Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lessons from the Curtains

March 30, 2014

Dear friends,

The curtains in my study are a work of art. They filter sunlight through a sheer paisley pattern of faded golds and greens. They surprise and delight my senses at all times of day.

A different beauty comes when afternoon sun and early twilight sift their dimming light through this fabric. Shapes and colors that appeared intricate and detailed in sharp morning light are muted now, lines blurred. In these evening moments I sometimes see both art and epiphany. The melded colors in that living palette can appear to be a shadow cast on earth by the imagination of God.

These are teaching curtains, and I am grateful for their on-going mentoring.

They remind me daily that cost is not necessarily a corollary of beauty, nor is complexity a definitive component. The light-magic fabric from which these curtains were made was purchased from the remnant table on sale at the outlet of a local department store. Understanding my design, the seamstress simply measured, cut and hemmed the fabric, then hung the “curtains,” using clips on a rod (clips and rods retrieved from another remnant table at the same outlet sale).

Beauty does require attention and energy, however.

The study walls are painted a warm beige that is only two paint chips away from one of the reoccurring golds in the paisley pattern. The curtain fabric also has flecks of wine-colored petals and leaves that appear with unexpected, unpredictable assertiveness in the paisley gold and green. In the study the wall almost covered by book shelves is painted merlot, a shade of burgundy that is about six paint chips away from the flecks of wine-colored petals and leaves that occur with random beauty in the curtain fabric.

To know the room, to see its patterns of shadow and light, its shape and space; to sense the weight of the books, to account for their volume; this required thought.

To organize a peace-shaped space for both me and my hand-me-down sofa required more than a measuring tape.

This space must hold in comfort thinking and writing and the struggle of work. Then, too, in peace and sabbath stillness, this space must hold the quiet work of prayer, the joy of praise, the comfort of rest.

Living into this room, living with this room, living with myself—each challenging tasks in themselves—led to still a tougher assignment: making a place where the space and light of the room and the dimensions of life as I live it made a congruent whole.

Often in the process I was tempted to “whatever.”  It would have been much simpler (and much easier) to use what was at hand and get the project finished. “Doing it right” meant making mistakes and correcting them with all the expense and aggravation entailed in that process, and facing the uncomfortable fact that my capacity to respond to beauty and my ability to create it are clearly not commensurate.

Further, I can easily become emotionally lazy. It would have been far easier (and quite socially acceptable) to settle matters simply by hiring an interior designer and giving this professional person a free hand. At several points in the project I was more than willing to compromise my responsibility to make the person I am, the work that I do, and the space in which I live congruent.  I continue to be glad, however, that I did not elect this alternative.

This week my mentoring curtains had a word to say about contentment. This curtain wisdom of the week grew out of a casual conversation with a friend who asked if, expense being no issue, I would ever consider moving. We laughed then, knowing the answer in advance on the basis of the strong dislike of moving that we share.

Later as I watched afternoon sun filter through the curtains and pool on my desk top, I thought, “No. I have no desire to move, but it is more than my deep aversion to uprooting. I want to stay here—I am truly content with what I have.”

Wondering with you today about the relationship between beauty and covetousness. Perhaps when the temptation to want more rears its ugly head I need to ask myself: Do I need to acquire more things or to make more beauty with the things I have? Or, perhaps even more simply, do I need to see the beauty where I am?

Jesus made an example of the lilies in the field.  It is not coincidental that when Jesus pointed out God’s provision for the lilies He said (Hubbard paraphrase), “See, not even Solomon with all his wealth was able to clothe himself with a beauty like this.”

Wondering with you if I could see more of the beauty around me would I be less tempted to look at Solomon’s wealth with longing eyes?

See you next week.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Limbic Brain Editorial

March 23, 2014

Dear Friends,

Recent research in the growing field of neurobiology (the work of David Siegel, Allan Schore, Bonnie Badenoch and others) leaves no doubt about the mystery, the power and complexity of the human brain. However, for wannabee poets and mystics, contemporary brain science exerts a distinctly dampening influence on “dramatic” interpretations of dreams, and, so to speak, pours a large bucket of very cold water on the human impulse to use dreams as omens, messages from other worlds, or “spiritual” guidance. Nevertheless, having acknowledged this in the interest of full disclosure, I continue to believe that dreams sometimes give us interesting data to think about. In this context (and nothing more) I want to share with you today a recent dream.

In my dream I was rushing frantically down the “D” concourse in some busy airport. I was accompanied by a nameless, faceless companion who, unseen, nevertheless stayed with me throughout my dream. (The fact that the context of the dream was the “D” concourse seemed very important—I do not know why.)

I was running, feeling sickly certain that I had already missed my scheduled flight, when an airport employee caught up with me and attempted to stop me.  This person said, “Taking this trip makes you miss your scheduled speech at the legislature. Don’t you understand?  The opportunity to address the legislature is a great honor, and you will not be asked again. You have lost the opportunity and all the potential for open doors that might have followed.”

As I continued running, another individual (a woman whose garb somehow suggested academic dress) caught up with me and said, “I had tentatively scheduled you for two important speeches, but I just want you to know that I will not be contacting you.”

I slowed my running somewhat, and tried to negotiate with the Academic Lady. I said, “I did not mean to be disrespectful. Can’t we discuss some possible options for the future?”

“No,” she said, with a malevolent smile, “You have shut the door yourself.”

Then came a blurred, shapeless space in the dream, and I awakened with one of those airport intercom voices saying, “All flights to Paris are now closed.”

Last week I wrote, “You cannot go back. It is life’s non-negotiable reality. But it is at the same time, life’s unavoidable opportunity.”

In some ways my dream can be considered an editorial comment by my limbic (emotional) brain on the conclusion my middle prefrontal cortex (cognitive) brain had so brusquely announced in last week’s blog.

In the dream my limbic brain agreed that we cannot go back, but insisted in noting as well that we cannot avoid the grief and real loss that accompanies this reality. Two things are true at the same time: yesterday’s choices inevitably foreclose some of tomorrow’s choices (the missed speech, the missed flight to Paris, and the missed tentative options for work); but it is also true that there are other flights on other concourses that I may yet take. The flight to Paris on Concourse D is not the only flight, nor is Paris the only place worth visiting. The people in the legislature, while important, are not the only people of worth who may be addressed.

Throughout the narrative of God’s story with His people, we hear God’s continuing hopeful insistence, “Behold, I do a new thing.”  Perhaps it is possible to enter (cognitively) into the hopeful reality of God’s presence in our tomorrows only when we have faced—and grieved (limbic brain business)—the losses in our yesterdays. 

Grateful with you today that grieving a lost flight to Paris need not result in permanent grounding; losing an opportunity to speak need not lead to voicelessness. Aware, however, that tomorrows hold greatest potential for those who come to life's challenges with both head and heart fully aware.

See you next week.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Map Reading on Birthdays

March 16, 2014

Dear Friends,

“Where are you?” God asked Adam and Eve. 
Then, going to the heart of the matter, God asked, “What is this thing that you have done?” 

Many people do not treat Biblical texts seriously under any circumstances. Curiously enough, however, most people spend a life-time asking “Where am I?” and, in a haunting echo of Eden, questioning, “What is this thing that I have done?”

In life, these questions manage to get themselves asked whether consciously we decide to consider them or not. 

For the most part, neither these questions nor their answers are negotiable. What we can—and sometimes do—however, is pretend that the questions are irrelevant, or attempt to copy someone else’s answer for ourselves, although neither option works well.

One reason for this is that birthdays persistently confront us with an identification firmly anchored in the context of the past.

“Where am I?”—birthdays document the fact that we are a year further along life’s journey. 

“What is this thing that I have done?”  Ah, yes, and in the old Bard’s timeless comment, there’s the rub for us all.

What do we do in the future with what the past confronts us—the knowing that cannot be un-known and the doing that cannot be un-done?

We cannot go back. This is life’s non-negotiable reality. But it is at the same time life’s unavoidable opportunity.

Frederick Buechner, noting that while we cannot go back, we can go forward in a new way, with a new understanding of who we are, and a new strength to draw on for what lies before us now to do.*

Thinking with you today that we get to choose whether the past serves as a prison for dreams or the unexplored potential for new understanding and new strength. 

“Where am I?” “What is this thing that I have done?”

Thinking with you today that reality says I may (indeed, I must) choose how the answer to those questions shapes the tomorrows of my life.

See you next week.


* Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life (Compiled and Edited by George Connor) New York: HarperCollins, 1992, p. 70.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Grateful for Homer the Camel?

March 9, 2014

Dear Friends,

He was a particularly splendid camel, although there was a suspiciously malevolent gleam in his eye. As I remember, his name was Homer, and while he was a trustworthy companion for a dangerous trip across the desert, he was certainly no safe candidate for the petting zoo.

Although the paper on which Homer’s picture was printed had become brittle and yellowing with age, Homer had survived the years safely sheltered in a forgotten old file folder that was labelled “Flannel Board Figures.” 

Flannel board belongs to the world of buggy whips, and lies outside the experience of you contemporary readers. In its time, however, flannel board was quite useful as a primitive visual aid in the pre-digital pre-video world. It was often used by teachers in religious education classes to provide a human-powered “video” to tell Bible stories to wiggly children who were interested and teachable but easily distracted. 

Flannel board concept and construction were simple.  A plywood board covered with flannel was placed on an easel (cardboard would do under necessity).  Pictures such as the one of Homer the Camel were backed with flannel so as the story progressed the teacher placed figures on the easel board to illustrate important points. (Yes, Virginia, there was a way to make things stick together before Velcro.) The process of sticking flannel to flannel was fragile and unreliable at best, but it did provide a moment’s magic for young minds.

My memory of Homer’s role was his part in my version of the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Those of you who are purists in the telling of the old texts may object to my “embroidery” of the narrative. But faced with making the story real to prairie children with no experiential knowledge of the desert, the danger or the distance, I started the journey with Mary and Joseph and Jesus riding on donkeys (a picture likely close to historical reality), but as they came closer to Egypt in my story they bought Homer from a desert trader to carry the supplies since the donkeys were now tired and discouraged by the long hard journey. 

One favorite moment in the story came immediately prior to the purchase of Homer.  In order to make the necessity of Homer’s purchase clear, as the story teller, I would take one of the donkeys trudging wearily along the flannel board road and turn him upside down in the ditch, legs sticking up in the air in utter exhaustion. 

After giggles had subsided, Homer’s appearance in the story seemed a good thing even if Homer was quite difficult to get along with. We all understood that the story was about a hard journey into Egypt that took a long time and in which the Holy Family faced difficult challenges, some, like Homer, that were not fun.

As I sat in my study, remembering Homer (file folder leaned up against my IPad), I was grateful for all that Homer taught me in those flannel graph days whether he was historically accurate or not.  

I know now in ways that I could not have imagined then that being part of God’s family does not protect us from long, dangerous journeys. I know too that in these journeys, God’s provision—indeed, His blessing—may be Homer even though Homer has a bad disposition, a habit of biting, and a distinctively unpleasant smell.

Grateful with you today for God’s faithful provision, knowing that blessing does not always come packaged in easy-to-manage forms.

See you next week.