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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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Four

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Walking back from the bridge to the open, green central space of our retreat center, I turned around and was struck by the contrast of the redwood giants, dark against the lightening sky. Somehow, it reminded me of life, how the dark juxtaposes itself right up against the light and together, they make a beautiful picture. It is also true, that if the angle of the sunshine were shifted slightly, those dark trees would not be nearly as dark as they appear at this time of day.

That, too, speaks truth to me. With the passage of time, the hopeful maturation of our minds and spirits, and the gifts that come our way in the meantime, those dark times look less menacing, don’t they? 

Both analogies hold, I think. Not necessarily together, at the same time — but they each cradle pieces of the truth for us. Life is both light and dark together. And the dark places can look different from different angles. I don’t mean to downplay the reality of darkness, no way. Life is often very hard, indeed. But because we know a God who majors in redemption, we can also know that darkness is not all there is. We can know that darkness and difficulty do not tell the whole story, nor do they last forever. They may mark us forever, that cannot be denied, nor should it be. Pain is pain and it ain’t fun. But as Leonard Cohen so famously and beautifully put it, it’s through the cracks that the light gets out. 

So today, I am praying that I can hold well the tension of light and dark, of suffering and success, of power and weakness, of wholeness and brokenness. What about you?

 

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Three

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After meditating briefly on the bridge, I turned back toward the center green area at the retreat site. The mist was breaking away quickly now and this bright spot of color called my name. Purple and green — a favorite color combo — and this particular plant is one that is ubiquitous in the California landscape. It’s called Mexican Sage and the hummingbirds love it. You hack it down every winter, right back to the ground, and by late spring it’s standing tall once again, it’s cheerful stalks inviting the returning busy-birds to partake of their nectar.

I want to be open to effective pruning. I don’t much like it, but I know that it helps me to be a sturdier and more productive plant, with blooms that are life-giving — for me and for others. And I wonder: who are the ‘hummers’ in my life? How can I reach out and offer sweetness to them? Will I trust the Gardener’s technique, believing that the good work of pruning and shaping will result in longer life, brighter colors?

Help me to trust you more, Lord. 

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Two

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I grabbed my camera and headed out into the cool damp of the morning on that first day of hand-out distribution. I, too, was eager to ‘pay attention,’ and I wanted to do it while moving enough to keep myself warm. The retreat center was located in the middle of a redwood grove, family cabins nestled among their branches, creek beds making a circle around the grounds. I headed to the bridge, overlooking the stream that had only ‘yesterday,’ surged beyond its boundaries, completely destroying the only entrance to the camp. 

That ‘yesterday’ was before the onslaught of our current severe drought, however. And peering over the edge brought no sight of water, no hint of moisture. I was disappointed, having hoped-against-hope that this place might somehow be immune to the devastation that has invaded our beautiful state over the last five years of minimal rain. There were still ferns, way down there at the bottom, so some moisture must remain below the surface.

I wonder — is there enough good, life-giving nourishment buried beneath my layers to sustain me during seasons of drought? Lord, remind me of your Life in me.

And then I strolled over to the other side of the bridge, and this is what met my eyes and my camera:

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A puddle, that’s all it was. But it was wet! It shone in the flickering morning sun which was slowly emerging from the mist. The ferns leafed larger and brighter on this side of the bridge, lifting their delicate fronds to the breeze. I breathed a prayer of thanks that the Water of Life never disappears, even when times are difficult and dry. And I wondered — am I willing to look for the puddles, to suss out the small spaces where God is watering my soul?

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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.

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!

Giving Thanks, for All of It


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I sit on our lanai, looking out over the bay beneath us, surrounded by tropical mountain tops, colorful flowering plants, and the gentle sound of doves.

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This is a paradise, a gift to us all on this summer morning, and I am grateful. More grateful than I can say.

Those I love are well and happy, playing tennis or golf, doing jigsaw puzzles, playing marathon games of Monoply, taking hikes or bike rides, enjoying the warm, turquoise sea.

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We’re heading out to a special anniversary dinner tonight, and we’ve collected a few things to share while we’re all around one table. A love letter from Dick’s mom to his dad, one of our loveliest discoveries while sorting through 50 years of accumulated stuff the past six weeks. And a letter from his dad, after our trip to this same island 35 years ago to celebrate their 50th. A small photo album from my parents’ 50th anniversary venture to this same place is in that pile, too, along with a letter from me to Dick on our 45th. We have small gifts for everyone to say ‘thank you’ for completing our family circle and to mark this time away together. Yes, we’re all feeling blessed, grateful, and glad to be here.

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Not that it’s been an easy journey to this time, this place. No. Not easy. We lost someone we loved very much on this family journey, although I see him in his son’s faces, hear him in their inflections, their chatter with one another.

All of our parents are gone now, except my mom, who doesn’t remember ever being here — or ever being married, for that matter. Every one of us has had health issues of one kind or another over these years — it goes with the territory. But now, right now, we are well. And for that, we give thanks.

Not everyone we know and love can say the same thing this day. One friend has biopsies scheduled for tomorrow — brain tumors. Another is in ICU for the second week, recovering from a severe and terrifying health attack. One of my dearest friends is tending a scarily frail husband following a stroke. Another is recovering from radiation treatment, yet another facing into similar treatment very soon. One friend’s unborn child is carrying scary portents in his small body; another is living out the bittersweet reality of Downs syndrome. 

We are such frail creatures, and yet . . . Even bearing scars and infirmities, we are wonders, intricate and profoundly sacred. Image-bearers all, and so often those with the deepest scars are the ones who reflect the clearest image. 

So today, amid the blessings and the obvious gifts, I also give thanks for the scars, the wounds, the struggle. Because these things are what have formed and shaped us, like it or not. We are who we are because of what we’ve lived — all of it. The good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. And I will give thanks for it, with hands open and heart unafraid.

A small sparrow lands on the table before me, one talon missing. Standing on the tabletop, this creature is off balance, out of kilter. But as he swoops away, all awkwardness vanishes. And all I see is glory. Glory. GLORY.

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