Gone Fishin’ (and great news)

There comes a time in every woman’s summer when she has to step away.  Out of the routine, off the treadmill, away from work, offline.  That time is now for me.

I thought about loading up the Kindle for ease of packing and lightweight luxuriousness during my travels and time out.  Then I thought again.

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I want to feel the heft of a book in my hands and hear the crinkly plastic covering of a library book.  I want to smell the pages and feel them turn between my fingers.  Most of all, I simply want to be attentive to my physical surroundings rather than being distracted by pings and messages and stories from other far away places while I’m trying to read.  I anticipate the pleasures of lingering over a page wondering where that town is without the incessant invitation to open a browser window and look it up on a map.

Far away stories will have to come through the portal of my imagination, mingling with a writer’s words, put down in black and white on paper.  No hypertext (or email or Facebook) for this vacation.

So I made a trip to the library, like we did every week when I was growing up.  Since I don’t do this much any more, maybe part of this book-in-the-hand longing is nostalgia.  So be it.  In the week leading into our vacation, we’ve buried a family member and will toast a longtime family friend at her wedding.  If a stack of library books and a little nostalgia is the result of this swirl of events and emotions, I’m good with that.

As I make room in the car for the giant stack of books, I am making room in my spirit for the people and stories right in front of me.  Here’s my gone fishin’ sign.  I’ll see you again back here in a few weeks.

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And now for the news…

I’m so pleased to announce Snow Day has been accepted into the CCblogs network.  You’ll see the bright and shiny new logo on the home page and you can click on it to head over to the CCblogs site at The Christian Century, where you can peruse other network sites and see selected posts highlighted by The Christian Century editors.


Holy Scarcity, Batman

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Last Sunday I preached in a church that has three different worship services in three different locations within the church.  One is a moderately sized chapel, one is a voluminous fellowship hall with a stage at one end, and the last one is the original sanctuary of the old downtown church.  The variations in space accompanied the differences in worship style.  The one thing all three had in common:  a clock easily seen from the pulpit.

I know all the practical reasons for this.  As someone who doesn’t wear a watch and doesn’t carry my cell phone into worship, I can appreciate the orientation the clocks give, especially in that church where pastors rush from service to service to make it in time for all three.  Still, I was a bit sad and wistful thinking of those clocks and the importance we place — even in a weekly set aside time to worship — on adhering to the schedule.

I’ve been longing for less scheduled time in my life.  I’ve been wanting to roam freely through at least some of my days or seasons, without the constant constraint of being pre-scheduled for the next appointment or task.  I’ve realized lately that my great skill in organizing and scheduling is both help and hindrance, both a survival mechanism and something that might be slowly killing my spirit.

Along with several of my sister writer-pastors from last summer’s Collegeville retreat, I’m now part of a cohort awarded a grant through Austin Seminary’s College of Pastoral Leaders.  We wrote the bulk of the grant together but we each had to write individual responses to certain questions.  Every one of us commented on the swirl of demands on our time and attention and how we need to establish more balance and pace in our lives.  We didn’t discuss this as a theme but reading through our responses it was the one, glaring thing we all had in common.

This summer, re-reading MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s Sabbath in the Suburbs, I came across this already-highlighted passage (p.150):  “I have found it much more liberating spiritually to embrace the idea of holy scarcity.  There isn’t ever enough time.  Even when we strip away all the inessentials — even when we focus only on the things that are good and nourishing and important for ourselves, our families, and the world — there is still not enough time.  But our hope is not in there being enough time but in there being enough grace to muddle through the scarcities of our days.”

I keep trying to believe the myth that I can reallocate time and rework the schedule so there will be enough time, as if there is a secret key to this I haven’t stumbled upon but I’m oh-so-close to finding.  When I’m honest I see how even when the options are all deemed good, I can’t say “yes” to everything.  Making friends with time, as McKibben Dana calls it, means embracing “no.”

I have known days so full they seemed out of time, perfectly paced, lingering just so.  They are rare.  I’ve known many more that were crammed full, often with amazing things and people, but so packed it was hard to take it all in or to “come down” enough to go to sleep at the end of them.

“Our hope is not in there being enough time but in there being enough grace to muddle through the scarcities of our days.”  At least half of our biblical stories are about this very thing:  wanting to be God instead of ourselves.  Guilty as charged.  Through my amazing organizational skills, I want to command time to obey me, find the elusive formula to the perfectly balanced day, and sleep satisfied in my own powers of management and discernment.  This hasn’t been working out so far.

When I look more closely, I see those few full timeless-seeming days in context.  There were dishes in the sink while we sat outside churning the homemade ice cream, watching the sky turn black and star-pricked.  There were emails left untouched and – gasp! – unseen when we hiked by the waterfalls and rested in a meadow for as long as we felt like it.

Perfection is always illusion.  Mastery is misguided.

“Even when we focus only on the things that are good and nourishing and important for ourselves, our families, and the world — there is still not enough time.”  My choices aren’t usually between horrible, bad, soul-denying things and beautiful, transporting, soul-enriching things.  Many, many times I have the wonderful choice in this time-limited life between two very good things.

That’s the rub.  That’s what I’m trying to make sense of these days and make a little peace with as I go forward.  Saying “no” is, painfully, often a “no” to something or someone I’d really like to spend time with, too.  But I’m tired of this torn-ness and never-ending calendar calculation.  I’m ready for more imperfection and the grace that orients better than any clock.

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photo credit:  “time” © 2012 János BalázsCC BY-SA 2.0

 


When the kiln opens

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When the kiln opens in June, reuniting me with objects that began in February as moist and malleable lumps of clay, there are always surprises.  Even when I’ve used a particular glaze combination many times before, this kiln firing may have produced a different effect.  Though I’ve been following these now-finished pots through each stage in the process — wet clay, leather hard, dry-and-fragile, bisqued, glazed, and now fired — I’m always surprised.  A piece I thought was inelegant has undergone its final transformation, the glaze smoothing over the least graceful spots to make a pleasing whole.  Sometimes it’s a surprise in another direction:  the form I loved in one piece now seems a bit marred by the glazes I chose and how they fired.

But the long process isn’t really finished the day the kiln opens, no matter how elated or deflated I am with certain pots.  All these pots end up somewhere, part of someone’s daily life, holding flowers or fruit or coffee or pasta.  That’s the abiding surprise:  something I made and tended over months and seasons now graces someone’s table and holds the things that sustain life.

Here are the latest pieces, wonderfully photographed by my husband, Woody Sherman.


Friday Five for Summer

On Fridays the RevGals play a little writing game together.  Today’s the summer edition and I’m playing…

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 1.  What makes you happy in your happy hour? (kicking off shoes, reading a book, a cocktail, lemonade~~essentially, what do you do to relax at the end of your week…)

The most refreshing indulgence lately is this coconut yumminess from Smitten Kitchen.  Combine it with a long, light-filled evening of baseball.

2. I have a pair of shorts that I jump into the minute I get home for the evening–every day in the summer. What’s your favorite summer “garment”?

At any time of year:  Bra removal promptly upon arrival home and pj’s.

3. I have discovered, after living here in New England for 7 years, Ipswich fried clams. Oh. my. OH MY! Do you have a summer food you might splurge on once or twice in the summer?

I wait all year for ripe homegrown local tomatoes.  I dream of them in the winter and start salivating by May.  In late July through August (and sometimes into September) I eat them at least once a day.  Tomato sandwiches, BLT’s, Greek salads, ratatouille, sliced on a plate with salt and pepper…  You can not go wrong with a tomato in the height of its season, one of the simplest reminders of God’s enduring providence.

4. Do you have a specific fond memory of summers of your childhood?

At my grandparents’ house in the country, we helped hang laundry on the clothesline, slinging clothes up and over, using the wet weight to help pull the line near enough for our short arms to use the pins.  We went back out to take down the scratchy, stiff-dried, wind-scented clothes, yanking on the now-higher lines until the clothes came down in our hands and the pins popped off and landed in the grass.  Like baseball players with the sun in our eyes, it was hard to follow the flying pins against the lit sky.

5. Use these words in a sentence: snail, baby duck, camper, ice cream, surfboard, cherries.

The camper indulges in the simple extravagance of cherries for breakfast, fished from the bottom of the cooler and cold as ice cream, accompanied by the small progress of a snail moving across the picnic table, a baby duck learning to glide in the nearby lake, and the promise embodied in the surfboard waiting atop the car.

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photo credit: © 2008 by Erich Ferdinand, CC by 2.0


When the Words Sink In

Today we closed the church building where my dad attended growing up and where I visited throughout my childhood on summer Sundays at my grandparents’.  They are buried in the cemetery out back now, along with two sets of my great-grandparents.  It was bittersweet to worship at Rocky Run UMC one last time with second cousins and longtime country neighbors, helping celebrate Communion in one of the places that helped form me as a person and a pastor.

For years now, whenever I serve small children during Communion, I offer them the elements by saying, “This means God loves you very much.”  I can’t claim credit for this idea since I copied it from my colleague Alex.  But I love its simple restating of the point of the Eucharist and what all those other words mean.  Boiled down and essential good news:  God loves you very much.

Today, during the last Communion we’ll share in that place, a small blond boy of about 5 came up.  I offered him the bread and the simple words.  He took them and took a step towards the other minister, who was holding the cup.  Then he did a double-take.  He looked back at me as if the words had sunk in and he realized after a beat what they meant.  He was radiant, with a smile of surprise and delight on his open face.

Yes!  That is good news.  Yes!  It is for you, little one.  Yes!  Even on a day when the doors will close and lock behind us, this is still God’s Word for you. Yes, yes, yes!


Conference Conversation

It’s easy to gripe about Annual Conference.  Too easy.  Uncomfortable seats, long drives, longer hours, the Bishop can’t see people standing up waiting to speak at the microphones, the drums are too loud, there aren’t enough drums….  I am not immune to the complaining.

I often imagine a wonderful retreat-like locale, where we could spread out in time and space and really be together.  I picture walking across a green campus to a dining hall for breakfast and I wonder how the tone of our annual gathering would change if we were “there” when we got there — no more driving in long snaking lines out to lunch and dinner, no more traipsing back to the hotel dead tired late at night then rushing to get a parking space in the morning.  If we held our Annual Conference at a place like Lake Junaluska, would we hold it differently?  Would it be less of a Christiany business meeting with pre-planned entertainment and stunts?  Would it be more spacious and leisurely and would we actually participate in the holy part of holy conferencing?

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So much better than a convention center. A girl can dream, right?

One of the most-anticipated parts of Annual Conference each year are the resolutions.  These are submitted in advance and are usually pleas for our church to make a statement about something like fracking or predatory lending.  They often anticipate an upcoming General Conference (the international United Methodist gathering every four years) and they are aimed at changing our polity or our church’s stance or statement on a particular issue.

As with much of the church, our corner of United Methodism is in constant conversation about sexuality issues.  One of this year’s resolutions was about same sex marriage, though we never talked about the resolution itself.  We spent the measly half hour allotted to discuss whether or not to discuss it right then or put it off for a year.

At the opening of Conference our Bishop announced a series of conversations that will be held during this next year, opportunities to delve prayerfully over time into issues around sexuality and the church.  When it came time for resolutions, someone made a motion to put off talking about the submitted same sex marriage resolution in favor of the prayerful conversation model being put forth by the Bishop.  That’s what we spent our half hour deciding and that’s what passed:  we will engage in conversations throughout the conference and throughout the year.

I’m not going to complain about that decision or about the way we handle resolutions generally.  I want to talk about conversation.

We have an opportunity to get to know one another better and to listen to the pain and promise in each other’s stories.  How do we prepare ourselves to listen well, faithfully, lovingly?  How do we listen when we don’t like what we are hearing?  How do we listen without immediately, simultaneously,  making ready our response?  When we are certain of the ethics and theology, how do we listen to contradictory views?  When we are in conversation with someone who is undecided, how to we engage with her as a person rather than another number to win to our side?

I don’t envy those who will organize and moderate these conversations.  It’s a tough job that deserves to be done well.  They are long overdue so people on all sides are raring to go, or at least to speak.  I wonder how the moderators will approach the process.  Are we trying to get one another to agree or to agree a little more?  Are we merely trying to “take the temperature” of this corner of United Methodism?  Will we report on the tenor of the conversations in order to assess where we are or are they meant as preamble to the one we put off and may have next year at Conference?  How will we encourage people to participate?  How will we facilitate deep, prayerful listening without shutting down passionate and pent up emotion?

I know where God has led me on these issues and where I hope our church will eventually go.  I don’t know how to get us there and I don’t have many answers for the questions I’m posing here.

I do have a few suggestions on how to proceed during this next year in Virginia:

Hold at least one conversation in every district of our conference.  It should be easy to get to a conversation nearby.  Allow and encourage folks to attend any/all that are convenient for them (not just the one(s) in their district).

Hold them on different days and in every month between now and our next Annual Conference.  Do not make assumptions about when people have time off or time to fit this in.  Again, if should be easy to make it to at least one conversation.  Hold them on Saturdays and weekdays.  Hold them during the day and in the early evening.

Require all members of Annual Conference (clergy and laity) to attend at least one conversation.  If we achieve an amazing conversational turnout (like half of all United Methodists in the Virginia Conference) but only half of those folks actually attend Annual Conference next June, we still aren’t having the same conversation.  If this is important enough to spend the year on, make it a requirement for attending Annual Conference as a member.

Publicize the conversations themselves (when and where) and some of what’s coming out of them.  Make it a media blitz and one of the communication strategies for our conference in the coming year so there is no excuse for being unaware of or uninvolved in this.  Use the email lists, conference website, Facebook, Twitter, e-Advocate, and The Advocate (to name a few) to consistently hold this up as something we are spending time on together.

Arrange the Bible study sessions of Annual Conference around this topic.  Our Book of Discipline makes it clear how we as United Methodists read scripture This doesn’t mean we will all understand every passage in the same way but it does rule out some lazy scholarship and incendiary off-base “readings.”  Help us, as a group, to read together in the context of this ongoing conversation.  Give the gathered body this grounding so that when someone veers off course, the Bishop or another moderator can gently guide them back with authority and in the context of an explicitly shared understanding of scripture.  At the very least, then we’d all be talking about the same thing when we talk about “what the Bible says.”

Pray.  Without prayerful and open hearts we won’t get anywhere.  We need more than our own experiences, theologies, and interpretations — no matter how faithful and hard won.  We need God’s Spirit to breathe in us and inspire the conversation.

Part of me dreads this conversation because I’ve been having it for more than 25 years now.  But I’m going to practice patience and listening and engage in it as well as I am able…Take a deep breath.  Listen.  Take part in the conversation.  May the Breath of God disrupt our usual conversations and inspire every moment.

 

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photo credit:  “Lake Junaluska,” © 2010 by justinknabb, CC BY-SA 2.0


Overheard at the Pool

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I love to people watch.  Sometimes I’ll plunk myself down with a coffee and a good view and just observe the comings and goings on a particular day in a particular spot.  Often I’m watching from afar, my own silent movie, guessing about that fight across the street or the rush of that family whizzing by outside.

Sometimes I hear entire conversations I’m not trying to hear.  On those days I’m simply trying to get some work done or read a few chapters yet I find myself next to a table of talkers.  If I can tune it out I usually do, but in a tightly packed coffee shop sometimes we are stuck with each other and the stories floating past their proper tables.

Then there is the public bathroom stall, wherein some folks feel the need to keep talking no matter what.  Bodily noises, doors slamming, flushes galore, and yet these folks keep up their end of the conversation which is, of course, loud enough for the rest of us to hear.  Most of the time I can’t listen to those conversations because I’m too busy plotting my move to yell loudly, “You know she’s on the toilet, right?”  (No, I haven’t done that yet.)

Our pool opened up a few weeks ago and I’m swimming my laps outside.  I try to go early enough to avoid the throngs of kids but there are usually a few parents in the shallow end with toddlers.  They are often there together at the same time each day, parents chatting while kids intermittently shout, “Look at me!”

I don’t try to listen to these conversations but water is a great sound carrier and some parents are used to having adult talk while kids play nearby.  I usually dry off and catch my breath and log my miles in my phone.  Just a few minutes in the fresh air sitting near the pool.  And then phrases come my way, bouncing across the water’s surface…”Then I switched to Prozac”…  Just enough so I’ll look up, wondering who said that and how the rest of the story unfolds.

Even in coffee shops and bathroom stalls a lot of people are talking to other people in other places.  I’ve gotten so used to the louder-than-normal cell phone speech that when a quiet little person-to-person sentence blows across the water to my ears it seems strange now.  Strange that folks are actually talking to one another in person, sometimes about things they might want to keep more private.  But still.

Today I said a little prayer for the talker who’s been trying out medications.  And I thought how old-fashioned it is to overhear two sides of a conversation.  I thanked God for the 90 degree heat, forcing us to quit our houses and our phones and jump into the pool together for a while.

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photo credit:  (c) 2009 “090807Pool-3″ by Maggie, CC BY-SA 2.0


Ode to Aspens

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John Denver was on the radio when I was growing up.  Living in Virginia as a non-skier who’d never been west of Texas, I can’t think of any other reason I would have known Colorado names like Golden, Aspen, or Boulder.  With his silky bowl-cut, round wire glasses, and guitar, he ushered into my life the idea of “coming home to a place you’ve never been before” and gliding on a “Rocky Mountain high.”

I don’t know when I figured out aspens were trees and not just an exotic-sounding ski town, but I first saw them on my way to the Telluride Music Festival in my 20s…

[Click here for the rest of the story at catapult magazine.]

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photo credit: “Day 194: Aspen leaves on a lazy summer day…” © 2013 Loren Kerns, CC BY 2.0


Why You Hate Rest

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I wish I could say this was the only time I’ve had a conversation like this.  A few years ago I was asking a clergy colleague about days off and he proudly spoke of writing his sermon at home in his underwear on Fridays. 

Isn’t Friday your day off? 

Yes, but this is sermon writing.  I love doing that.

Sure you do, but it’s still work.  That’s not a day off.

He didn’t understand my point.  Maybe you don’t either.  Maybe the allure of being able to lounge in underwear all day is the siren call drowning out the distinctions you might otherwise make between work and rest.  My point was you can love your job and still take your days off.  You can love your work and your leisure. 

Last week’s article in The New York Times, “Why You Hate Work,” suggests limiting work is actually part of how we are able to love it.  The authors are part of The Energy Project, which surveyed about 20,000 people (14,000 white collar workers and 6,000 employees at a manufacturing company) and found:

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

Simple, no-cost changes, like giving everyone a break every 90 minutes, result in employees with a “30 percent higher level of focus than those who take no breaks or just one during the day. They also report a nearly 50 percent greater capacity to think creatively and a 46 percent higher level of health and well-being.”  No matter how appealing the findings, many companies seem to have a hard time putting these findings into practice:

Still, the forces of habit and inertia remain powerful obstacles to better meeting employee needs. Several years ago, we did a pilot program with 150 accountants in the middle of their firm’s busy tax season. Historically, employees work extremely long hours during these demanding periods, and are measured and evaluated based on how many hours they put in.

Recognizing the value of intermittent rest, we persuaded this firm to allow one group of accountants to work in a different way — alternating highly focused and uninterrupted 90-minute periods of work with 10-to-15-minute breaks in between, and a full one-hour break in the late afternoon, when our tendency to fall into a slump is higher. Our pilot group of employees was also permitted to leave as soon as they had accomplished a designated amount of work.

With higher focus, these employees ended up getting more work done in less time, left work earlier in the evenings than the rest of their colleagues, and reported a much less stressful overall experience during the busy season. Their turnover rate was far lower than that of employees in the rest of the firm. Senior leaders were aware of the results, but the firm didn’t ultimately change any of its practices. “We just don’t know any other way to measure them, except by their hours,” one leader told us. Recently, we got a call from the same firm. “Could you come back?” one of the partners asked. “Our people are still getting burned out during tax season.”

“We just don’t know any other way to measure them, except by their hours.”

So, your lack of imagination and courage will be the downfall of the rest of us?

I’m not interested in never counting hours – it can be helpful to realize you spent 10 hours on something you thought might take two.  I find promise in the phrase “a designated amount of work,” though I suspect it will take many of us a detox-like cleansing period in order to have a true sense of what amount of work to designate.  Our sense of what’s possible and appropriate for the given amount of time has been damaged. 

Earlier this week another clergy colleague, preparing to take a weeklong trip with the youth of her church, wondered if it would be OK to take off one day when she returned.  This is a trip where she will be in charge and on call 24 hours a day the entire time and she was hesitant about taking off one day to recuperate and do laundry – or do nothing at all, it’s a day off! During the conversation another colleague wondered about doing this if it was an adult group.  Why would this matter?  Presumably she thought it was “less work” to supervise adults than youth but the point of leisure and rest time is that it’s the complement to work time and the necessary balance to it. 

Ministry doesn’t get a pass here.  Ministry cannot slide by on these findings simply because meaning and significance are “built-ins.”  My conversations with colleagues demonstrate how insidious overwork is and how glaringly absent deep rest, Sabbath, and time off are.

And I mean really off.  One of the biggest values of time off and away is that when you are taking it you are off and away.  Not tethered to people/situations/projects/deadlines/sermons/hospitals someplace else.  To be truly present in the place and time you are is a gift our culture has become too adept at refusing.

That’s one of the most interesting and life-giving findings in this study:  encouragement to focus on the task at hand.  Workers who are able to set aside time for only one thing and to give it deep attention for an uninterrupted portion of the day are happier, more productive workers.  Same goes for rest.  Being “on vacation” while “reachable by email” is not being on vacation; it’s divided attention.  Taking a nap with your cell phone ringer on and by your side is an invitation to be interrupted. 

I’ve had too many chocked-full, living by the outsized list, just-going-to-do-this-one-more-thing-before-I-leave days.  Part of it is because I love my work.  But I know I’m most centered, focused, content, and fun to be around when I have adequate work and rest.  I love rest, too, but I’ve turned my back on too many days of rest. 

This summer I’m going to enjoy a couple of vacation weeks without email and with a large dose of porch.  But before that even gets here I’m going to start the detox.  I’m going to take breaks every 90 minutes, reminding myself with a handy phone alarm.  I will be considering other ways to incorporate some of these findings into the way I work. 

For now, I might just take a nap.

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photo credit: “Nap” © 2008, Quinn Dombrowski,  CC BY-SA 2.0

 


On Generosity

mary pickford at writing desk_loc_public domain

Every other year in April I attend the Festival of Faith & Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  It’s the best continuing education I do.  Three days full of panels, Q&A, plenary speakers, poetry, prose, screenwriting, and (usually) tulips, the bright, ordered heralds of spring.  The first year I went, I had to take a break midway through the second day to write poetry.  This is not normal behavior for me but I was so full I had to pour something back out.

There are usually some bigger name presenters (Mary Karr, Marilynne Robinson, Eugene Peterson) from the fuzzy-edged worlds of faith and writing.  Often, though, my favorite Festival writer happens to be someone I’d never heard of before but who captures my attention.  This year that person was Christine Byl, author of Dirt Work, who lured me in with a talk on writing about a community while being part of it.

Anne Lamott was one of the big name speakers this year.  I’ve read a lot of her books.  I preached a sermon series on Help, Thanks, Wow, I read her strangely long and beautiful Facebook posts, and everyone in the past 20 years who’s interested in writing has read or heard of Bird by Bird.  So she wasn’t an unknown person or writer I stumbled across at the Festival.  I was looking forward to hearing her speak, but I had a sense I’d probably heard most of it before.  Like many faithful and writerly folks, she tends to circle around some of the same themes from varying angles.

That’s what she did.  But what captured my attention was her generosity.  In her particular Lamott-I-packed-the-wrong-too-tight-pants way, she stood in an arena in front of thousands of us, informal, human, full of mistakes and longing.  She has published at least 15 books but she focused on the torturous, determined ritual of writing.  In great detail, she walked us through how long it took her to write a Facebook post the previous weekend and how many times she got up from the task and sat back down again.  She told us it never gets easier, describing all the time-wasting ways she could avoid writing once she made it back home to California.  She told us how she’d spend her weekend, making herself get up for church on Sunday morning even though everyone would understand she’d had a long week and was freshly home from a long flight.  Come Monday, she would sit at the computer again to write.  Anne Lamott, big name author, pulled the curtain wide and said This is how it’s done.  She didn’t say this in a superior, hero, famous person way.  She said it writer to writer.  No bones about it:  writing is hard work and you will want to get up about 50 times an hour and do anything else. 

If you’ve read Lamott or heard her speak, you know there was a lot more detail than this.  She tells seemingly roundabout stories that loop and loop until you’ve lost yourself a little bit.  But they come around with a wallop. 

The thing about admiring someone or wanting to emulate something she’s done is the admiration and emulation keep you distant.  What Anne Lamott did was invite us in.  She could have delivered a speech that left us all thinking I want to be like that.  Instead, she left us with the sure sense we already have what we need. 

It was a generous act.  She didn’t hide behind the accomplishments of her library shelf.  She offered to show us in intimate, messy, daily, routine, non-glamorous detail how she works with herself to get some writing done.  She didn’t offer any platitudes about the amazing things she’s learned in all these years of publishing.  She said It never gets easier.  You just do it.  She didn’t display a perfect writing environment with expensive tools and an ideal time of day.  She revealed a real life and her own real struggle to wake up every day and write in the midst of it.  She said, Come Monday, this is what I will do.  Again.  I will hate it and I will try to avoid it.  But I will make myself start again.  How about you?

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photo credit:  Mary Pickford by Hartsook Photo, 1918.   Public domain image.

 


Unexpected

A sermon preached on Mark 10: 17-22, delivered during Wesley’s baccalaureate worship the evening before UVA graduation.

There are certain things we think we know.  Like what success after graduation looks like and the right path to achieving it.  Or how Jesus is supposed to act. 

So sometimes, when we come across a story like this one from Mark, we aren’t sure what to do with it.  Isn’t Jesus supposed to run after this man and make it easier for him?  Convince him he’s really the Way?  Give him one more chance?  Force him to follow?  It can make us uncomfortable when things don’t go like we think they will or should.

Maybe this is why so many graduation speakers sound alike and why those books you can buy for graduates also sound alike.  As a culture, we want to send you all out there with marching orders and a firm, believable, reliable path for getting exactly where we think you’re supposed to go. 

The problem with this is we often don’t know where we are going.  Or why.

While many of you were at the beach last week, light-writing and beach-combing, I was reading a book called Dirt Work by Christine Byl, a writer I was introduced to at the Festival of Faith & Writing I attended last month in Michigan.  Byl graduated from college with a plan to get a PhD so she could teach and write.  Her whole life had pointed her in the direction of academic life and indoor pursuits – the life of the mind, as it’s sometimes called.  There wasn’t a question in her mind about the goal.  But she wanted to spend a year or so taking a break in a beautiful place with her boyfriend before she dove back into the next degree.

So they moved to Montana.  And the plan started to unravel.  Or take shape.  Depending upon who you ask.

On a lark, Byl signed up late in the summer season to work on a trail crew in Glacier National Park.  These are the folks who repair trails, build walls, remove downed trees, and generally make hiking enjoyable for the rest of us.  There is little that had prepared her for this work.  She describes herself as 125 pounds soaking wet and she’d spent more time in libraries and in front of computers than she had using chainsaws or hauling heavy things.  Before the trail job, she hadn’t done much outdoors other than hike.

But like all good teachers, trail work showed her what she was missing.  Rather than seeing academics as higher and more desirable and manual labor as lower and less prestigious, she realized they had different things to teach and that she was in need of learning what the woods could teach, too.  The seemingly offhanded decision to join a trail crew late in the season ended up becoming the start of an entirely new education.  From the beginning, she knew she was on a journey but she didn’t know where she was headed.  Eighteen years later she’s still doing trail work.  The place, the people, and the work transformed her and showed her a new path.  Something completely unknown, unseen, and unexpected when she set out for Montana.

Unexpected, like Jesus giving the man what he really wanted and needed, though not what he asked for.  Mark tells us the man is getting ready for a journey and wants to nail down the unexpected – Here’s the list of all the commandments I keep now what else should I be doing?  I want to have my bases covered.  Jesus gives him something else, an invitation.  Come, follow, untangle yourself from the possessions that tie you down, live courageously and with transforming risk…  This is, of course, not what the man wants to hear.  He wants a list.  He wants tried and true.  He wants to have his expectations met, not overturned.  If he were walking the Lawn with you tomorrow he’d have one of those graduate books and a five-year plan up his sleeve.

Whenever I read this story I wonder what happened next.  All we’re told is the man went away sad and that Jesus let him go.  Did he sleep well that night?  Did he catch up with Jesus later?  Did he ask another rabbi the same question?  Did he write off Jesus as crazy and live the way he intended all along?

Maybe that unexpected encounter with Jesus bore fruit in the man’s life eventually.  Maybe not.

For the man in the story as we have it, he misses his opportunity.  For Christine Byl, she seized her opportunity and was seized by it.  She let it lead her on a path she had never considered – one that revealed her calling and her most authentic self.  She writes, “…I believe that the surprising turns our lives take can bring us to our unexpected selves” (Dirt Work, pp. xxi-xxii).

I hope your time at UVA has been unexpected and I hope at least part of that has been because of your involvement in the Wesley community.  Maybe being part of Wesley overturned Sunday school assumptions and easy answers, helped you form deeper community than you thought possible, rerouted your major and your direction from here…  Maybe it’s been as simple as the realization that the most important part of college wasn’t the college itself but what you did, who you did it with, and who you’ve become while you were here.

I have seen you take steps in the direction of your unexpected selves.  Keep going.

Count on the blessings of the unexpected.  Know that whatever paths you take – loopy roundabout paths or five-year-plan paths – God has surprises in store for you.  God will bless you with the unexpected over and over again.  God is not done with you yet.  And though you may come with only the patience for the answer you want to receive, God will give you what you need.  Every time.  In every place.  On every path.  The ones that lead into the woods and those that lead back out again. 

The God who met you here and transformed your college years in an unexpected place like Wesley will meet you on any path you chose from here – including the paths that seem to choose you.  You can count on that.

Thanks be to God!


Return to Blessing

c2012 a dulaunoy_french_blessings of the horses

“This, right now, is the week when I write the blessings.  The week between the end of exams and graduation weekend.  Students spend this week at the beach and I spend it remembering the ways in which God has shown up in each of these students during the time we’ve shared.  There have been challenges to successful blessing-writing…”

Click here for the rest of the story, a “throwback” posted two years ago this very week over at the National Campus Ministry Association’s blog.

While you read the post, I’ll finish up writing this year’s blessings.  Happy graduation weekend, y’all!

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photo credit:  “Bénédiction des chevaux à Avioth” © 2012, Alexandre Dulaunoy, CC BY-SA 2.0