Archives for January 2016

Touching the Holy

Every once in a while, life grants me a transcendent moment. Often, this happens when I am out of doors, gaping at the sea, the mountains, a redwood forest; snorkeling above coral reefs, standing in the wind on the deck of a ship, or staring down at the world from 35,000 feet. These moments are gifts, glimpses of the Mystery, those thin places between earth and heaven, a place/person/? which I choose to believe is much nearer to us than we can imagine, close enough to touch.

And once in a while, we do.

Music is often an entryway to heaven for me. Especially choral music. I’ve written before about my lifelong love for choral singing — listening to it, but mostly, singing it. Standing with a larger group of singers, making Beauty together is a privilege and a joy; I do not take it for granted.

Here is an example of a small piece of music that was instrumental in my own deeper awakening to the Spirit about twenty years ago. It is an audio recording of a piece that hit me right between the eyes when first I heard it up in the tower office that was mine when I worked on staff in our home church. I have listened to it hundreds of times and always, always  it moves me to tears and wonder. I had the privilege of singing it (though we did not sing it very well, I fear) in the choir I joined last year. This is one piece of nine that are part of a spectacular requiem mass written by Maurice Durufle, a French composer from the early-to-mid 20th century. There are frequently changing time signatures and many different keys throughout the entire mass, but this piece is one of the simpler ones, as written. But it is the most difficult to sing exactly right. Robert Shaw and his famous Chorale got it exactly right. Close your eyes and let this music wash over you.

“Sanctus” – by Maurice Durufle, using the text of the requiem Mass:

Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth,
pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis! Benedictus, qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis!

Holy, Lord God of hosts.
The heavens and the earth are full of Thy glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He Who cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

Do you see what I mean? Or perhaps this particular piece doesn’t lead you across the threshold in the same way it did me. I’m willing to bet however, that somewhere in your life there is one piece — or perhaps several — that help you to do just that.

Last week, our choir met again to prepare for our spring concert. We are doing a variety of anthems and folk songs, about five of which we’ve looked at so far. Of those five, two of them, TWO OF THEM, opened that door to the Holy in me as we sight-read them. The act of sight-reading is exhilarating, all by itself. It is one of my favorite things to do in the world: to take a stack of unseen music and work through it for the first time. So fun.

But these two? Oh, glory! The words simply stopped me. STOPPED me. And the close harmonies and moving choral parts? Well  . . . that was three days ago and I am still awash with gratitude and glory.  This first one pretty well sums up what I believe and have experienced with music . . . sing me to heaven, indeed.

“Sing Me to Heaven,” words by Jane Griner, music by Daniel E. Gawthrop

In my heart’s sequestered chambers lie truths stripped of poets’ gloss
Words alone are vain and vacant, and my heart is mute
In response to aching silence, memory summons half-heard voices
And my soul finds primal eloquence, and wraps me in song
If you would comfort me, sing me a lullaby
If you would win my heart, sing me a love song
If you would mourn me and bring me to God,
sing me a requiem, sing me to Heaven
Touch in me all love and passion, pain and pleasure
Touch in me grief and comfort, love and passion, pain and pleasure
Sing me a lullaby, a love song, a requiem
Love me, comfort me, bring me to God
Sing me a love song, sing me to Heaven

And number two? Yes, yes. This is the cry of my heart for me and for all those I know and love who are struggling to see God in the midst of their pain, to believe in the midst of crushing doubt, to take a step into the unknown when it feels dark and murky and above all, lonely. 

I invite you to take steps into the holy, my friends. To look for thresholds in your day-to-day living, to ask for eyes to see and ears to hear. May you find small moments when loneliness recedes and hope rises, rises, rises.

“Even When He Is Silent” – music by Kim Andre Arnesen
          The text for the piece was found in a concentration camp after World War 2:
          The key signature encourages director and singer to set the metronome for 54 per quarter note and adds these remarkable words, ‘with hope.’ Indeed, indeed.
I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love, even when I feel it not.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

A Birthday Lunch

I took my mother out to lunch yesterday. I’d seen her five days before, for a visit to the neurologist, but we hadn’t done lunch together yet this week. Today is my birthday, and sometime this week, I wanted to be with the one who made that possible. These are the notes I jotted down after our time together.

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Mom is terribly confused and upset when I arrive at Heritage Court later than I had hoped. She cannot figure out what we are doing, wants me to go into the dining room with her, is distressed when I lead her towards the exit. This has happened more and more often in recent weeks – she doesn’t understand about ‘going out to eat at a restaurant,’ even though we’ve done it once or twice a week for the last three years.

I reassure her gently that she will begin to understand once we get into the car. Something about the forward motion of driving almost immediately calms her fears — as long as there isn’t too much traffic. She is very anxious when too many cars are around us, particularly if they are driving fast.

So we take city streets rather than the freeway; she prefers that and I do, too. She always comments on the lovely homes, wonders if they are expensive, is shocked at the HUGE number of cars on the road, the ones that move and the ones that are parked. Three times on our eight-minute ride, she asks if there are lots of accidents here.

Always, there is fear just beneath the surface. How can there not be? She cannot formulate sentences very well, she cannot see much, her hearing is very compromised and she is confused about almost everything. I’d be anxious, too. It doesn’t help that she is constitutionally wired for anxiety, but this is different from the ‘old’ Ruth. It is almost primitive, child-like and very, very sad.

The weather is a little blustery today and it doesn’t take much for mom to feel cold. Fortunately, there is only a 30-foot walk from elevator to restaurant and I hurry her inside to the waiting area. Hurry being a very relative term — how fast can you go with a 94-year-old using a walker, who walks with a shuffle and is easily exhausted?

We’re told it will be a fifteen-minute wait — a first, for us. There are students crawling around everywhere today. Apparently it was a minimum day at all the middle schools in town and every one of those kids decided to go to the mall.

A lovely small grace of this outing is The Perfect Table – a booth by the window. The only negative is that it’s harder for me to help her with utensils, napkin, food and drink when I’m sitting across from instead of next to her.

It’s been several months since we’ve been to this particular restaurant and it is immediately clear that she has taken several steps further into the mist since our last visit. She is unsure about pizza but does decide that baked potato soup sounds good. I order both. Her long-time favorite pepperoni is now too spicy, however, and she searches frantically for something to drink.

“Here, Mom,” I say, reaching across the table to scoot the glass closer to her. “Just lean over a little and sip from your straw.”

She cannot find it and panic begins to rise in me — the glass will fall into her lap, she’ll stab herself in the eye with that straw, why didn’t I sit next to her?

Apparently, anxiety is contagious.

She manages to find it and sucks greedily at the cold beverage. “Ah, that’s better.”

But it is not better, is it? And it won’t be, this side of heaven.

Today, I say it at least twenty different times: “I am your daughter; you are my mom.” It does not stick. Ever. She is always amazed. Or confused. Or both. On the way to the restaurant: “This is such a nice car. Did your parents get it for you?” “Well, no, Mom, I’m old now, long-married. And besides, you are my parent — you are my mom.”

Silence.

Then: “I am?? Well, that was pretty smart of me, wasn’t it?”

 Yeah, mom. Pretty smart. Pretty darn smart.

_______

I am grateful for my life. She and my dad gave me that great gift seventy-one years ago today, after four years of infertility, special medical treatments, and the grace of God.

I was wanted, I was loved, I was cared for. Always.

We laughed a lot in our home and we were given permission to ask questions and to search for answers. Faith, family, education, care for others — these were the values taught and modeled. My mother was my first and greatest spiritual mentor and guide. Those pieces of her are no longer available to either of us, but I choose to believe that they are still here . . . inside of me. And that I will see her again, even richer and deeper than she once was. In the meantime, I will love who she is now.

Happy Birthday to me.

I love you, Mom.

Inspiration

Do you all know Seth Haines? He’s written one of the best books I read in 2015, “Coming Clean,” (reviewed here on this blog) He also writes an occasional Tiny Letter and was one of those who inspired me to begin writing my own version of that. In the last few of those letters, he has begun to do what he once did for a small group of email friends — provide inspiration for writing on a topic. Today’s letter inspired these thoughts and THIS  is what I need in my writing life right now. I’ve been tired, lethargic, uninspired for many months now. I’m sure that enervating fatigue is connected to the stresses of the last eighteen months or so, from foot surgery and recovery to emergency hospital stays, to a major move across town, interwoven with the continuing disappearance of my mother into the mists of dementia and the inevitable toll of a long life on the bodies and psyches of both my husband and myself. But today, his own reflection (which is stunningly gorgeous – go over to his blog and sign up for his letter right this minute!) invited me to just sit and reflect on the presence of God in the ordinary. My response to that invitation:


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The clouds are low to the ground this week, hovering over our city like a pale gray shawl, hiding the view, softening the noise, slowing my breath. Today’s clouds carry water, gentle but steady, trundling its way down the drainpipe behind the bedroom wall, glistening on the ground outside the sliding door.

I’ve just come from a long lunch with a friend, someone I trust, someone I love. And I heard such sadness, sadness I knew nothing about. And my eyes well with tears for her . . . and for me, because I did not know. And I did not ask. Until today.

The gray dampness of the day seemed appropriate somehow. And the Beauty in the midst of that gray was her lovely face, sincere, concerned, honest, receptive. We talked long past the 90 minutes of free parking and I left a more generous tip than usual. Story-sharing costs us something, you know? It is never cheap.

When I returned home, driving up the winding hill with the wipers going full tilt, I shared the saddest parts with my husband. He, too, was hit hard. He, too, feels that pull to re-commit to friendship, to share the load, to pay something for the privilege of inclusion, even if it costs nothing more than time and empathy. Those are never cheap, either, are they?

I made myself some tea, a new flavor – Peppermint Chocolate – and settled into reading and writing for a while. But my eye was caught by some new blooms on the vine that covers our low-slung back fence, the one over which we usually have a soaring city and mountain view. The wide view is unavailable during this grayness, this shawl-covering season. But the narrow one is always there.

I took my camera out into the gentle rain and aimed it toward those gold and lavender throated cups that were pointing every which way along the rail. The drops of water somehow multiplied their loveliness and I gasped as I gingerly stepped from concrete to grass to flagstone pavers. I snapped the pictures and I remembered a truth I too often neglect or downright forget: there is Beauty everywhere. Everywhere.

Even on a gray day, even when friends are sad, even when I forget to ask.

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Where are you finding Beauty in the midst of the grayness, in the humdrum of day-to-day life?

Who Am I? — SheLoves 20Questions, January 2016

Starting the new year off with a bang over at SheLoves . . . with 20 Questions!  This is the one I chose because I believe it to be so central to our journey. Start here and click over to read the rest over there. And please join the conversation, okay? Would love to hear who YOU are!Scan 2015-12-9 0010

This is the central question of my long life, one I must ask myself every day, one that requires me to slow down long enough to remember the answer! It is a question buried deeply in our souls, maybe even in our sinews, and it is the call of God to each and every one of us. No matter what limits we live with — and all of us have limits of one kind or another — each of us has a unique place in the fabric of humanity. And our primary task in life is to find that place and fill it as fully and heartily as we can.

This question is both personal and universal, and the answer we seek can only be found in the unique context in which we live and learn. First and foremost, that context is always laced with the lives of others, so discerning an answer to who we are will require a deep and growing understanding of where we are. That context can — and should — change over time. We must pass through the necessary and important stages of development common to us all, each with its own set of ‘rules’ and tasks. Infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, old age — like it or not, we all move along the river of time and maturity. The trappings and boundaries of our life will change from stage to stage, sometimes quite dramatically. Where we live, and with whom, the level of our education, our job or career status, the state of our health — these shift and re-form constantly throughout our lives.

But that central question stays the same, and so does the answer. Or perhaps I should say, answers. There is an ‘a’ and a ‘b’ part to both, a primary and a secondary truth. The primary part is true for every single person on the planet — past, present or future. The secondary part is unique to each one of us — to our DNA, our emotional IQ, our mix of gifts, strengths, weaknesses and limits.

The ‘a’ part is perhaps the hardest for us to wrap our minds around, the most difficult for us to hold onto with confidence and rock-solid belief. Brennan Manning has written about it exquisitely:

“Do you believe that the God of Jesus loves you beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity—that he loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain—that he loves you when your intellect denies it, your emotions refuse it, your whole being rejects it. Do you believe that God loves without condition or reservation and loves you this moment as you are and not as you should be.” 

― Brennan Manning, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir

Do you believe this? Do you cling to it, trust in it, allow it to form and re-form you? Hard as it is for us to fathom, every single one of us is the apple of God’s eye, the one over whom the great God of the Universe sings a song of love and delight. This is the through-line of our scripture, the nitty-gritty of the Jesus-Good-News, the powerful, ongoing labor of the Holy Spirit within us: we are loved.

The ‘b’ part of the question looks a lot like Fred Buechner’s famous query: do you know where your deep gladness is? What is it that makes your heart sing, that feels right, way down deep inside you? How do your own gifts and strengths converge to both bring you joy and the world in which you live good? As Buechner put it, where do “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?”

Hop on over and read the rest and see how others are answering this query!

Out of the Ether — OneWord 2016

On January 1st, I sent out my first Tiny Letter of this new year. This is a project I have come to love and I am grateful for the friends who have subscribed to these missives, most particularly for the much smaller number who take the time to send me a response of some kind. Thank you!!

In that letter, I said that I was still waiting for my ‘word’ for this year to reveal itself to me. I was even so bold as to say I hoped it would be an easier word than the last few have been. My word for 2015 was ‘STRETCH,’ for 2014 it was ‘OBEDIENT,’ and for 2012, it was ‘WAITING.’ (Not sure what happened to 2013, but apparently, a word never materialized for that 12-month stretch!) Not one of those was easy, in any sense of that word.

After writing that letter, as I readied myself for sleep and turned out the light, I asked again for a word to appear. And lo, out of the ether of near-sleep, a word appeared. I thought I heard it as . . . slow.

Well, yes, that surely fits. 2015 was the year of Falling Down a Lot and every time I hit the ground, I thought to myself, “Woman, you have GOT to slow down!” So slow seemed right somehow.

But that sense of rightness lasted all of 30 seconds. Because coming immediately on the heels of that word was this one: ‘STEADY.

Ah, yes. I’ll take it! I said into that ether. I.will.take.it.

I’ve been chewing on that set of seven letters ever since, trying to conjure up images/ideas/connections as I reflect on the year just past and lean into the one so recently begun. Here are some of my initial thoughts and a few recent photographs to illustrate them.

 

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After the turbulence of 2015, the entire concept of steadiness comes as a welcome gift, one that I am still unpacking, one that I am confident will be multi-layered and complex. For example, have you ever watched sea stars? They are among God’s steadiest creatures, I do believe. They only move when hungry or in danger and they cling to rocks, coral, wharf poles — anything sturdy and stationary. On top of that, they’re gorgeous — brightly colored, a pleasing shape and they have this incredible ability to regrow injured limbs. Hoping to make this a year of Not Falling At All, I want to learn from these guys and cling to the sturdy stuff. And, of course, it never hurts to look as good as possible whilst clinging, right?

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Living in a beachside community provides easy access to one of the grandest of reminders that steadiness is a virtue and gift. The waves keep on comin,’ you know? Sometimes they’re slow and piddly; sometimes they’re muscular and wild. But no matter the weather, the time of day or night, the condition of the beach (or the presence of frail human bodies!), those waves are steady. They roll on, without end or interruption. I’m hoping for NO interruptions this year, at least none of the unwelcome and/or difficult kind . . . like emergency room visits or moving all my earthly belongings across town.

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Now I will admit that some human bodies are less frail than others when it comes to those waves. We spent a fair amount of time watching surfers while we were away celebrating our anniversary last month. This particular guy was not young. No, indeed, not young at all. And he managed to catch a ride with some frequency. It’s true that a surfer’s steadiness is a temporary and usually short-lived thing. But while it lasts? Oh, GLORY. Even just a few moments of glorious steadiness would be welcome, welcome.

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Now this old codger knew how to be steady! He clambered up on the edge of the Pismo Beach pier, folded his large webbed feet underneath his feathers, sat down firmly and drew his great neck and beak into the warmth and softness of his feathers. He remained watchful and alert, but he sat there, perched on a narrow plank for a good long time. When a nearby fisherman caught a small fish, he was instantly across that pier, waiting for a taste — he got one, too. Being steady does not mean being unwilling to move. Rather, I think it implies an alert readiness to change course, as needed. That’s the kind of steady I need.

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And then, of course, in any central coast California beach town, there are the bluffs, those large, yellow-to-peachy-pink rock formations that rim almost every sandy cove between Ventura and Pismo Beach. I love them — they’re craggy, uneven, vulnerable to erosion, yet somehow one of the steadiest things in our landscape. They are ever-present, providing grand vistas of the broad Pacific, reminding us that we are truly tiny creatures with short life spans. They are a regular reminder of beauty and strength, two of the many facets of ‘steady.’

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The oak trees that are ubiquitous in this part of the world remind me of the value of hanging in, hanging on, standing strong, offering shade, and withstanding both wind and drought. They are, in many ways, the epitome of steadiness to me. We don’t have oak trees in our current neighborhood, at least not very many of them. We were surrounded by them in our former home and their presence is one of the few things I miss since our move. I’m glad they’re EVERYWHERE in our town, because I enjoy being around them. I’d love for 2016 to be a year of hanging in/hanging on/standing strong, etc. Praying in that direction these days, that is for sure.

DSC05922I did a quick biblical search for the word, ‘steady,’ and got back a grand total of four. I may reference one or two of them in the year ahead, but this one, from the beautiful book of Isaiah, seemed wildly appropriate for me at this point in my life:

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
Isaiah 35:3-5

Yes, Lord. I am relying on you to provide both strength and steadiness as needed in the year that is unfolding before me. And I relish this picture of an inordinately long-lived rainbow as a reminder of the way in which you, O God, keep your promises to humankind. As always, 2016 will be a year in which you are the steadiness I seek, the steadiness I need.

Do you have a word for 2016? Share it in the comments — I love reading what others are living with/wrestling with/hoping for!