Oct 19 2011

{Day 19} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 3

When I think how close I came to not taking my apartment, I marvel at God’s patient persistence and the grace gift of faith.

I’ve moved nearly every year for the past decade and when I moved back to Seattle to write my dissertation, I gave myself a month to find a place, and my constant prayer was…please, a place I won’t have to leave for a while.

But the rental market skyrocketed that summer and rents rose to near Boston levels. I despaired. Slowly my faith in God’s provision was replaced by a willingness to pay more.

Finally, I just had to admit that a higher rent was not the answer and I took the whole project to God in prayer, made a list of the things that I longed for in a living space, things that I knew from experience would be helpful as I worked at home and lived day to day:

From my journal:

1. Below $900 (this is hard, I don’t believe it is possible).
2. A place I can spend my days in without going stir crazy. A home. Peaceful. Retreat. Aesthetically easy on the eyes.
3. A cat
4. Washer and dryer–I really like having a place to do laundry.
5. Trees
6. Fireplace
7. A deck for tea on pretty days
8. Near a bus that will get me to Bethany without too much trouble.

I walked into the place a week later (and no, it didn’t come with a cat, but it did, unlike many other places, allow for the possibility. I wonder sometimes if a cat will turn-up on my doorstep one day–I already have all the supplies).

It also had a view and a dishwasher, things I really wanted, but felt I couldn’t ask for.

It was also strangely, delightfully coincident that that building and street names are the same as my middle name.

The curious thing is that I almost didn’t take it. Every other place I’ve moved, there were no doubts, I felt certain and made the decision. In this case, even with all the rightness of the place, I didn’t have that confidence.

I sat in the apartment–the landlord said I could take a couple days to decide, and visit as much as I wanted. I sat some more until my rear hurt from sitting on the stone fireplace seat. And the next day, I sat some more and finally started to pray. Yes or no? Should I or shouldn’t I?

I asked for prayer from friends. I spent a lunch with my friend Cathee listing all the pros and cons. Then I went back to my temp place and prayed some more. And it struck me: I was being asked to make a choice based on God’s leading, as near as I could discern it, let go of my concerns and my pride, and simply trust HimThis was a gift being held out, I had the freedom to say no, but I was scared to say yes.

It became critical to ask one more question of God: Will you be there, in this new place, no matter what?

(I think there was little bit of a chuckle).

Yes, Susan. Of course.

It is easy to forget that this world is more than trees and soil, concrete and wood, atoms and molecules, that there is a spiritual world woven in and through and around us, and a God who promises presence. As we consider our homes, as places where we are vulnerable, places for rest, love, and laughter, or places of tension and anger, all homes are places of God’s healing and loving presence.

“For in him we live and move and have our being.” –Acts 17:28

Practice: Walk around your home and reflect on how you see, feel, and meet God in this place, and how you would like to know God’s presence in your home, in its atmosphere, among the relationships of those who live there, in the logistics of money and upkeep, in the role it plays as place of hospitality, and in any other ways the Holy Spirit inspires you to pray.

Oct 18 2011

{Day 18} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 2

I’ve always been a “I’ll do it in the morning” kind of person. Dishes stayed in the sink and on the counter until I shuffled out into the morning dark to put on water for tea. While the water boiled and the tea steeped, I’d clean up from the day before and then take my tea in for some quiet moments of reflection and prayer.

One evening, I cleaned up before I went to bed, not really thinking too much about it.

The next morning I walked into a delightfully clean and orderly kitchen–the counter, bare and ready for possibility. Muffins? Bread? Or simply time to wander out and look at the sunrise while my tea bag soaked.

I smiled that morning–and while I’m more of a morning person than an evening, smiling is usually beyond my capacity before tea. The clear counter made the day feel spacious and ready for creativity (though my sleepy brain was not thinking about it so eloquently at the time).  And, the rest of the day did go better, and from that point on, I began to practice life as a “I’ll do it now, for the joy of later” kind of person.

Do I always keep my counters clear now? No. But I know that when I do, that same early morning joy awaits me.

This is one of the ways contemplative living–paying attention to the present moment–can lead to little changes without much drama. If you take the time to notice how something subtly changes your internal mood or thoughts positively, this energy can be used. It’s a much better way for creating a new habit than teeth-clenched willpower. In fact, Thomas Aquinas, a major medieval theologian, was convinced that the best way to learn how to live virtuously was through experiencing the delight that was the consequence of the virtuous action, not guilt from, or punishment for, wrong-doing.

Cleaning a counter isn’t a virtue, but the underlying motivation may have some similarities. After I was awake enough to reflect on my experience of joy that morning, I realized that I’d always cleaned my counters because I thought I should. This was the first time I made a clear connection between the action and its joy-full consequence.

We’ll delve into this more next week as we consider challenges to contemplative attention, ways we can purposely distract ourselves from the joy-full consequences of paying attention to the present moment. But for now, let’s return to the home.

Considering our homes an an important companion in our family’s life may help create new awareness in two ways. First, it helps in dealing with the space as it is, rather than as you wish it would be, and second, it underscores the reality that your daily living space has an impact on your thoughts and mood, and the climate of your family life. This leads to both flexibility and initiative–flexibility to make compromises for where the space falls short, and initiative to make changes in how you interact with the space for the joy of later.

If you walked around your home and took some notes in the Day 17 practice, consider the areas that cause an energy drain. Maybe every time you go into your bathroom, you feel tired. Maybe the dining room is a place of arguments and tension. Maybe the bedroom doesn’t invite you to rest. Or maybe the closet feels like it’s hiding the weight of everything on your to-do list.

Ok. Breathe.

One little change could transform how you and your family live the rest of the day, and over time, daily joy accumulates.

Practice: Pick one space, or a part of one space, that you interact with daily and set your clock to a pomodoro (25 minutes). Single-task your attention as much as possible–though listening to some favorite music might be helpful.

Work with the objects in the space. Move them around, neaten them up, sort them. Sometimes, taking everything out and cleaning is enough to get the energy moving. As you work with the space, imagine what would give you joy in that space. Follow your joy, for the joy of later. It may be something simple, like a clean counter, or organizing one shelf of a linen closet.

Get the munchkins involved–getting to set the pomodoro clock can be part of the fun.

If you are feeling energized, do another pomodoro after a 5 minute break (and be sure to take the break!)

Artwork by Carl Holsoe

Oct 17 2011

{Day 17} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 1

My first place I called home after college was also called The Hedge among those in my college Christian fellowship.

I’ve lived in many places and had the freedom to decorate many bedrooms over the years–my pink and white frills in elementary school, my high school room with a Rapunzel window high up in the lofted ceiling above the living room (my family called it the Zugspitze after the tallest mountain in Germany), my first college dorm room.

But The Hedge was a place I had complete freedom to pick. Some would question the wisdom of that decision. It was a spooky Victorian mansion painted gray with black trim and surrounded by an intimidating 10 foot hedge. The landlord told me not to look at the wiring and if a fire started, to just run. My mom cried when she came to visit, before I and my roommates had cleaned it up.

Clean it up we did. Previous tenants had left trash mouldering on the back porch. The walls needed cleaning and touching up. The windows had decades worth of spiders’ webs between the inner and outer glass.  The garden was a mass of vines and bamboo.

But it had a huge mantled fireplace and bay window in the living room, 14 foot ceilings, crown-molding, and enough character for 10 gothic romance novels. The buried garden had a stone bird bath, flag stone paths, and rose bushes. All I could see was possibility and the year I lived there, I sewed poet’s blouses and long skirts, listened to Vivaldi, and was adopted by an abandoned blue Siamese kitty I named Earl Grey.  Every night he would take a running leap from my bedroom doorway to my bed, curl up and go to sleep.

The house came to life at Christmas. In Bellingham, there was never need to buy pine boughs. Just wait for a wind storm and take a walk on Sehome Hill with a trash bag, Mother Nature never failed to provide ample branches. I decorated the windows and mantle and we had a party. The house was loved and it shone again with warmth and magic.

Since The Hedge, I’ve done similar things with many different homes.

A basement Seattle apartment with a lovely window to a secluded garden. It boasted the most, and largest, spiders I’ve ever seen outside a zoo and required three hours of vacuuming just to see the color of the carpet. Once it was clean and decorated, I loved the evening light on the windowpanes, shining through the hedge rose bush.

The Howe House, a lonely, but lovely Craftsman, right next door to and owned by Bethany Presbyterian–oh, the fun of those years!

A little studio on Queen Anne which I waited 9 years to live in.

A 200 year old house in Massachusetts  with crazy wallpaper that nearly knocked me over with it’s busy pattern.

An urban studio above a bar in Boston. I called it The Anchorhold after Julian of Norwich and her small cell right at a noisy, major (for medieval times) intersection .

And the list goes on.

I learned this home-loving skill from my mom. Over our years moving with the Army, she was a master as taking a tired, drab and spiritless place and making it a home.

Now, I live in a 1962 apartment, the first official Contemplative Cottage, and while it does not boast a century-old pedigree, it has become one of the most gracious homes yet.

The past two weeks we’ve been considering Contemplative Living–paying attention to the present moment, and engaging with how God might be present in life right now. We’ve practiced listening and looking, taking Sabbath rest and coloring, single-tasking and the pomodoro technique, now I’d like for us to reflect on our environment, and specifically where we live.

Practice: If I tell you that your home is alive, you might think me odd, but for just a moment, look at your house or apartment with the eyes of love, as if it was a living, breathing companion in your life. What makes you smile? What areas draw you? What areas drain your energy? No need to make any changes, just notice. Walk through your home and take some notes about what your see, feel, hear, sense. While you are at it, pray for each room and that God would reveal himself in this gift of shelter.






Oct 16 2011

{Day 16} Sabbath

Psalm 84 (Amplified)

1HOW LOVELY are Your tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!

2My soul yearns, yes, even pines and is homesick for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out and sing for joy to the living God.

3Yes, the sparrow has found a house, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young–even Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

4Blessed (happy, fortunate, to be envied) are those who dwell in Your house and Your presence; they will be singing Your praises all the day long.

5Blessed (happy, fortunate, to be envied) is the one whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

6Passing through the Valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs; the early rain also fills [the pools] with blessings.

7They go from strength to strength [increasing in victorious power]; each of them appears before God in Zion.

8O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!

9Behold our shield [the king as Your agent], O God, and look upon the face of Your anointed!

10For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand [anywhere else]; I would rather be a doorkeeper and stand at the threshold in the house of my God than to dwell [at ease] in the tents of wickedness.

11For the Lord God is a Sun and Shield; the Lord bestows [present] grace and favor and [future] glory (honor, splendor, and heavenly bliss)! No good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly.

12O Lord of hosts, blessed (happy, fortunate, to be envied) is the one who trusts in You [leaning and believing on You, committing all and confidently looking to You, and that without fear or misgiving]!

Oct 15 2011

{Day 15} Color Your Prayer

When I began doing Sabbath Space with the theology grad students, I simply put out crayons and play-dough and anything else I thought might tempt them to play or pray for a moment.

I also filled the air with yummy candle scents and had quiet corners set aside for peaceful reflection.

But people need a little guidance when they hold a crayon in their hand again after many years, so I went looking for something like a coloring book for adults.

Instead, I found hundreds of mandalas on the internet–fun, intricate, geometric shapes just begging to be colored.

Within the Christian tradition, the use of geometric designs as a part of prayer and reflection has a rich history. Among the Celtic Christians, monks copied the scriptures and illuminated the text with intricate designs, shapes, and creatures, showing that they had a love for the written word, amazing focus and skill, and a sense of humor. One of the greatest of these Gospel books is the 9th century Book of Kells.

In the 11th century, a nun and abbess named Hildegard of Bingen, writer of plays, music, and handbooks of medicine, designed complex mandalas based on visions she had during prayer.

While the ones I found were much less complex than Kells or Hildegard’s, I printed a set of mandalas and strew them on the art table, never expecting what would happen.

The mandalas became the favorite activity. Students took extras home to color during study breaks, some took them to class saying that coloring helped them pay attention better to the lecture.

Soon, they started appearing on bulletin boards and walls all over the theology school.

One student came back each Sabbath Space session for a few weeks, painstakingly working on one extremely detailed design. He said it was helping him reflect on vocational questions.

Some students prayed for people while they colored and then gave the finished mandala to the person with a note.

Others simply let their brains breathe in color and shapes for a time, taking a break from words.

Practice: Select one of the mandalas above (or search for your own) and color it while praying for a person or situation. The act of coloring will focus you in the present moment, but it will also create a visible expression of your prayer time. Consider giving it to the person you prayed for, or putting it up someplace to remind you to continue praying.


Oct 14 2011

{Day 14} Friday Florilegium

Yesterday, I read a fabulous children’s story aloud to Jane and Jack, The Bootmaker and the Elves. I loved the story, the Texan twang of the dialogue, and the captivating artwork. I also loved the creative transformation of the main character, all captured in just a few pages.

In the spirit of that story, I got out one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems that also celebrates paying attention to the small and unnoticed, and its invitation to mystery.

“Just a minute,” said a voice…

Just a minute,” said a voice in the weeds.
So I stood still
in the day’s exquisite early morning light
and so I didn’t crush with my great feet
any small or unusual thing just happening to pass by
where I was passing by
on my way to the blueberry fields,
and maybe it was the toad
and maybe it was the June beetle
and maybe it was the pink and tender worm
who does his work without limbs or eyes
and does it well
or maybe it was the walking stick, still frail
and walking humbly by, looking for a tree,
or maybe, like Blake’s wondrous meeting, it was
the elves, carrying one of their own
on a rose-petal coffin away, away
into the deep grasses. After awhile
the quaintest voice said, “Thank you.” And then there was silence.
For the rest, I would keep you wondering.


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