a casket or a coffin…But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from the perturbations of Love is Hell.— C.S. Lewis

Often when we begin to listen and pay attention to what is going on right in front of us, chaos floods our lives, swamps our schedules, and leaves us gasping for breath.

Even to ask a simple question, like from Day One of this seriesWhat do I hear in this moment?–might open us up to hearing and seeing and feeling what we’d rather not. The reason for this is that our carefully constructed walls that protect us from confusion and uncertainty and pain begin to shudder and crack with such a question. Chaos seeps in.

Questions about what we love and what we hope can bring a cascade of joy, but the same questions can bring into stark relief our heartaches and disappointment. They can lead to more questions.

We begin to ask: What do I do now?


One response to this is to simply stop paying attention. The chaos or grief or even joy is scary. It’s too much. The present moment is too much.

I will be exploring the many creative ways we erect barricades against contemplative attention as this series continues. I will also be sharing some practices from the lives of Christians who have gone before us. While they lived in different ages, their joys and struggles and griefs were not so different from our own.

But what about today? Now?

Keep listening. Keep paying attention.


Why? Because I believe the only way into a deeper connection with life, those around us, and with God (at least on our part), is through, dealing with what we hear and see and feel directly.

Jesus shows us this path by becoming one of us: The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. (John 1:14 MSG) He lived through everything that it means to be human.

Many of you who have followed my blog the past few years have read about my experiences in graduate school and the toll that it took on my love of prayer, theology, writing, even life. This past year I’ve spent with God, wrestling through the experience, what it meant (and continues to mean) as I enter my 7th year (shudder!). Everything from slowly regaining my ability to write without panic attacks to (gently and with a lot of running away) facing that I will never bear children to the overwhelming joy of becoming a photographer. In the dogged determination to walk through, rather than build barriers against, the present moment, I’ve tasted more joy than I’ve ever experienced and experienced more deeply the cherishing love of God.


Words of wisdom that have helped me are from the poet in Rainer Maria Rilke:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Live your questions today.

I would add, Pray your questions today.

Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God,who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:34-39)

The beauty of our Lord is that he stands before the throne of God interceding for us, and he will patiently walk with us through the questions to the answers.

31 Days

have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
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