When Forces Collide — for SheLoves, November, 2018: Gathering

It’s time to write my monthly essay for SheLovesMagazine. You can begin here and then follow this link and finish it off. I’d love to hear your own thoughts and experiences around those seasons when forces collide in your life.

There are seasons when troubles seem to multiply like rabbits. I’ve lived through a few such seasons in my life and they are always tumultuous. It feels like all the gathering winds are blowing in opposite directions and the resulting chaos becomes the new normal.

A decade ago, our family walked through the valley as my elder daughter’s husband passed from this life to the next after a long struggle, a life-and-death struggle of mammoth proportions, in which they were both exceptionally brave. In the middle of all that horror, my daughter actually had a friend — who was in ministry! — come into her home and say to her, “God will never give you more than you can manage.”

You wanna bet?

Personally, I think God often makes a point of allowing ‘more than we can manage’ to barrel into our lives on a regular basis. And just to be clear here, the biblical admonition being badly misquoted to my daughter has absolutely nothing to do with suffering. It has to do with temptation, and that is a very different ball of wax, in my book.

Suffering is part of life. It simply is. Hard and terrible things happen — people get sick, fires rage, floods ravage, wars erupt. Even smaller scale complications can feel overwhelming at times. Sick kids — not unto death, but unto eternity (or at least that’s what it feels like!), appliances breaking down, not enough month at the end of the money, multiple failed attempts at resurrecting a broken relationship — all of it adds up. All of it can make you feel as though you don’t have enough wits, energy or will to find some kind of resistance or remedy.

So today, I have a question for you: do you feel like life is beating you up at this moment in time? Like no matter how many times you set the pins up right, some giant bowling ball from the sky just comes along and blindsides every dang one of them? I hear you, my friend. I hear you. And I want to offer you a small shard of hope. . . 

To continue reading this piece, please follow this link and join the conversation over at SheLoves Magazine, one of my favorite spaces out here in cyberspace.

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Sixteen

img_0663

 

IMG_7990

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!

img_0980

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

img_0981

This one was checking traps last week — you can see the trap markers to the left of the picture.
img_0514
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.

paying-attention-300

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Fifteen

img_0687

The longer I live, the more I welcome and appreciate the celebration of the sacraments — eucharist and baptism. Setting aside everyday things like bread, wine/juice and water, and then inviting the Spirit of God to bless those simple things in an extraordinary way — well, it’s the best thing going, at least for me. Which made my experience of communion this month difficult for me. The truth is — I was distracted. We had guests whom we did not know well seated with us, I was singing in the choir, which required me to to exit my row just before the words were spoken and then take the elements in the balcony, where things were a tiny bit confusing. All of it added up to my not paying attention well and thereby missing the point.

Paying attention is important in lots of ways, it seems.

When I was on retreat in early September, the tiny group of us gathered at Mater Dolorosa enjoyed a small, intimate service of communion together in the beautiful chapel on the grounds there. The goblet and plate pictured above were part of that service.

Sometimes in small communion services, the leader will invite people to go forward alone — to partake when they feel ‘ready.’ Always, always, always — this jars me and I cannot do it. My understanding of the sacrament of the Lord’s Table is that it is communal — even if the community is as small as one bed-ridden parishioner and one pastor — and that the elements are offered, one to the other. They are received, not taken. That might seem like a pretty fine distinction to some, but for me it’s an important one. So my good friend, Sherry, who was seated next to me (and with whom I’ve had conversations about this very thing) whispered to me, “Would you like to go up with me and offer it to one another?”

And so we did. Then each of the other three opted to receive them from one of us, too. It felt right to pay attention to that small detail and I’m glad we did.

Our church community enjoyed the second sacrament a bit unusually last month. The picture below is of our beautiful baptismal bowl, made for us by the same talented Seattle artist who designed all of our stained glass windows. I love it’s curves, its soft turquoise color and the way the water is both visible and invisible within it. In our tradition, we offer both infant and adult, or believer, baptism. This particular baptism was an ‘adult’ one, but it was for a 4-year old boy. A special 4-year-old boy who had talked it over carefully with his parents and with his pastors and very clearly said that he understood what it meant and why it was important. And so, all of us together, listened to and then spoke the words together, the beautiful words that signify our remarkable passage from death to life, the words that commit us to one another as a body of believers.

And I loved paying attention to every word.

img_0723

Liturgy is important in my life. What about you? Do you enjoy beautiful words of worship that are familiar and frequent?

paying-attention-300

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Fourteen

img_0675

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.

paying-attention-300

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Thirteen

img_0674

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?

paying-attention-300

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Twelve

img_0706

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

dsc07784

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?

img_4968

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.

img_4971

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

img_0673

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

Paying attention can lead us in so much beauty!

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Ten

img_0662

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. 

img_0660

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Nine

img_0742

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:

img_0735

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.

paying-attention-300

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Eight

img_0752

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?
img_0761

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.

img_0778

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? 

 

paying-attention-300