Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Three

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Psalm 124
Genesis 9:1-17
Hebrews 11:32-40

As I gathered together this year’s readings for Advent, I noticed that there are several about covenants, those special ‘agreements’ God made with people that are scattered throughout the Old Testament and then grandly fulfilled with the coming of Jesus. Today’s Genesis reading contains the agreement God made with Noah, once he and his family were released from their long siege of forced isolation on that strange boat.

Covenant agreements are always initiated by God and overflow with God’s promise of presence and blessing. But this one is unique. Why? Because God very deliberately makes promises not only to Noah and his family, but to all of creation:

“I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,  and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

The rainbow is set in the sky as a reminder to God to keep those promises, and three more times, God repeats this phrase: “my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.” THREE times. Do you think maybe it might be important?

ALL creatures matter to God. Isn’t that remarkable? We humans so easily place our species at the center of everything, don’t we? Yet in this Old Testament covenant, God intentionally includes all the things on earth that breathe. And if God values these creatures, maybe we should too? I think a biblically mandated argument for conservation and environmental protection can be made from passages like this one. What do you think?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey – 2016 — Day Two

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Psalm 124
Genesis 8:1-19
Romans 6:1-11

For a whole lotta years, I collected Noah’s Ark memorabilia. Friends and family gave me a wild variety of artifacts and collectibles: wall hangings, stitcheries, figurines, greeting cards, even an adorable waste basket. And all of it decorated my offices at both of the churches where I served on the pastoral staff.

And then one week, I drew the straw to preach on that text in Genesis — and I was overwhelmed by the terror of it all. All of my cute things no longer seemed quite so cute. Yes, I kept a few, and use them now in my home office. I had too many sentimental attachments for me to divest fully. But these days, I don’t feel the same way about that story at all. This is not really a story for children, is it? It is a story about the horrors of sin and the darkness of evil, when human beings make choice after choice to invite that evil into their hearts and then live out of darkness rather than light. And it’s about God’s exhaustion with all of us, about God’s disappointment with his creatures.

Ouch.

Thankfully, it is also a story of redemption, rebirth, and promises kept. It is also a story about God’s bow in the sky. It is also a precursor for the ultimate story of redemption that our season of Advent marks out for us. It serves as a pointer to Jesus, a reminder from pre-historic times that God seeks us out, that God welcomes us to begin again, that God wishes for us to flourish.

That’s the part we need to tell our children, right?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 – Day One

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Our bodies still groaning from exorbitant amounts of delicious food spread generously across our tables during the biggest holiday of the fall season, today’s move into Advent feels abrupt and vaguely out of focus.

Nevertheless, the time is now.

Now is the time to prepare for his coming.

Now is the time to begin the long wait.

Now is the time to light the candle, to sing the old, sweet songs, to read from the prophets and the gospels, to pick up the subtlest hint of evergreen in the air.

Now is the time to make space for the longing, to seek the ‘desire of the nations,’ to turn our eyes and our hearts toward Bethlehem, towards the truest home we can ever know this side of heaven.

Are you ready?

Welcome to Advent!

A Legacy — SheLoves, November 2016

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She fell down yesterday. No one saw it happen, but when she winced while they were getting her dressed, they spotted the fresh bruising, all down her flank. What happened? everyone wondered.

Who knows?

I was in telephone contact with the nurse and the staff and in text contact with my son the MD. Yes, she can bear weight. No, she was never unconscious. No, the doctor has not returned our FAX.

And so we waited it out. And I had to make some hard choices during that long night. If she broke something, would I authorize surgical treatment? No, I decided. I would not. At age 95, with only fitful eyesight, hearing and balance, and no working memory, surgery would wreak havoc with her diminishing brain cells and would not improve either the length or the quality of her life.

So I decided. And I wept.

And then today, when I went to see her, to assure myself that nothing had been broken, I carefully hugged and kissed her and said, “Oh, Mama, I am so sorry you fell down!”

“I did?” she asked, with an extremely puzzled look on her lovely face. “I have no memory of that happening.”

She was right. She has no memory. Of anything.

BUT I DO.

I remember — and still see —

I’m up earlier than usual over at SheLoves this month. Come over and read more of the memories I try to carry for my mother, why she is the one I consider my ‘legacy’ champion.

This Broken Life

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It began with a glorious sunrise, pinks and purples spreading across the landscape, a low layer of fog sitting right over the city below us. We moved to this home, this new-to-us-home, because as we gazed out at the future, we began to see . . . brokenness, the brokenness that comes to each of us as we age, as we wend our way through space and time. The great gift that landed in our laps when we chose to step into rather than avoid that inevitable kind of broken is this: this view of mountain and sea, of city and sidewalk, of sky, sky, sky.

A few hours later, the glory of early morning gave way to a sweet, crisp clarity at midday. I slipped behind the steering wheel and drove down the hill to my mama’s ‘home,’ that room-with-a-bath in the dementia unit, the only home she has had for the past four years. “I’ll take her down to the beach today,” I said aloud, to the closed chamber of my Honda CR-V, maybe saying it to God, as well. “She’ll love that.” 

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Mama and I have been living in the middle of a whole lot of broken for a long time now, the kind of broken that cannot be mended, this side of heaven. Our twice-weekly lunches out make her smile and because she cannot remember anything further back than the last two minutes, each trip is brand new to her, and therefore, quite wonderful. 

The conversational themes for this particular outing are a trio of repeated questions: “How did you come to find me and take me out today?” “How long has this place been here?” “Do you live near here somewhere?”

I pray for patience as I answer each query, over and over and over again. “I found you because I know you, because you are my mother and I love you.” “This town has been built over the last 250 years of so, Mama.” “Yes, Mom, I do live near here. Just a little ways up that hill.”

She is surprised, as she always is, that I am her daughter, that I have always known her. On this day, she does not turn to me with that anguished look and ask, “What is wrong with me, that I don’t know that??” This day, I don’t have to carefully tell her that her memory is broken and cannot be fixed. This day, I don’t have to see the sweet relief flash quickly over her face when she takes in the truth that something really is broken, broken beyond repair.

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There is a table available, right on the concrete that abuts the sand at Leadbetter Beach; I carefully steer her walker towards it, pulling out the plastic chair, being careful to seat her exactly right and then pushing her safely beneath the table. She spreads her hands out in front of her, crying out: “Oh, lovely, lovely! The sun is so warm! I am so happy to be here. Thank you so much for bringing me!”

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And just like that, the broken fades away for a moment and I can drink in her delight. Ann Voskamp, in her beautiful new book, “The Broken Way: a daring path into the abundant life,” talks about, “losing the day in love,” and finding a way to “break brokenness” by letting it fully come. 

Slowly, slowly, I am learning to let the brokenness of aging come. I see it in my mother, I see it in my husband, I see it in myself. And I am asking the kinds of questions that Ann asks: 

“Why are we afraid of broken things? . . . Why are we afraid of suffering? What if the abundance of communion is only found there in the brokenness of suffering — because suffering is where God lives? . . .What if I made a habit of every day pressing my wounds into the wounds of Christ — could my brokenness be made into a healing abundance for the brokenness of the world?” – pg. 34

I do not want to be afraid of aging, I do not want to be afraid of dying, I do not want to be afraid of the brokenness that is part and parcel of who we are as human creatures. I want to learn more about embracing the broken bits, about discerning the differences that Ann references between ‘good’ broken and ‘bad’ broken; I want to live into my identity as the Beloved for as long as I breathe. And then I want to celebrate the goodness of God in that place where every bit of our brokenness will be redeemed, transformed, burnished to a high gleam and offered as a gift of gratitude to our Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer — Father, Son, Spirit.

Mom and I enjoyed our lunch, even though, as soon as she withdrew her hands from the warm sunlight in the center of the table, she became vividly aware that the breeze was cool. At least three times she asked me if the visor I was wearing was helping me to stay warm by blocking that breeze. Three times, I tried to explain that a sun visor only works against the sun, not the wind. Finally, I took the visor off of my head and put it onto her lovely one. And she relaxed, convinced that now she would be warm enough.

On the way back to her unit, she began to sing, “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” Most of the time, I join with her as she sings in the car. But this time, I listened. And I thanked God that broken as she is, my mother knows who she is. She no longer knows her own name, nor any of the details of her story. But she knows who she is — she is a friend of Jesus.

And there is nothing broken about that. Not one thing.

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I received an Advanced copy of Ann Voskamp’s book in exchange for writing about it and featuring it on social media. It is my joy and privilege to invite you to read this book for yourself, to take your time with it, to read with a pen in hand and with fingers ready to turn down a page here and there. This one is a keeper.

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Sixteen

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We have a small fishing industry here in Santa Barbara. I love to see their small boats sitting just off shore during the various seasons of the year — lobster, crab, salmon. halibut, even sea cucumbers!

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They look tiny against the horizon, don’t they?

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This one was checking traps last week — you can see the trap markers to the left of the picture.
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Working boats and pleasure craft share our marina space and each type brings its own unique kind of beauty to our waterfront. I love to watch a graceful sloop or a sturdy looking catamaran sail by. But it is the working boats my eye is drawn to most often. Some of those boats have been part of the story of our town for decades, holding deliciousness in their freezers and hard working men and women at their helm.

Fishing is work. Yes, it is often pleasurable. But it is work, first and foremost. And somehow the phrasing of today’s quote from St. Paul of the Cross stirs in me a deep reminder of that truth. To fish in the sea of Christ’s sorrow is work, plain and not-so-simple. It does not come naturally to us to reflect on sad things, to step into another’s suffering and see what nourishment we might find there. But oh! It is good work. And necessary work.

Once again, the key word in this quote is ‘love.’ If we can firmly hold onto that powerful truth, everything changes. Christ willingly stepped into that sea of suffering because of divine love — divine love for human persons. This is the kind of ‘atonement theory’ that resonates with me at the deepest level: for God so loved the world. This is the bedrock truth of our faith and taking time to fish in these good waters is one of the healthiest and most life-giving things we can do.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Fourteen

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This was the view from that place of shadow and light I wrote about yesterday! A.Ma.Zing, right? The entire San Gabriel Valley was laid out below me, from the San Gabriel mountains all the way out to the foothills near Whittier and Covina. Stunning — there is no other word for it.

But. This view is not available to me while I’m walking the streets of Pasadena, where my husband and I spent 26 years of our lives. Nor is it available to my daughter and her family who live in Monrovia, just down the road a piece from my location that day. It’s there. It’s always there. But . . . unless you step out of your daily life for a bit and climb upwards, you truly have no clue.

Which is exactly why I am a big believer in retreats, especially retreats that take you somewhere with a unique vantage point . . . a view. What is about an expansive view that opens our souls?

Lots of things, I think.

We’re reminded of our own smallness, which is always a good thing. In the day to day, we can easily become overwhelmed with the myriad details and commitments of our lives. Taking intentional time away for a few hours can bring relief from that narrow focus.

A wide angle view also causes us to breathe more deeply — both physically and emotionally. Climb a bit of a hill and then turn around and look at what’s beneath you. I guarantee you will gasp, just a little bit. The wonder of it all forces your body to breathe differently for a second — and that is a very good thing. Learning to breathe with intentionality is a great prayer practice and often goes hand in hand with paying attention. If you live in a two-story house, just climbing the stairs and gazing out a window can sometimes do this very thing.

So . . . take a break. For 30 minutes or for a week! Lift yourself out of the dailyness for a small moment in time and see what you can see while you’re there.

You might be astonished.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Thirteen

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This was the veranda just down the hall from my room at Mater Dolorosa. During the night before this picture was taken, we were pleasantly surprised by a small rainstorm, something we have been sorely lacking for over five years now. When the sun came out that morning, it was glorious! Look at the shadow pattern created by the lattice work at the top of the porch. Remarkable.

I happen to love shadows. I’m not a big fan of a completely sunless day, unless it happens to be raining. So after the murkiness of the previous afternoon, I was delighted to see blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and clearly marked shadows everywhere I looked.

There is something powerful about contrasts, I think. They help us see things more clearly, bring added color to our view, even help show us where to go — and where not to go. Sometimes they can be disorienting, and some shadows are darker than I might wish! But overall, I am a fan. As is true for any metaphor, this one can be stretched beyond believability. No one goes through life looking for the darker places. But . . . they show up anyhow, don’t they. So why not pray for eyes to see what those ‘shadows’ might have for us to learn? Sometimes that learning won’t happen while we’re in the shadow’s shade, but only after we’ve stepped out of it and can look at the mark it leaves behind us. And some ‘lessons’ won’t be found this side of heaven, either.

But I wonder today — might it help us to hang onto the beauty of shade and light in pictures like the one above? If we could somehow imprint that loveliness on our mind’s eye, maybe it could help to steer us through some of the more shadowy events in our lives, offering hope that shadows always give way to light at some point. What do you think?

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Twelve

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Even though it came in the midst of a month of retreats and over-commitment, I signed up for a poetry workshop a few weeks ago. You need to understand that I am a lover of poetry, but not a writer of it. In point of fact, I find it terrifying and more than a little bit intimidating. But this small workshop was offered at our beautiful Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and was led by a favorite person, Dr. Paul Willis, Professor of Literature at Westmont College. So I gulped, and sent in my registration. We met in the beautiful library and quickly learned that we were going to spend 90 minutes together. During that time, we would hear a variety of poems, talk a bit about what we heard and then spend time practicing poetic thinking as we wandered the beautiful natural setting surrounding the museum.

Paul introduced us to a wonderful and practical way to pay attention. We were divided into groups of 4-5 people and told to wander the grounds for about 20 minutes, led by one member of our group at a time — in complete silence — to some slice of creation selected by that person for us to observe for a few minutes. Then, we were to write out a metaphor in poetic form about what we were seeing. That much ‘poetry’ I was willing to try!

Of course, I grabbed my camera for our silent walk. There were four people in my group and throughout this month, I’ll be interspersing both the picture and the words that came to me on that Saturday afternoon, with a bit of commentary, just for fun. Our first ‘leader’ was a young man, a recent graduate of Westmont, who fairly quickly took our quartet over to this bushy shrub. Not a lot to look at, you might think. But we each came up with something. It was such fun to read them all — just within our group of four — at the end of the workshop. Here’s mine . . .

a 4-sided star
brightens the
dark-hued stem,
waiting its turn
to darken
and fall

It’s hard to see from this photo that the leaves were in quartets on this shrub. I noticed that almost all my metaphors circled around a common refrain of transition/change/aging. Hmmm. . . wonder why that might be?

I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise and heartily recommend it as a practical way to practice paying attention. Give it a try and let me know how you like it!

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Eleven

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That Catholic retreat center I visited in southern California had several lovely sets of stairs hidden here and there. This one led up to a central fountain area, with benches and small grassy areas. I am drawn to tiles of all kinds, and find the repeating — though slightly different — pattern on these steps restful and lovely to look at. Yellow, blue, white, terra cotta offer a soft palette to the eye. Repeated geometric patterns are also soothing, lovely without being intrusive in any way. 

I focussed my camera on the steps alone this year, trying to pay more attention than usual to the craftsmanship, the subtle gradations in color, evidences of wear and tear. Our small group of spiritual directors was last in this place about 18 months ago, and on that trip I took these pictures. Hunting for them as I began to lay out this month’s posts, I remembered more clearly the setting for the stairs I focussed on this year. Can you see how lovely it all looks?

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As we reflected a few days ago, sometimes you need to change your perspective, your point of view, in order to see something new. So I offer these earlier photos as a way to underscore that powerful truth. The steps alone are intriguing, colorful, beautifully crafted. But seen in their larger setting? They become spectacular, beckoning the visitor to climb, climb, climb.

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And if you choose to climb, this restful spot awaits. A curving bench, under the hanging branches of bright green tree.

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And the refreshing music of water gently dropping into a pond.  

Paying attention can lead us in so much beauty!