Sunday, September 30, 2012

Bulbs and the golden string

September 30, 2012

Dear friends,

William Stafford (and, before him, William Blake) had an idea of something they called the “golden string.” By this they meant that if we truly think about the smallest thing, that we will find ourselves led to a deep sense of the world and of ourselves within the network of life in which we are embodied.

One day this week I found myself holding the end of a golden string. Actually, I was holding two flower bulbs in my hand (one a dahlia, the other an allium bulb). Here is where my “golden string” led me.

-I hold two small morsels of life and latent beauty in my hand.
-Both bulbs contain life, but very different forms of life.
-I cannot see in the present appearance of these bulbs the life that may emerge.
-Each bulb requires a different environment in which to survive and prosper.
-Effective gardening requires knowledge of the seed and the soil and the complex interaction between the two.
-I cannot provide the sunlight and air that this life requires. The life of the bulbs, like my life, is dependent upon our life-sustaining God.
-But as a gardener, I can carefully place each bulb in that place where, so far as my knowledge permits, I enhance the potential of each life to grow and flourish.
-I cannot by personal effort or autocratic edict insure that growth with occur, and beauty bloom.  It does not lie in my power to order alliums to display their tall purple beauty against that old brick wall. I can assist and nurture life, but I cannot cause it.
-Nurturing relationships requires a kind of gardening. I cannot insure that a relationship will grow and flourish. I can, however, with thoughtful prayerful attention provide as best I can an environment in which those who share life space with me grow and flourish.
-For each of us, our growing up and growing together is ultimately a matter of relationship with God. But at the same time, we need to remain mindful of our uniqueness: allium by the brick wall, dahlias in the corner near the gate.
-Do I sometimes expect friends to flourish in the soil that I like best?
Wondering where your “golden string” has led you this week. In handling small things what have you discovered about relationships and life?

See you next week.



Sunday, September 23, 2012

Green now?

September 23, 2012

Dear friends,

Much of fall gardening centers around after-harvest clean-up. Trips to the compost pile carry remains of the richness of summer past. The vines that once nourished tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers are brown now. Stalks that once held marigolds, cosmos, and those green bells of Ireland, all go now to enrich the soil that in another summer will flourish with fruit and flowers again.

The nostalgia of autumn, its pattern of color that flares then fades, the quiet resignation of fallow soil that waits the winter snow, all this we know at a level beyond words that speaks to us of the turning seasons of our own lives.

But there is more to fall gardening than dealing with harvest past. There is also the joyful crisis precipitated by those counter-intuitive perennials.

This year my favorite nursery held an autumn sale of perennials that I permitted to overwhelm my common sense. I left the store with a cart filled with new plants. As I loaded them into my car I had to admit that my ability to see the power of the plants to produce beauty was considerably larger than my ability to get them in the ground so that they could in fact grow. Fortunately (for me and the plants, that is—not so much for her) my young friend arrived to visit, and with generous heart and strong back, agreed to rescue the plants from the prisons of their plastic pots and set them safely into the soil of their new garden home.

When she finished the task my friend looked over the day’s work and commented: “This certainly looks different to you than it does to me. I see these new green plants settled into holes I dug and they just look funny to me, and kind of out of place with autumn all around.”

My friend was seeing both the beauty and the challenge of perennials. For the visionary, trailing brown remains of annual petunia plants on the compost pile evokes a picture of other petunias yet to be green in another spring, bloom in a summer yet to come. But planting perennials, green now, calls for a sturdy faith that winter cannot win—perennials speak faith that under the ice, life lives on, and when spring comes, their life will be green and growing early long before it is safe to place tender young petunias along the garden wall.

As I left the nursery, a customer entering the store looked at my overflowing cart, and smiled. “You must think it’s spring,” she said as she walked past.

I smiled, and lifted a hand in greeting, although I did not speak. But as I loaded the plants in the car, and considered the planting dilemma I had made for myself, I felt a great sense of contentment.

“No,” I thought. “I know it is not spring. But along with my perennials I’m carrying home to their garden, I know that winter is coming, but that winter is not the end. It is a season to be lived through, and fall planting is simply faith that life can survive winter into the spring that will follow.”

Thinking with you that in relationships as in gardens we need to plant and prune and nourish trusting that life is stronger than the winters that come.

See you next week.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Risk management

September 16, 2012

Dear friends,

Relationship inevitably entails risk, something we all know well from experience. In an ironic sense, however, we often understand very little of the nature or meaning of these relational risks.

Our common notion of relationship assumes a view of the individual as an isolated and independent actor who moves selectively through life choosing those connections with others that provide power, status, comfort, and self-gratification. Such an assumption about people and the nature of relationship appears comfortably self-evident in a consumer society in which the “good life” is defined as acquisition of goods. Risk in this context is viewed as the challenge of “getting a good deal,” so to speak, in a relationship, that is, receiving as much (or more) than we gave.

Despite its cultural congruence, this concept of relationship is seriously flawed. It is true that relationship entails mutual exchange, but contrary to the culture's commodity context, relationships are risky not because of what we "get" or "lose," but because in the process of getting and losing we become more or less of the person we are choosing to be.  The bottom line of the relationship process is defined by transformation (the person we are becoming) rather than acquisition (what we get).

Every relationship, however brief, or however unsatisfying, holds this risk. I recently had an experience that illustrates this point.

I was waiting to be seated in a neighborhood restaurant when I became aware that I had been non-verbally included in a conversation between two younger women who were also waiting to be seated. The two were talking about political issues.

One of the women caught my eye, and then purposely raised her voice.

“I think it’s disgraceful that so much of our taxes go for the care of elderly people who do not contribute anymore,” she said with an intentional glance at my cane and gray hair. “They should be required to take care of themselves like the rest of us.”

My casual unthinking choice to make eye contact had resulted in a momentary connection with this fretful critical woman. I had become (without conscious consent) both audience for her complaint and target of her anger, and had in a totally unanticipated way entered into a very unsatisfying “relationship,” so to speak.

At that moment my options included some interesting choices, but remaining unchanged was not among them.

I heard what she said. I understood that she meant me to hear what she said, and, so far as she gave any surface indication, understood further that she was indifferent at best—and perhaps, at worst, intentional—in the risk of injury to me that her comment might inflict.

You can see the dilemma. I could choose the direction and shape of the inner response that this momentary exchange evoked in me, but I could not choose to remain unchanged. I had heard her, and she knew I had heard her, and she knew I knew that was her intent. By whatever small increment, hearing her message to me had changed however slightly my sense of myself and the woman I am choosing to become. But I--not the woman--could choose the direction of this change. Whatever I acquired in the relationship (a negative assessment in this case), I could choose how I was changed in response.

Relationships inevitably bring risk, including the temptation to deny the inner changes that even the briefest of relationships brings. Awareness is particularly difficult when we are preoccupied with other things. How could I have anticipated this tiny existential tempest to blow up in an unprotected minute in a restauant reception area? A temptingly simple response would have been to say to myself, "Well, I think that woman has a problem," and refuse to acknowledge the small inner twinge of self-consciousness that followed her barbed comment. But denial of impact does not provide reliable risk management.

If when we say “It’s not my problem,” we mean we are not affected by the behavior of others, then we have a problem indeed. We can act to determine and shape the direction of the changes that come with human connection only when at some level of awareness we choose  awareness (even when it is painful) and take the responsibility for choice.

As I believe the woman meant me to be, I was painfully aware for an instant of my cane, my gray hair, and the unarguable fact that I am not as economically productive as I was twenty years ago. The woman could, with reason, infer a lack of productivity in me. But what she could not do, was to determine my worth. God and I do that.

Only in this context can we willingly embrace the risk of relationship. Whether in chance encounter or in long years of interaction, a relationship changes us, and inevitably brings risk of negative assessment. But at such a time, we can act on our own behalf. In the context of our relationship with God, we can determine if negative assessment does in fact represent true evidence of lost worth and lesser value.

Thinking with you this week about challenges and risks that come with relationships. It appears that relationships change us whether we choose that change or not. However, the shape and direction of the change remains ours—for better and/or for worse. Only in the context of our relationship with God can the issue of our worth be faithfully determined. Only God can truly tell us who we are.

See you next week.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Prayers in the ordinary time

September 9, 2012

Good morning, friends,

When working at the basic discipline of self-examination, ideas that we have unconsciously (or carelessly) formed sometimes surface with startling clarity, emerging suddenly into words.

Annie and I sat in the glider one morning and watched the dawn bloom into day. Annie alternatively napped and checked for any unwary bird that paused on the lawn while I reviewed my inner journey through this last week. I became aware that I had been less urgent in my sense of prayer. I had prayed regularly with continuing assurance that God in Christ heard me. But sitting there quietly on the glider I suddenly became aware that—with wordless assumption—I had behaved emotionally as though prayer offered up in the routine of life had less importance than prayer emerging from crisis.

This behavior was not the result of ignorance. I have long understood that my need to live intentionally in the presence of God is constant, and that this need is determined by my humanness rather than the circumstances of my environment.

But knowing and doing are not the same. Kansas has used up a considerable store of energy. In this residual fatigue what I had thoughtlessly disregarded was the eternal changeless context of God’s care: He is no less desirous to be with me while I am napping than when I am waiting with Beth. My life changes. His love does not. He wants to be with me, tired or rested, in crisis or in boredom. His commitment to be with me is not triggered by my need but by His love.


For the darkness of waiting
of not knowing what is to come
of staying ready and quiet and attentive
we praise you, O God:

for the darkness and the light
are both alike to you.

For the darkness of staying silent
for the terror of having nothing to say
and for the greater terror
of needing to say nothing,
we praise you, O God:

for the darkness and the light
are both alike to you.

For the darkness of loving
in which it is safe to surrender
to let go of our self-protection
and to stop holding back our desire,
we praise you, O God:

for the darkness and the light
are both alike to you.

For the darkness of choosing
when you give us the moment
to speak, and act, and change,
and we cannot know what we have set in motion,
we praise you O God:

for the darkness and the light
are both alike to you.

For the darkness of hoping
in a world which longs for you,
for the wrestling and the labouring of all creation
for wholeness and justice and freedom,
we praise you O God:

for the darkness and the light
are both alike to you.

-Janet Morley

Thinking with you this week how difficult it is to keep God’s love the context of our lives, and how easily we focus instead on the journey before us.

See you next week.


“For the Darkness of Waiting” is taken from Janet Morley, All Desires Known, Expanded Edition. Harrisburg, PA.: Morehouse Publishing, l992, pp. 58-59.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Looking for the bottom line

September 2, 2012

Dear friends,

Lori’s insightful summary regarding relationship in last week’s blog merit restating. Lori writes:

1. Relationships heal.
2. Relationships entail great risk.
3. There are no short cuts.
4. Pain is inevitable.
5. To know and be known deeply and still love is one of life’s great joys.

These points might well serve as the first five chapters in a book titled, So You Want to Connect? I expect, however, that the first chapter, “Relationships Heal,” might well turn out to be thick enough to stand alone as a book in itself.

Lori is correct: relationships do heal. However, I know that with me Lori would add a serious caveat at this point. In life we soon learn that relationships can also be the source of deep wounding and may result in brokenness that takes years to mend. In light of this unpleasant reality, it is wise to think carefully about those traits that distinguish a relationship that heals from one that injures.

Lori suggests two things that appear to be essential: integration and authenticity. If a relationship is to function in truth as a healing process participants must bring themselves as a “whole package” to the process [integration], and, in the sense of full disclosure, each bring their “whole” package in a way that enables both parties to trust that what they see is what they get [authenticity].

Lori graciously suggests that in our first interaction these characteristics were demonstrated both in my frank acknowledgement of my unsolved problem in weight management, and in her response to what I said.

I remember vividly my first impression of Lori—slender, beautifully dressed, a “got-it-all-together” girl speaking with a slow cultured shadow of Texas in her voice.

And I remember too the immediate relational decision I faced as she explained her reason for seeking help. How soon and how directly should I confront the vital difference between us in appearance?

It seemed (and still seems) to me that I made a productive choice. I brought clearly and immediately to the table my sense of who I was—an experienced therapist with good skills, a sound sense of risk, and a tested faith. But I brought too an authentic acknowledgement that not all my life problems were solved.

In retrospect, I suppose in that nanosecond in which we make relational choices, I thought, “Well, the first thing we have to determine is whether this beautiful woman who looks perfect is willing to risk relationship with a therapist who is clearly flawed and imperfect.”

In that instant, Lori too brought to the table an authentic report of who she was: a woman whose troubled reliance on appearance and “people pleasing” had left her with a troubling and insufficient framework for successful integration of her essential self.

If relationship is to be healing, participants must bring the whole person to the process, and in doing so present an honest account of the reality of the whole person as they best know themselves at that time.

The reality with which Lori and I began has, of course, shifted with the impact of the years and with the changes in roles that we now play with each other. The interactions through which we have both been changed have incorporated many complex factors as we have worked out what integration and authenticity look like in the shoe-leather of walking through this long relational journey with each other.

Thank you, Lori, for your generous heart. From the beginning you have been willing to grant me a mercy that you were not always willing to give yourself. And thank you that trust has been able to flourish between us because, while less than perfect--like me, sigh!--you persisted in  bringing your whole self without pretense or dishonesty to the relationship. Your practice of authenticity and integration has blessed my life and encouraged my growth.

Thinking with you this week that healing may be mysterious but it certainly isn’t magic.

See you next week.


P.S. There is good news regarding my sister, Beth. She has stabilized and appears to have returned to us again for a space, although no one is guessing how long that time may be. Skype permits us to talk together almost daily. While Skype does not permit true “presence,” it does provide a reassuring connection for which we are both grateful. We continue to covet your prayers.