Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rainy Day Rumination

God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
                                                  Matthew 5:45b Common English Bible
I’ve always liked rainy days. I like the shades of the clouds and the way the light draws my attention to things I hadn’t noticed when the sun was shining. I like the patterns of water on the sidewalk,  the circles of wetness, then the shiny, full-of-water places which contrast with the dull gray, wet but not satiated spots.

I saw my first Van Gogh a couple years ago when I was visiting family and we went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This isn't a great picture.. The colors of the original were amazing.
I could have stood in front of his painting Rain indefinitely. While my nephew Joss’s patience was impressive as I lingered at a Monet or Cassatt (our group had split into pairs for browsing) more than a few moments probably would have been unreasonable. Still, it was incredible!

There’s something about rainy days. They’re nice when you can curl up with an afghan, some tea, and a book. Not so nice when the cracks in the basement start seeping. Still, with a roof overhead and no place to go, they offer us gifts.

I used to say that these days allowed me to give in to my melancholy nature. But I’ve rethought that. Melancholy is a feeling of pensive sadness, often with no clear reason. I’m not generally sad when I’m this way but I am pensive.

If you read the Harry Potter stories, you’re familiar with the “Pensieve” as an object, a bowl. The author gives the word substance rather than defining it. Which was fitting for the story, but I still like definition and clarity.

When I’m pensive, I’m contemplative – reflective, musing, meditative, introspective. (If you’re an extrovert, this may seem a little foreign, or maybe not. As we grow, we tend to get in touch with other aspects of ourselves. Form myself, I’ve learned to talk with people and sometimes even think out loud.)

Today, it’s raining. And it’s the first day of fall. A perfect day to spend reflecting on one’s life and the world around us. Your thoughts and questions would, of course, be different from mine which tend to be prayerful as I open myself up to what God would reveal. They’re questions about purpose and hopes, longings and maybe some regrets. What is my direction? Am I missing something? Am I on my best path? Who around me could I notice more? Or less?

I have plenty of other questions. One that crops up regularly is, how do I do what has to be done and still have time for –––? (fill in the blank) But this question doesn’t come up so much when I’m in my pensive place.

Where, or when, do you let yourself just "be", opening yourself to your heart’s questions?

Many people are uncomfortable with questions and work very quickly to provide answers and ease their distress. If you’re like this, that’s okay. Accept it as a starting place but don’t stay there. Questions have so much to offer us when we don’t rush to close them.

Instead, adventure briefly into unfamiliar waters by sitting with the questions. If it’s too uncomfortable, set a timer. Tell yourself that for five minutes you won’t try to answer; you’ll just be present with whatever offers itself. You can do this. And after you try it a few times, I’m guessing you’ll come to see the value of questions.

Happy Autumn! (Or, to you folks on the top-side of my upside-down globe, Happy Spring!)
Pour down, you heavens above,    and let the clouds flow with righteousness.Let the earth open for salvation to bear fruit;    let righteousness sprout as well.    I, the Lord, have created these things.                                             Isaiah 45:8 CEB

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Second Violin

I’ve been surprised that almost no one’s asked why I started playing violin this year. True, I was a band and choir teacher. My mind and my ear know music. But my playing violin is rather like a shop teacher constructing a viola (I know one that did), or a painter deciding to work in marble. It can be done, but only with a lot of retooling.

Maybe no one’s surprised by my choice because they know others who’ve done similar things. I remember almost 35 years ao when Granddad told me he was learning Spanish. He and Grandma had moved to Florida. He’d noticed the many Spanish speakers around him and decided to take up the language.

Maybe my trying New Horizons Orchestra – or you doing whatever you’re trying – helps others to believe they can become more than they are. In The Lord of the Rings movies (I don’t remember if it’s in the books) Frodo tries to explain to Sam why he treats Gollum with compassion. 
Frodo: Why do you do that? … Call him names, run him down all the time.
Sam: Because... because that's what he is, Mr. Frodo. There's naught left in him but lies and deceit. It's the ring he wants; it's all he cares about.
Frodo: You have no idea what it did to him... what it's still doing to him. I want to help him, Sam.
Sam: Why?
Frodo: Because I have to believe he can come back.
The same burden that slowly destroyed Gollum’s humanity, is slowly taking Frodo’s as well. He fervently hopes that Gollum can be saved, because then, there’s hope for him as well.

Tolkien’s story suggests that only by reaching beyond our own comfortable place in the world, only by connecting with others – even the most despised – can we find our own humanity. We see this in the leaders of at least some religions – Jesus being the one I’m most familiar with. We see it in those most human ones of our recent past – Dorothy Day, Pope Francis, Nelson Mandela – and in certain people around us, the ones who are not content with the half-life that we lead when we’re focused only on our own day-to-day affairs.

Few people realize when they start out that they’re doing a great thing. They simply do something because it needs to be done. We call them courageous, but I’ve come to understand that this kind of courage is simply a realization that the alternative action (or inaction) is too awful to be born.

Yes, I was nervous at the orchestra first rehearsal. I was scared my first day at seminary, too. And I’ve trembled when I said things I felt led to say. But, not to have spoken? Or, to have missed the seminary experience, and this great adventure of pastoral ministry? Never try orchestra? In each case, the risk was preferable to not having tried.
I started playing second violin in a community orchestra as a self-care practice, doing something I love (making music with others who share that love.) I’m not doing any great thing that I can recognize. My hope is that by taking the time for this I will be more ready to do other things that can make a difference, guiding others to connect with their humanity. And I count that as a good thing.

What do you love doing? Where’s your passion? Do you make time for it? I had to make mine a priority, making choices that not everyone at work may have been happy with. It may be that way for you.

Even in my sleep deprived state, I can tell that this entry doesn’t hold together well, but I will lay it out there anyway. May you find something in the reading that feeds you.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Third, Stay in Love with God

In 1739 a double handful of people approached John Wesley for spiritual guidance. Would he advise them on how to live in ways pleasing to God? The first Methodist Societies were born out of that request. This post concludes my series on the General Rules created for these small groups, looking today at the third rule.*
Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; fasting or abstinence.
I've had trouble with this Rule – partly because I couldn't understand what it was saying. Reuben Job's book Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living made Wesley's Rule much simpler. "Stay in love with God." Oh. I get it. I can do that!

Yet, Job's simplification creates new problems, as some friends discussed during the Wesley Pilgrimage this summer. If I read "Stay in love with God" and then proceed to say I love God while doing as I've always done, I'm missing the point. Before I continue, read the Rule again.
Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; fasting or abstinence.
First off, Mr. Wesley isn't talking about loving God in an emotional sense. He's talking about drawing closer to God through our practices – things we do over and over in order to get better at them (or in this case, at something related to it). 

I used to practice piano every day. For more than ten years, I played scales and worked through assigned pieces. Weekly, my efforts were critiqued by my instructor. I grew proficient. This proficiency helped when I picked up other instruments.

Later, as a teacher, I worked with bands and choirs and generally loved it, but I didn't enjoy giving private lessons because few students practiced. And most of those few simply played through things.

Practice is work. It takes commitment and perseverance to do boring exercises, repeat a phrase thirty times, learn fingerings, keep tempi consistent... It takes practice and instruction just to learn how to practice. (Most youngsters "play" rather than "practice".)

A cello teacher once told my son that each time we play something right it's like putting a blue chip in a jar. Playing it wrong adds a white chip. We need to work on putting in enough blue chips that we can (eventually) pull out blue chips consistently. This is true for music, sports, and discipleship.

Okay. The second problem. Some people read "Stay in love with God" and assume they can do it on their own. How often have we heard, "my faith is between me and God"?

Some practices, like fasting, we can do alone; others must be done in community. Worship is a group activity. If you try to do it alone, it's study or devotions, not worship. Besides practicing our discipleship alone, we also need to practice with other people who are working on theirs.

On this cross, you can see personal practices on the left side while public ones are on the right. Look further and you see that worship and devotion are only on the bottom half. The top reminds us that faith needs to be lived out – personally and publicly. God compels us to work on all of this if we are to grow as Christian disciples.

* You can find earlier posts from this series here, here, and here.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Some things are worth the effort .. but NOT everything!

This coneflower is thriving...
I transplanted some coneflowers this morning. If you’re a gardener, might you know that coneflowers don’t like to be disturbed. Yet as I was watering the newly planted ninebark, I happened to turn around. And there they were, looking so sad. Rabbits are cute and I’ve pretty much made my peace with them as you may have read (here). But... gee!

I’d planted them next to the garage, thinking they’d look better than those white rocks I’m slowly removing, piling in the driveway, and listing “Free” on craigslist. But while the daisies and bee balm are doing well there (along with a bush thing that just won’t die), the coneflowers grew only smallish leaves and few flowers, unlike the one at the top of the page.
If I was going to offer an analogy, I’d talk about the things that seem nice… until we get to know them close up. As a youth I liked the rabbits in our yard and didn’t understand all the fuss when a small one got in the garden. How much could they eat?

Like those cute rodents, we will let something into our lives – the gas-guzzling vehicle we wish we’d left on the lot, a friend or partner who leaves us cursing our rose-colored glasses, that lovely plant that proceeds to take over the yard. Some things we can put up with. We can adapt. We grow as we learn life lessons. Sometimes more drastic measures are needed. Porcelain vine and dame’s rocket both look nice, yet they’re pernicious weeds, illegal for transit or sale some places. Sometimes, the best thing may be to grab a shovel and remove the offender.

Closer to home, I ended my marriage. I’d read that one person can make it work, usually in “Christian” self-help books. I believed, maybe because I wanted to believe. For 25 years, I tried. And each time I failed, I called myself every sort of name. Finally, I accepted this was something I’d no longer live with. We brought out the worst in each other. The stress was making me sick. I wanted my daughter to have a better example – of a strong woman, one who believed she deserved a joy-filled life and would work to make that happen. So I ended it.

I practice joy. I laugh. 

I’m sharing this only to reach out to… anyone who’s in a similar place. Maybe it’s your relationship with your brother or a friend. Maybe it’s a job that, though once fulfilling, now leaves you cold. I think on those old Smoky Bear ads, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Only you can make the change you might need to make.

And I remember how, week after week, we used to sing in church:

“You shall go out with joy and be let forth with peace,
The mountains and the hills will break forth before you.
There'll be shouts of joy and the trees of the fields
will clap, will clap their hands."
Isaiah 55:12 in "Trees of the Field" in The Faith We Sing, 2279

I’m sure the prophet had another topic in mind. Yet, God does want joy for us. 

When things are difficult, trust in that. And act!