My Favorite Kind of Story

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Two years ago, I wrote the following review of a book written by a friend of mine named Shawn Smucker. I loved it then and even helped to kick-start his self-publishing journey. Now, a major publishing house has brought out a new edition, with a stunning new cover, but the same wondrous story. It’s a keeper and a repeater, friends, and I encourage you to order yourself a copy — and get one for a friend, while you’re at it!

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It all started with a tree, didn’t it? And that theme of trees winds its way throughout scripture and throughout our lives, unfolding in myriad ways — as metaphor, sustenance, shade, comfort, even horror. The tree.

Shawn Smucker has woven a fantastic and beautiful story about a particular tree, a re-imagining of the story of the tree of life. The story begins unpretentiously, maybe even a little slowly, but if you’ll settle in, let the beauty of his words flow in and around you, I will guarantee you that you’ll be hooked.

Hooked, I tell you!

This is masterful story-telling — intriguing idea, fascinating characters, great conflict and an empathetic look at how very difficult it is for us to lose someone we love. This is, in many ways, a story about death. But do not be deceived: the book is definitely not a downer. It’s a grab-you-by-the-throat, make-you-think-as-well-as-feel, turn-our-ordinary-ideas-on-their-heads kind of book and I highly recommend it to you. Highly.

Samuel is both an old man and a 12 year old boy in this story, an old man looking back at a pivotal summer in his life. A hot, drippy, menacing summer in the valley between two mountain ranges in central Pennsylvania. He has a good friend, a girl named Abra (which happens to be the name of one of Smucker’s daughters, as Samuel is the name of one of his sons). And there is a mysterious neighbor, an even more mysterious stranger, a grieving father, and the memories of a beautiful and loving mom. There is also a carnival, three very strange old women and an antique store, to say nothing of thunder and lightning and ancient, broken trees here and there.

And there is a search here, too, a search that reveals the true hero of this piece. There is also an epic battle between good and evil, and like all good fantasies, some dang good, nail-biting, cliff-hanging scenes sprinkled throughout.

I LOVED this book. And there is just a hint, at the very end, that there might be more of them in the future. Oh, glory!

Get thee to a bookstore or over to Amazon and order this one ASAP. And carve out some weekend time to devour it. Because I’m here to tell you – it’s a tough one to put down!

The Last Word . . . and the First — A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

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The Last Word . . . and the First
Colossians 1:11-20
November 20, 2016
Montecito Covenant Church
Diana R.G. Trautwein

So. Here we are. The last Sunday of the church year, standing on the threshold of the holidays, which are barreling toward us with alarming speed. We’ve just come through — some of us, just barely! — one of the most difficult and vitriolic election campaigns in our national history.

Our pastor of eleven years has left us, heading for parts east. Many of us are reeling from personal pain and loss — illness, injury, surgery, difficult medical treatment, looming divorce, death. Some of us are dealing with school projects that feel overwhelming, or tricky relationships with friends or dorm-mates. Some of us are entertaining friends and family this next week; some of us are traveling to gather with others; some of us wonder how we’ll celebrate at all. By and large, I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most, of us in this room are carrying around multiple layers of sadness. Maybe even a sense of hopelessness,if we’re honest.

But . . . we’re here. Ready to worship, ready to listen, ready to sing, ready to pray. And, I think it is ALSO fair to say, very ready to hope.

The passage before us this morning is one that is assigned by the church lectionary, that revolving list of scriptures that takes us through most of the Bible over a 3-year span. It’s a text that beautifully expresses the theme of this day in our church calendar. And it is a passage that calls us to HOPE.

Many of the words in our sermon text today — the last six verses, in fact — actually come from what most scholars guess is an old song, a hymn of praise, something that was part of the liturgy used by the early community of Jesus followers when they gathered to worship God together.

It’s a song in two stanzas, with some lovely parallel lines and repeated words between them. And it’s a song that, in addition to its majestic, descriptive language, uses a long string of very small words. Small, but oh-so-important. Please listen for them as I read the passage for you this morning.Those little words are called prepositions. Remember those?

Hear the word of the Lord for this ‘Christ the King Sunday,’ as it comes to us from the letter to the Christians at Colossae, a smallish 1st century city which was moving steadily into the economic backwaters of its day. Somewhere in that town, a group of believers was learning what it means to live out the gospel in truth and love. This small letter was written to that small group sometime in the second half of the first century, so the words we have before us have been around for a long, long time.

They are beautiful and they are remarkable for how well they lay out a complex series of ideas about two central truths: who Jesus Christ is and who the church is. I will be reading from the New Revised Standard Version and I will actually begin with verse 11, which comes in the middle of an opening prayer for these believers.

These are the words of that continuing prayer:

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

 

And then, beginning with verse 15, we find that two stanza hymn — here it is:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

 Whether it was the apostle Paul himself or a devoted disciple of his who penned the words of this lovely little letter, no one seems to be completely certain. Whoever it was — and for ease in understanding, I’m going to call him ‘Paul’ –I’m grateful we have this letter in our Bible, and I’m deeply grateful for the powerful truths it contains.

This is a pastoral letter, written out of deep concern for the spiritual health and well-being of a beloved group of people, people who have been visited by some ‘new’ teachers who are introducing some interesting and quite wrong-headed ideas.

Most of the letters in our New Testament were written to try and help a particular congregation through one kind of troubling situation or other, and Colossians is no exception. After the passage before us today, the letter spells out those troubling ideas a bit more clearly. Some of them seem to have Jewish roots, some of them Greek. ALL of them carry the weight of, ‘what you’ve got is not enough.’

“Well, yes, of course,” these teachers are saying. “It’s good that you’re following in the way of Jesus. But you know that’s not enough, don’t you? You need to add a few things — there are some foods which should be avoided, there are some holidays which should be observed, you’re being much too contaminated by the things of this earth and you need to live a far more rigorous lifestyle, and you should definitely be worshipping and placating the angels and the powerful astral powers all around us. You see, Jesus just isn’t enough.”

“Oh yeah,” says Paul. “I don’t think so.”

And this hymn, these lovely, strong words about the supremacy and the sufficiency of Christ alone, they are the answer to all of the “Jesus AND” kind of teaching being thrown at the Colossian church. Christ is enough. Christ is MORE than enough. Christ is . . . Well . . . let’s look at what Christ is for a minute, shall we?

The piece of that pastoral prayer that we read at the beginning of our passage today tells us that because of Jesus Christ, we are transferred from darkness into light, that we have the strength we need to endure anything that life may throw at us because we now belong to that light-filled kingdom, where sins are forgiven and we are redeemed.

Then, stanza one of this exquisitely crafted hymn tells us that Christ is the very image of the invisible God, in whom, through whom, and for whom everything was created. Not only that, but Christ came first — before any of what we see around us ever came into being — and he still — right now, this instant — holds it all together.

Digging back into the opening words in the book of Genesis, picking up imagery from the book of Exodus, borrowing from the wisdom tradition in Proverbs and the Psalms, this bold hymn threads all of it together in ways that also resonate with the glorious prologue in the gospel of John. This song is about as powerful as a song could ever be, declaring that Jesus Christ is pre-existent, pre-eminent, and supreme over the entire created order.

So . . . what was that about Jesus and . . .?

As if that wasn’t enough, stanza two adds these ideas: in addition to being the ‘firstborn of all creation, ‘Christ is the firstborn from the dead,’ indicating that by his resurrection, Christ has now ushered in a new creation, called the church, of which he is head, by which he inaugurates a new Age of Redemption and Reconciliation.

As the hymn builds to its conclusion, it begins to answer this question: what is the instrument, the means by which this new creation is made available to us? Where is that place where Old and New meet, where the First Word and the Last Word come together in one weary, beat-up, itinerant preacher? Where is the throne for this grand Cosmic Christ, this King of ALL Creation, old and new?

It’s at the top of a hill, just outside the city gates of 1st Century Jerusalem where the One in whom, “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” died the death of a criminal, uttering the words, “Father, forgive them.” “Father, forgive them.”  

That dying man on the tree is the very one that Paul is describing in this passage, the very one sung about in this ancient hymn from the early church. Christ, you see, is not the last name of a man named Jesus. Christ IS Jesus. Jesus IS Christ, the King of Creation, the Head of the Church, the one whose blood was shed for you and for me.

And Jesus Christ is more than enough, my friends. MORE than enough.

You know, the world we live in today — the world right here in Santa Barbara — our world no longer believes in astral powers. And it doesn’t put a lot of credence in angelology, either. Most of us aren’t bothered by anyone telling us we need to eat differently, or celebrate different religious holidays or practice some kind of strange ritual in order to be truly safe, truly saved.

But you know what? We all do battle with that same “Jesus and . . .” mentality. That scarcity mindset that subtly or not so subtly tells us we haven’t quite got it right, that there is more we need to do, more we need to know, more we need to become, more.

For some of us, that might mean that we put way too much of our trust and our hope in systems — political and economic systems. Maybe we try to maximize the benefits of those systems in some way. Maybe we believe that if we vote for one candidate or another, the world will change . . . or not change.

Maybe it’s right belief — if we just get a really good handle on this fine point of doctrine — and if we make sure that no one else deviates from it, not even a little bit, then everything will work out well, we will be safe and saved.

Maybe it’s knowledge — if we learn more, if we master this or that technique, if we put our trust in science or psychology or the arts, then we’ll know enough, we’ll understand enough to be okay.

Maybe it’s about spiritual practices and disciplines, adding another arrow to the quiver of techniques to make us holy. If we just add in a little of this or a little of that, then we’ll get it, then we’ll be really saved.

Now not one of these things is a bad thing, in and of itself. It’s what we believe about these possible add-ons that can bring us to the same kind of wrongheadedness that the Colossian Christians were battling. It’s what we believe about these things that can cause us to live as though it’s really about Jesus AND . . . something else, anything else.

And when we find ourselves in that place, there is somewhere else we need to go, somewhere else we need to sit for a while. We need to go back to our baptism. We need to remember that we are buried with Christ in that water, that we are raised up to new life in him as we emerge.

And we need a baptized view of reality, one in which we KNOW that Jesus Christ has redeemed creation and is always in the process of reconciliation — reconciling the world to God and us to our right and true selves.

And then, we need to remember that since the time of the ascension, since the day of Pentecost, WE are now the transforming power of God at work in this world. That is who we are, because that is who Christ calls and empowers us to be. Seven verses after the close of the passage before us this morning, we find these life-changing words: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

CHRIST IN US, THE HOPE OF GLORY.

There is nothing to add to that, my friends. Not one thing.

Some of you know that a big part of my own journey these days is centered around my aging mother’s struggle with dementia. I’ve written about it quite a bit and have been stunned to discover just how many people are walking this difficult, confusing, sometimes frightening, and very lonely road. Those of you who are on our church email prayer chain will see at the bottom of each week’s prayer list an item called “Ongoing Concerns.” My mom is on that short list.

Her name is Ruth Gold.

She is now 95 years old, severely limited by macular degeneration, hearing loss and physical frailty, which too often results in falling down. About eight or nine years ago, she began to show some alarming signs of deep confusion and she herself wanted a neurological work-up. Those findings resulted in her move to assisted living a little over five years ago, in a sweet little 2-room unit across the street from her original apartment at the retirement community in which she lived in southern California. That move happened soon after we celebrated her 90th birthday in our backyard with about 40 of her friends and family. I am so glad we did that!

Almost four years ago, the director of that unit told me they could no longer manage her care, and my mother was able to agree that moving closer to us was a good idea. So my husband and I began to research different kinds of memory care facilities near us. She chose to go to Heritage Court at the Samarkand and it is a good, good place for her to be.

During that year before we moved her up here at the beginning of 2013, I was completing my training in spiritual direction under the teaching of some fine Benedictine Charismatic Catholics at the Mission Retreat center here in town. One of our lectures that year was on the doctrine of the Cosmic Christ — the very topic of our passage this morning. We did a theological reflection exercise using some teaching from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a priest who was also a scientist, and who lived and wrote in the middle of the 20th century. His background in the French Catholic church included an idea called the Sacred Heart of Christ, something that was totally foreign to me as a Protestant pastor!

But as I prayerfully tried to think about how the ideas of the Cosmic Christ and the Sacred Heart might have something to say to my own life, the image that God gave me was a picture, a mental picture, of my small, confused mama SAFE in the great, sacred heart of the Cosmic Christ. Safe though her memory is almost completely gone. Safe though she no longer knows who I am. Safe though she no longer knows who she is. She is SAFE.

And that picture, that image, has made all the difference these past four years.

Because here is what I have borne witness to in these years since she moved to Santa Barbara; here is the truth that she teaches me, every time we are together.

Even in the midst of her mental and physical debility, my mother gives evidence to the transforming power of God at work in this world. My mother lives the truth of Colossians 1. Let me tell you how.

She has known Jesus personally since she was a teenager. That’s a long time.When I lived in her home, she read deeply and widely in the Christian classics, and, among other acts of service, taught Sunday school to girls who were juniors in high school for over a decade. I remember seeing her in prayer for them and for our family every morning when I got up. She taught me everything I know about speaking in front of large groups of people, was one of the funniest women I ever met, and she loved her life. She was not perfect, of course, but she was good. And kind, probably one of the very best things any of us can ever be. Her faith in Jesus Christ is a part of her DNA and her relationship to our Triune God is the center of everything.

If you were to see her, you would think she is lovely. And she is. Why?

Because she smiles at everyone she sees. She reaches out and asks, “How are you today?” She says, “My, but you look lovely!” She laughs readily and often. She tells everyone that she loves them. Occasionally, she is even capable of making a wry remark, usually at her own expense. EVERYONE who works in Smith Health Center knows who she is. And they all light up with a huge smile whenever they see her coming in her walker as we go out to lunch twice each week. I even had an administrator tell me that she went by Heritage Court regularly to get her “Ruth fix,” something that helped her get through some of the more difficult parts of her job.

Mom literally sheds light wherever she goes.

My mother has been transferred to the kingdom of light, you see. She has been rescued from the powers of darkness, even when her mind seems dark to me. And she is an agent of light in this world. She is.

Am I?
Are you?

Because that is THE question we need to be asking ourselves as we take in the powerful words of Colossians, chapter one. What kind of a difference do these truths make in the way we choose to life our lives? If Christ is indeed supreme, if Christ is indeed sufficient, if Christ alone is all that we need, how shall we then live?

When our candidate loses the election, do we lament? Yes, of course, we do. When our spouse walks out on us, do we mourn? Oh, yes, we mourn. When we get a diagnosis that terrifies us, do we say so and weep? Yes, we weep and we worry. When we don’t get the grade we were hoping for, when a friend says an unkind thing, when we are misunderstood and feel undervalued, yes, we admit the pain that comes with all of those things. After all, the work of the kingdom is always a work in process, isn’t it?

So yes, we admit the struggle. Our text reminds us to ‘be prepared to endure everything with patience’ – so yes, there is going to be a whole lot of enduring in this life, that is for certain sure.

But then. But then, we live as the light we are.

We are to live as Jesus lived — we reach to the edges, we see those who are unseen, we speak up for those who are not heard, we bring dinner to the park, we write our representatives, we take care of the world that our Cosmic Christ created for us to enjoy and to steward, we work for inclusion, we call out racism, we refuse to tolerate bullying, we seek justice for all, we offer hope to the hopeless, beginning with ourselves.

WE SHED LIGHT WHEREVER WE GO.

And we do it because at the bottom of it all — whatever pain and sadness we are carrying, whatever fear we are battling, whatever difficult life situation may present itself — at the bottom of it all, we are people who hope. We are the new creation, Christ’s very body at work in this world. We are the CHURCH.

 And that is a good, good gift.

Are you ready to shed light, wherever you go? Are you willing to be the church?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 Ten

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Yes!! Love IS ingenious! When we are living out of a place of love, creativity soars, diversity is welcome, old truths take on fresh new meanings. I love this small line of text, maybe because it is surprising. “Ingenious” is not an adjective often applied to the noun “love,” but somehow it is perfect, don’t you think?

Jesus was a person of surprises. Teaching the upside-down nature of the kingdom of God, touching lepers, welcoming children — even telling us to be like children if we truly wish to know God. He told stories, he did not pontificate. He was not afraid of truth-telling, but as Eugene Peterson so beautifully used Emily Dickenson’s gorgeous line, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant. . . ,” Jesus always told that truth sideways, upending expectations and astonishing listeners.

Do we astonish others regularly? Do we do so out of that centered place of living loved and living love? I do believe this is the only way forward out of any morass in which we might find ourselves.

Love-centered ingenuity! I love it!

And this surprising oasis-like fountain surround by palm trees at the base of the San Gabriel mountains is a picture of what it can look like. A beauty spot, right there atop a middle-class suburb, inviting one and all to stop a while, to pay attention, to savor the ingenious love of the creator, given expression by the willing hands and hearts of human artisans. 

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Nine

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Do you see that lovely arch out there? It is the source of the name of the state park in which it is located – Natural Bridges. We drove out there from our retreat center fairly early in the morning of our first full day. Discovering that it would cost us ten bucks to drive onto the campground, we opted to go in the opposite direction, toward the parking lot right at the edge of the cliff that overlooks this rock. From that viewpoint, this is what we saw:

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Do you see any sign of that lovely arch from this angle?

Nada. Zilch. Nope. 

Your point of view, your perspective, your position makes a huge difference in what you can actually see. I’ve had days, I’ve had seasons, I’ve had YEARS when parts of my life looked like a solid, dark wall. And then, a simple shift in my viewpoint, a slight difference in my perspective, a new angle of vision made all the difference in the world. 

At no point in time can we see every possibility that exists in a given situation. WE don’t have the power, the ability, the intelligence, the vantage point to make such a thing possible. But . . . there is Someone who does. There is Someone who can. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is to wait. To trust that with the passage of time and the accumulation of more experience, the gathering of more facts, the readiness to engage in more of those ongoing conversations in life, we will begin to see an old, impossibly bleak problem with freshness and new insight. Maybe that blank wall has a lovely big hole in it! Maybe we can sail our small craft of a life right on through it and come out the other side with a deeper appreciation for the beauty of a brand new view.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Eight

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Yes, this is the very photo from which the button for this series was created. At that same University arboretum where we discovered the buckeye butterfly posted yesterday, we also enjoyed wandering through a long and winding World Gardens pathway. And our eyes were drawn immediately to a wide variety of these strange and wonderful flowering shrubs called protea.

Protea are native to South Africa but are showing up more and more in southern California landscapes. The conditions between the two climates are remarkably similar. How do I know that? Because many years ago, my husband and I spent a tiny bit of time in South Africa on our way up to our home-for-two-years-as-newlyweds in Choma, Zambia. Surprisingly, these plants also seem to thrive on the sloping hills of Haleakala on the island of Maui in the Hawaiian archipelago, a much more tropical and humid environment. They are hardy, unusual and quite beautiful, in their own unique way. The one above was the first fully open bloom on a huge bush full of buds. The bush was at least two feet taller than I was, so the display must be spectacular right about now.

This smaller, lower to the ground variety is similar to ones sold in grocery store flower markets and is commonly called a pincushion protea. Can you see why?
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And this one, I’ve never seen before. It looks for all the world like a particularly capacious ear of corn, doesn’t it? This bush was also quite large — more like a small tree — and was covered in these interesting, bright yellow blooms.

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Paying attention to protea helps me to remember that God delights in variety. It also reminds me that what might at first seem strange and peculiar to my untrained eye might be a source of refreshment and appreciation to someone who has grown up with these prolific flowering shrubs. Sometimes, it’s what you’re used to, isn’t it? And it’s really, really good for me to see things I am not used to. To try out new ideas, meet new people, consider a perspective different than my own. What about you? 

 

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Seven

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During the only unscheduled time available to us while on that retired pastors’ retreat, we took a side trip to the Arboretum at the University of California Santa Cruz — a beautiful spot to practice paying attention. There was a tiny butterfly garden in one corner and this guy was flitting from flower to flower, sipping the nectar and showing off his magnificent coloring. This one is called a buckeye and is very common along the California coast. Strangely, however, I don’t think we’ve ever seen one in Santa Barbara during our 20 year sojourn in this place.

Look at the color on this dude. The basics are plain to the point of drabness — just plain ole brown. But then . . . there are those large orange eyes, the white lines and circles, and not clearly seen in this photo, a shimmering violet color with a hot pink edge in the center of the spots on the lower wings. (check it out here). 

This lovely small thing was unperturbed by our presence that warm, late summer afternoon, allowing me to take his picture pretty easily. And it is the picture I took that allows me to pay attention to him, to wonder about his evolution, to thank God for creating such beauty for our enjoyment, and to say a mental ‘thank you’ to the butterfly itself for its contributions to the pollination of plants up on that sea coast hillside. 

A scientist named Lorenz came up with the formula for what he called, ‘the butterfly effect,’ a long-held but previously unproven belief that tiny movements can have huge outcomes. Here’s the more complicated wording for this idea:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

Somehow, the whole idea of ‘chaos theory’ just reeks of God to me. To our eyes, so much of what happens in this world appears to be chaotic, doesn’t it? And yet when you add the word ‘theory’ to the word ‘chaos,’ somehow it takes on layers of meaning hidden beneath the turmoil that appears on the surface of things. I cannot know what ripples in the biosphere might be unleashed by this guy’s flapping wings. 

But God can. God does. Thank you, Lord, that the limits of my understanding do not in any way reflect the reality of life. Thank you that you are the Steadying Force in the midst of what looks like a whole lotta unsteadiness in this wacky world of ours. Help me to remember that truth — send butterflies my way when I get lost in hopelessness and worry. 

 

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Five

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There was an elderly redwood tree right outside our bedroom door. The top of it looked a bit forlorn, like it had survived a lot of rough weather. That tree had been around a while. But on my way back to our room after the allotted twenty minutes for mindfulness, I took another look at that old tree and found all kinds of new life springing out of its lowest point. The old codger was not givin’ up the ghost anytime soon with all that burgeoning newness!

Those of you who have subscribed to my newsletter know that I’ve been struggling a bit this year with the realities of aging, occasionally feeling a bit superfluous, even invisible in the youth-oriented culture around us. God has been poking me about all of that, reminding me that age is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. Yes, I must move a bit more carefully. Yes, I tire a little bit more easily. Yes to all of those signs of time passing. But the key is to remember that time is not passing me by. If I so choose, my life can continue to be about newness until the day I leave this planet. As I watch my mom walk further and further into the vagueness of dementia, even there, I can see beauty, signs of newness. Even there.

So I will continue to smile, to pray regularly for kindness and patience to rise to the top in my conversations, particularly with the ones inside my own home, to nurture an open spirit and reject the closing of my mind to new ideas, new people, new directions.

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I love this close-up shot of all that newness around the bottom of that old tree! 90% is green and flourishing. The other 10% is evidence of old things fading away and dropping to the ground. That’s how I want to live — fresh, green, willingly jettisoning old ideas and attitudes. May it be so.

 

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