Sunday, June 29, 2014

And What About Those Spider Mites?

June 29, 2014

Dear Friends,

Some time ago I purchased a book, Everything Belongs, written by Richard Rohr, an author who means for his readers both to read and think. Knowing that in advance, I approached the book prepared to work, and found that the contents did indeed require careful attention. When I finished reading Everything Belongs I shelved the book upstairs in my study. While not an ‘easy’ read, the book was a ‘keeper.’

Time passed, and other matters occupied my attention and energy. Then—actually, several years later—a study group that I attend chose Everything Belongs to discuss in our monthly meeting. I located my copy, and was re-reading it in anticipation of the group when—well, you will see.  If you have believed that books are safe things to have around, my experience may give you second thoughts.

The dangerous moment occurred in the context of a rather demanding schedule. There were writing commitments that could not be postponed; client relationships that required an extra measure of energy and watchful attention; there were some unexpected needs in the lives of friends whose lives I share in community. And I needed to attend as well to Annie’s on-going care and the routine demands of a busy household, including my small “garden” (to dignify my collection of patio plantings by an important name).

I had come through what my grandfather called “a busy patch.”  But a morning came when schedule permitted Annie and me to sit quietly on the front patio while the early dawn light grew into day. We listened to the birds waking up, watched the rising sun make diamonds of the dew on the flowers, marveled at their colors and breathed their scent. The community around us was still asleep. We sat in a Saturday space oddly empty of human sound as a symphony of moving color played overhead.

I was aware of a wordless sense of “belonging.”  I knew that I, a small creature in a massive universe, was alive.  I was alive in a world in which aliveness was the ocean in which I swam. And in this wordless knowing I sensed too that it was a good thing that I am here—I belong.

In some way, I suppose, it was an existential consciousness of context and connection. I knew myself to be myself and myself alive. And I knew, too that I was myself only, and—inevitable consequence—I was myself alone. But I knew as well (and paradoxically) that the aloneness I experienced is an aloneness that I share together with the alive world in which I experience life.

It was a moment in which I was at home in my own skin, and at peace in my place in the world.

But as the light strengthened, a ray of early sunlight reached over the roof and touched the plants in a pot at the edge of the walk.
Immediately, a small frisson of alarm troubled the peace of my gardener soul. Were those leaves that were drooping—drooping down in the cool morning air? This should not be.

Leaving Annie and my coffee, I seized my pruning shears and set off down the walk where I certainly found drooping leaves—an entire plant full—and something else.


Yes. Spider mites.

Already they had severely damaged the flowering salvia that stood with tall purple delight in the old gray pot.

I returned to the glider and shared the bad news with Annie.

“There are spider mites in the big pot!!” I told her.

Spider mites do not evoke anxiety in Annie’s world. She yawned, stretched, rearranged herself and resumed her morning nap.

I sat quietly, aware that my coffee was cooling, and aware, too, that something had subtly unsettled my shalom.

I waited, inwardly watchful.

Then with dangerous clarity, a chunk of truth wrapped in a question suddenly appeared in my mind.

Everything Belongs—but spider mites?!?

You see what I mean about the unpredictable, tricky, dangerous nature of books. The liminal space in which I rested had been invaded by two things: spider mite reality and (thanks to that book) an unsettling question.

I knew that Rohr’s book was resting (with deceptive innocence) in a pile on my desk. But—too late. I had risked reading Everything Belongs and the thinking that came with it.

I had read it not just once, but read it a second time (in part because I owned it and it was readily available). And now, in consequence, my sensible, fierce displeasure with those death-dispensing spider mites was interrupted. My intent to annihilate them totally was suddenly placed in the context of an idea and a question.

Everything belongs?

Everything belongs?

Everything belongs?

Spider mites belong?

You may have guessed that I was not hospitable. I did not invite the spider mites to breakfast further in my garden. 

However, I do not mean for those pesky spider mites to consume any more space or attention here.

Here I want to think with you about books and the life-altering choice open to us to read and to think about what we read.

Are you reading? What are you reading?

What books have you read recently that have, so to speak, raised unsettling questions about the spider mites in your garden?

And I want to remind you about a special book.

God’s story as it comes to us in Scripture is as concerned with raising unsettling questions as it is with providing trustworthy answers. 

See you next week.



Sunday, June 22, 2014

What are YOU going to be when YOU grow up?

June 22, 2014

Dear Friends,

The meeting had been planned as a “working breakfast,” with the meal itself a pot-luck kind of production by the four of us. The coffee was stimulating (?!). The eggs and bacon were delicious. The scones were a culinary delight, and the grapefruit provided a wonderful citrus-flavored tang and palate-clearing zest along with a healthy dose of vitamin C.
The three women with whom I met are bright, articulate, thinking women, deeply engaged in living fully the life they have been given. They are committed to shaping life through their faith. The work that followed breakfast was a gift to me by these friends who had agreed to meet, eat, and think through with me something I had written. We chose Compost Pile Reality (June 1 blog) for the morning’s work.

Today’s blog owes a large debt to their thinking. I trust that it reflects their commitment to embrace fully the birth-to-death journey that they know life to be. However, the thinking and language in today’s blog is my thinking as stimulated by theirs, and remains my responsibility. My friends merit high praise for their effort to stretch my understanding (it’s a tricky business to befriend a writer). However, they are not responsible for my response. 

The group expressed quick consensus about the idea in the blog that living life fully requires that we embrace fully the entire continuum of life—birth and death and all that lies in the long journey between. Denying the reality of the compost pile leads in a paradoxical sense to denial of life, the unintended consequence of seeking to evade facing human mortality and the inevitability of death.

However, it was not death, but rather the concept of continuing life that most deeply engaged their attention in the content of the blog.

As I listened (well, admittedly, listened in between bouts of participation), I came to see a serious omission in Compost Pile Reality. 

The blog faithfully represented the after-death reality of life for Easter-hearted folk whose faith serves as context for both life and death. But what the blog utterly failed even to suggest is the astonishing, spectacular diversity of the ways in which our Eastering God transcends death and continues life.

In the blog, the analogy of the begonia cuttings in the vase on the kitchen counter reflected some truth. God does indeed foster new life in safe and private places through human means. The new life that emerges under these circumstances is often fragile and requires continuing care.  But this picture does no justice at all to the vast and risky range of God’s energetic investment in continuing life.
Considering the compost pile requires acknowledging the process in which the rotten tomato is thrown (with wrinkled nose) into the compost pile (no careful cuttings here). Yet in the warm spring sun, this abandonment process results not in lost life but in a new and vigorous tomato plant firmly rooted in the compost pile itself. New life is not so dependent upon environment as the begonia cuttings might suggest.

Experienced gardeners know that there are always surprises emerging from the compost pile. I remember one spring when my Grandfather carefully transplanted a tomato plant from the compost pile to the garden. The plant was the sturdy new generation of a particular type of tomato he liked--one that was quite resistant to Kansas bugs.

Compost pile thinking requires as well consideration of the snapdragons. Last year a seed from a snapdragon plant was dropped by a mindless wind into a rocky shelter at the corner of the kitchen porch. In that unlikely place a new plant sprouted and flourished. Having narrowly escaped the groundskeepers’ search for weeds, it has bloomed and is already setting seed. In turn, this year when autumn comes, this snapdragon too will yield its life and beauty to frost and death. Some of its seeds will stay and in another year fill again that once empty place with new life and beauty. And some of its seeds, carried by another wind, will fall and bring life into another empty corner of the waiting world. Life processes are subject to chance in ways that bring uncertainty.

And then there is the complex issue of mutation. 

Biologists think of mutation as a “chance” alteration to a basic life structure that in the next generation produces characteristics that are different in an unpredicted way from the expected pattern of growth. Statistically, most mutations are harmful, but there are exceptions.  And it is these beneficial mutations that carry a powerful message about God’s investment in life.

In the expected pattern, snapdragons reseed and in this way form new life. Ordinary snapdragons are successfully reseeding in my yard. To my delight, I discover new plants in the most unexpected spots.

But I am watching with keen interest something else that a biologist might suspect to be a mutation: two snapdragon plants successfully wintered over—they are acting like perennials in Colorado where our winters can reach twenty (or more) degrees below freezing. They were already four inches tall this spring by the time the seedlings began to emerge. What is happening here?

Well, I suspect I am seeing a small emerging alteration that is producing snapdragon life in a new form. I can guess a possible reason for this. This change appears designed to protect and support life processes in this environment. Winters are hard and summers are short in the high country. If a snapdragon plant can survive the winter and therefore have a head-start come spring, then summer includes time for earlier blooms, the possibility for more blooms and more seed.

It is true that these snapdragon plants that wintered over are odd. Considered in the context of “normal” snapdragons, they are weird and different.  At best, they are snapdragons that have made a serious mistake. Snapdragons are annuals, and have no business acting like perennials. God made them annuals to reseed. End of discussion.

Well, maybe. But in thinking about the compost pile I am unwilling to draw this bottom line quite so quickly.

Perhaps life as reseeding annuals is not the only form of life that God means for snapdragons to enjoy. Perhaps the wintering-over “mistake” is not a mistake at all, but, rather, a step toward a new form of life.

The core of hope lies in this alternate reality. In the context of God’s energy and love, changes that appear to be evidence of harmful damage and a precursor of death may in God’s economy be something quite different. They may be the vehicle through which life is continued in a new better-adapted form. 

The next time someone asks me what I am going to be when I grow up, I think I will say, “It depends.”

See you next week.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

There.... and Home Again!

June 15, 2014

Dear Friends,

How do you value-sort your goals?  When you think, “I will do this (whatever it may be),” on what basis do you label your chosen goal ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘sensible’ or ‘foolish’? And what if your chosen goal is, so far as you can determine, ‘bad’ and ‘the best available’ ? What then?

One of the disciplines of aging grows out of this dilemma. There have been several days this week in which my ‘work’ has entailed grappling with this reality: I can think what I want to do, I can think what I should do, and I can think what I can do. However, I cannot easily decide a plan of action since what I can do has little (or no) relationship with want and should at the given moment. I can only do what I can with what I have where I am. (If only I hadn’t said that so often—and so publicly!—and in print!!  Words often come back to bite us! Sigh.)

Doing what we can with what we have where we are lies at the core of resiliency. 

In most circumstances when we refuse to act out of this reality, we have rejected the only proactive option available. We have chosen nothing over something because we do not like the something that lies within our reach. Limiting choice to the want and should is acceptance of a toxic dualism in life management. Refusal to do what we can do on the basis that it is neither what we should nor want to do becomes, in the end, a choice of death not out of necessity but rather a reaction to the ambiguous, ambivalent uncertainty that lies at the very foundation of life itself.

Now: this truth in story.

After years of wandering, God’s people had reached the boundary of the Promised Land. God called a solemn assembly and confronted his people with a dramatic choice. “Today,” God said, “I lay before you life and death. Choose life.” 
This choice was not as easy as it might appear. Choosing life entailed dealing with reality as it was, not as they wished it were, or (privately) thought that it should have been if God had managed things properly.

In some respects, sitting on the river bank was appealing—there was no apparent danger to this option. God’s people could look longingly at the land (and life) they wanted, the promised but not yet possessed. They knew this land held grapes and honey; the scouts had brought them evidence of this. Certainly they wanted more of the grapes and honey they had tasted. However, the scouts had reported as well that the land held walled cities and hostile people and that battles were a certain part of the future. God’s people wanted to enter the land—they wanted what they knew was possible in that Promised Land. But the problem with their “want” was plain to see: what God’s people wanted was not available on the side of the river where they were camped.

God’s people were also clear about their responsibilities. They knew that, in obedience, they should “take” the land. But at the moment, all that they could do was cross the river and enter into all the risk and danger that lay on the other side.

The reality of doing what they could do with what they had in the situation in which they found themselves was in one sense an absurdity. They could wade the river—men, women, children, desert wanderers all—they could pick themselves up and move on, on into a rich and dangerous unknown. That was all at that moment that they could do where they were with what they had.

This can-do option of entry held a powerful ambiguity of promise and risk. True—Yahweh had promised victory, but victory by definition entailed battle. Further (carefully noting the fine print) in promising victory, Yahweh had not promised a fatality-free conquest. What if—in victory—one of the fallen soldiers among God’s people were a friend—or a family member—or oneself?

And obedience itself (the should-do) had become an ambiguous matter. The God that at Sinai had commanded “You shall not kill,” was now orchestrating a plan which required God’s people to kill. Granted that the target of the potential killing was God’s enemies and the enemies of his people, but that distinction did not help much in clarifying the issue. Could one of God’s people be at the same time God’s enemy? (Their own history suggested uncomfortably that that could be so.) And could one of God’s enemies be at the same time God’s friend? (History indicated as well that that too was possible. A lot of strange things had happened on the long journey from Egypt to Canaan).

Who wants to grapple with such paradox and contradiction in figuring out what obedience looks like? This option—what God’s people should do—carried a frightening possibility of uncertainty and potential dispute with Yahweh Himself. To be one of God’s people and a part of God’s triumphant plan, ah, that would be an adventure with a marvelous ending. However, adventures are tricky things: to reach the triumphant ending, there is the uncomfortable matter of wading the river, facing a new, hostile world in the process of occupying the Promised Land.

That wise Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, became a great authority on the matter of adventures. One of my can-do’s this last week was to review Bilbo’s own great adventure and to think about what he learned. Sitting tiredly with an old book was neither what I wanted to do that day nor what I should have been doing according to my schedule. Nevertheless, the experience taught, and I learned again about the advantages of doing what I can.

At the beginning, you may remember, Bilbo held a decidedly negative view of adventures of any sort. Adventures, in Bilbo’s opinion, were nasty disturbing uncomfortable things certain to make one late to dinner. But one day (leaving his breakfast unfinished!!) without quite knowing how it happened, Bilbo found himself outside without a hat, a walking-stick, money or even a pocket handkerchief, off on an adventure with all its inconvenience and risk. Bilbo’s adventure (he titled his story There and Home Again) required a long uncomfortable journey, terrifying danger, friendships with strange people, real and terrible beauty and joy, and real and terrible loss.  But at the end, as Gandalf noted, Bilbo was not the Hobbit he once was, and his opinion of adventures was quite different.

                Eyes that fire and sword have seen
                        And horror in the halls of stone
                Look at last on meadows green
                        And trees and hills they long have known.*

At the end of that quiet afternoon, I was able to come home again into an inner shalom, a place of meadows green, of a familiar long-known truth: to choose to do what I can with its limitations and uncertainties is to choose life, and that, without exception, comes to a good place in the end.

See you next week.


* J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit or There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. P. 323.