Unnecessary beauty

High Bridge Trail, depot in the distance.

One blistering, humid, high 90s day in the middle of the summer, I hiked a couple of miles on the High Bridge Trail with my family. The trail is a converted railroad bed and the bridge is a very high passage trains once made over the trickle of the Appomattox River far below. Until you get out into the middle of the bridge where you can peer down and see that trickle, you walk level with treetops. At intervals across the bridge, there are train-depot-style platforms that jut out slightly from the rest of the bridge, with off-center-peaked roofs sloped over benches facing out over the drop. As we hid from the baking sun, eating our picnic lunch on one of the benches, I noticed how much detail went into making the depots.

Fed, watered, and cooled down a bit, I examined our depot from all angles. It could have easily, predictably been nothing more than a bench with an unadorned roof. But these were made of bolted metal and grooved tin roofing, with gentle arched supports underneath that lit up all the train depot recognition areas of my brain – areas I wasn’t aware of until those delightful sparks of recognition.

Gorgeous.

The depots could have been merely utilitarian and expedient, enough to provide rest and shade. Instead, someone decided to delight. Someone opted for unnecessary beauty in a place where relatively few will see it and where you have to work to get to it – a place where rest and shade are the only necessities or expectations.

When the latest bad news spreads, I hear people say, “Fight back with beauty.” I know what they mean. I appreciate the battle cry but I am weary.

I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

When my grandfather was old and blind and my grandmother was still cooking in her own kitchen, I was trying to help set the table for lunch. With my grandmother, even a simple un-cooked lunch of sandwiches involved ten full minutes of table preparation. I was trying to speed things up and wash fewer dishes later, so I grabbed the empty glass from beside my grandfather’s chair in the living room where he sat listening to the television. When she saw me putting that glass at my grandfather’s place, tears welled in my grandmother’s eyes as she replaced it. “I always give him a fresh glass with his meal.”

Maybe a clean fresh glass doesn’t normally count as beauty but it did then. It was as unnecessary as the delightful depots on the trail – his previous glass wasn’t dirty and he would never see the difference between the two glasses. But she knew – she could see – and the fresh glass was one in a long line of her simple, daily, loving acts of unnecessary beauty.

I keep saying “unnecessary.” When you swim two miles and get out of the pool growling for food, it doesn’t matter whether the table is set properly or the food is a balanced meal. You need calories, plain and simple. Calories are necessary; gourmet is not. I can think of other similar but less obvious routines in my life when I opt for the utilitarian and expedient.

But is beauty an option? Is delight really “unnecessary”?

After the presidential election last fall I re-watched the entire West Wing series. I also decided it was time to purchase my own clergy collar shirt. Beauty, fantasy. Beauty, calling.

There is so much to do and sometimes I choose the crappiest way to do it. Once, when friends asked to use our ministry’s fellowship hall for a birthday celebration, I hastily dumped a bag of ice into a cooler and threw the cooler up on a table next to the drinks. The elderly mother of the birthday guest looked at my attempt and asked if there was a nice bowl we could put the ice in instead. In the kitchen, I grumbled to a friend about how unnecessary that was and wasn’t the mother being a little too much – my friend looked at me as if I were an idiot and told me I was being an idiot. Of course the ice should go in a bowl.

Beauty is relative. It’s still beauty.

I haven’t written much since the election. I want to hide constantly. I mostly don’t.

Here’s what I know: The day we hiked High Bridge Trail was brutal, even for a Virginia summer day. The food and water would have been enough to make the hike and make it back to the car. But the delight of the depot – detailed, intentional, unnecessary beauty – is what has stuck with me. Maybe it had more to do with making it than I thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos © Woody Sherman, used with permission.

Swimming at the JCC

As I’ve mentioned, I’m determined to keep up my physical-mental-spiritual-emotional practice of swimming my butt off this winter. As I’ve also mentioned, I’ve had to make special arrangements to swim while out of town for work, something I often do with the help of this handy guide for finding a pool wherever you might find yourself.

In both January and February I spent most of a week in Richmond, and I’ve swum at the Weinstein Jewish Community Center each time. I didn’t grow up in towns with JCCs and had never been to one before my first January swim there. I asked my friend Jake if there were any cultural things I should know about being a good guest in the space and he patiently explained it would be pretty much like using the YMCA – not everyone at a JCC is necessarily Jewish and I wouldn’t stand out immediately as the obvious Christian in the mix.

From the membership coordinator I spoke with on the phone to set up my guest pass, to the front desk guy ready with a “Good morning” and a dry wit, to the concierge-style lifeguard, this is a place that does hospitality well. And I’m not kidding about Pete the lifeguard. He greets each swimmer by name when they enter the pool deck (he knew mine by the second day and remembered me when I showed up again in February) and gets off his chair to assist swimmers adding into lanes when they are all full. Seriously, he motioned and directed me to my lane, as he walked over to the swimmer already in the lane, saying, “I’ll let him know you’re joining him,” and then he tapped the other swimmer as he approached the wall to let him know he’d have company. It was like being shown to my table at a fine restaurant. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, since swimmers mostly work these things out on their own. But it was oddly nice – especially standing there, vulnerable, in only a swimsuit and my weak-prescription goggles – to be treated like a valued member of the pool community and offered a particular place within it.

“Love your neighbor” has resonated more than any other goal or descriptor of our life and ministry at Wesley this year. Not because we are doing it well all the time, but because we don’t know a better way to respond to hate and xenophobia than with this simple, all-encompassing, daily reminder from Jesus (Matthew 22: 36-40). I’m here to tell you that being welcomed as a guest, greeted by name, and offered a place in the pool is a fantastic embodiment of loving one’s neighbor.  

In the first weeks of the New Year, before I swam at the WJCC the first time, a rash of bomb threats began at JCCs around the country. They are still happening. The first day I navigated my way to the unfamiliar pool in January, in the dark early morning on nearly empty streets, a pick up truck followed closely behind me for several blocks before I arrived. It went its own way before I got there but in this time of threat and hate, I noticed and briefly worried. By my February visit, I’d seen news reports of JCCs being evacuated during bomb threats, and I considered what to have ready in my poolside bag in case we had to evacuate in the middle of my swim. I didn’t consider not going.

This past week, the lobby was full of preparations for Purim celebrations, the Hamantaschen-laden holiday when Esther’s story is remembered and humorously re-enacted. It’s a short book and worth the read, if you don’t know it or if it’s been a while. Esther ends up in a position to make her voice heard and influence a king. She needs a little convincing that sticking her neck out is worth the risk. She’s told her silence won’t guarantee her safety and, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this?” (Esther 4: 12-14).

My neighbor-loving neighbors at the WJCC know how to stick their necks out. Given the national climate and current threats, I wouldn’t have been surprised or angry if they had closed ranks and temporarily stopped offering guest passes to unknown non-JCC members just passing through town. But they know Whose and who they are, and what they have to offer at just such a time as this.

Frankly, even if the Swimmers Guide showed me a closer pool somewhere else, I’d choose to keep going back to the WJCC when I visit Richmond for work. Not just for laps or for the kind and gracious lifeguard, but because these are my neighbors.

 

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photo credit: “Lifeguard jumping into action in Ocean City, Maryland,” © 2007 by flickr user dbking, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Still no apologies

Almost five years ago I wrote, “Maybe the most revolutionary and playful thing we can do is to play unapologetically, to give ourselves permission and to stop seeking it from anyone else.   Play is revolutionary.”  I wish I could say I’ve carried through with the revolution by now, but I’m still working on it.

Thanks to Topology Magazine for re-running this early piece.  It’s a good reminder to me in what has been feeling like a very un-playful time lately.  I hope you will find in it some support, encouragement, and permission to let loose and play with your whole being this week.

Prayer, pizza, and blazing signs of hope

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The table was set at Wesley last Wednesday night, and they came.

It’s been a long week, folks.  If you are preparing to preach or to listen to preaching this weekend, you have my heartfelt sympathy and blessings as you make your way to that moment and beyond.  In the midst of all this, it’s been a hope-filled week in campus ministry.  I hope you will head over to Ministry Matters today to read my latest reflection.

 

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

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The first time I heard of Hillary Rodham Clinton was a mention in the pages of Ms. magazine, which I got delivered to my P.O. box in a small Appalachian town with one flashing yellow traffic light. In the pre-internet days, subscribing to Ms. was one of the ways I kept up with news beyond the county where I lived. During the primaries for the presidential election of 1992 there was a two-page spread on all of the candidates, a chart listing accomplishments, offices held, positions on certain issues, and, way over in the final column of the chart, room for additional comments. In that last column on Bill Clinton’s row it said that one of the best aspects of a Clinton presidency would be his amazing wife, Hillary, and listed some of her accomplishments. I took notice and, obviously, never forgot that last nugget of info in that last column.

This summer during the Democratic National Convention, I was vacationing with my family, celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. We had an unspoken and amicable agreement not to watch the partisan news networks while we were all together, so I retreated to our bedroom early on the night of Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech so I could watch it live. She shone in her white suffragette-inspired (pant)suit and she knocked it out of the park. The next morning I got up and drove to the pool to swim laps, thinking the whole time I was swimming that it was a different world from the day before. Now, it’s real. A woman is the candidate for a major political party.

I have hated this election as much as the next person, though I don’t agree that the candidates (plural) have been the most antagonistic and mean-spirited ever. One of them has been, while the other has persevered and persisted and taken the high road and continued being one of the most qualified presidential candidates we have ever had. I know we are a deeply divided nation with old festering wounds we need to irrigate and re-dress and heal. It feels like there is a lot at stake because there is a lot at stake. Many of us are waking up to the realities we have been a part of our whole lives and reconsidering our history of racial injustice. Agencies and systems and the status quo, which we thought were fair and just, are being exposed, shown to be infected with the same disease in need of the same healing. It’s painful and confusing. The way forward will be awkward and painful, as healing is. It is hard to ask for forgiveness and to grant it.

I know everything does not change overnight when a new name is next to “President.” Ask Barack Obama. But then ask him again, because part of how we have gotten this far – into the painful and messy spot of owning up to the past and trying to build a better future together for all of us – is because of him. It’s because of what and who he represents and it’s because of how he has conducted himself in office – thoughtful, centered, undeterred, kind, generous, hopeful.

One of the things I remember my dad saying over and over to me as I was growing up was, “You can be the first female president of the United States, if you want to.” I never wanted to, but that continual, unflinching, unreserved vote of confidence from my dad was like a beautiful and important vein through my childhood (and beyond), supplying me with the encouragement I didn’t always know I needed to feel confident and grounded and safe and appreciated and valued. Seen. (Contrast this to Barbara Kingsolver’s adolescent conversations on the topic with her father.)

By the statistics and demographics, this would seem an unlikely way for me to grow up, being raised as I was in the seventies by a Southern, white father who grew up a poor farmer and was the first in his family to attend and graduate from college.

Careful how you lump folks together, especially when you think you have “them” all figured out. Not all Republicans (if there are any real ones left) and not all Trump supporters are raging misogynistic racists. This doesn’t excuse those who are, nor does it excuse their candidate, who is both. But it is to say that people are complex and beautiful – especially when you don’t understand what makes them tick. It is to say that we are a country full of neighbors and we need to act like it again, no matter how we voted. Most of us want things to get better in our country – and most of us need help seeing how, from another’s perspective, “better” might look different than we at first imagine. There will be ample time and opportunity to work on this kind of love for our neighbors in the aftermath of this election.

But today.

Today, the little girl in me who never wanted to be president but always knew she could be voted for the woman who has endured and persevered in order to serve her neighbors in our country’s highest office. Today I voted for the first female president of the United States of America, eight (and four) years after I voted for the first Black president. I did not choose “the lesser of two evils.” I chose the woman I have been following since 1992, the woman who’s been working for a better country for even longer, the United Methodist who clearly lives out her faith in her life of service. I enthusiastically, joyfully, unapologetically, historically chose Hillary Clinton, the absolute best candidate for the job. I voted and then I went to the pool to swim laps, like I do every day and not at all like any other day.

 

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Photo credit: By Ali Shaker/VOA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This summer I went swimming

swimming in lake george_2016

Almost anything can be a spiritual practice, if you let it. It’s about the practice – the routine and prioritization of it, the days upon weeks turning into months of it – in the presence of an open spirit, willing to learn and be led. Molded, over time. Swimming is like this for me. I’ve written before about how swimming helps keep me focused on the present moment, and how flip turns are teaching me about energy, rest, and resilience.

Well, this summer I went swimming. A lot. A very few stormy days I swam inside at the gym, but most of the time I swam outside. I was a regular in the lone roped-off lap lane at our neighborhood pool, I practiced with a group in a lake in Richmond, and I competed in my first open water swim in another lake near Charlottesville. (And came in third in my age group. And got a medal. But who’s keeping track?) When we visited family at another lake in New York, I recruited my husband to kayak alongside me as I swam so boats wouldn’t run me over. In South Carolina, I swam in the bathwater warm ocean, but the best swims were in the outdoor lap-swimming-only pool that was cooled. (Yes, they “air conditioned” the pool and it was so scrumptious I don’t really care how non-environmental that may sound.)

To throw yourself into something you love is, simply, delicious. Giving yourself over to its rhythms and routines, watching yourself with curiosity to see where the love will unfold and take you. Allowing yourself to be unreasonable and devoted, depleted and good-tired. This is what I did this summer, when there were very few rules and obligations, the expansiveness of summertime and sabbatical overlapping. I absolutely organized my days around my swims.

And it was worth it.

Part of what sustained spiritual practice teaches you is how much you need it. I am not the same swimmer I was in May. I am not entirely the same person.

pre race cgl_july 9 2016

It may surprise you, but the open water swim was not the most daunting thing I did this summer. It was the open water practice swim I joined a couple weeks before that in Richmond. I had to drive over an hour away to a place I didn’t know, to meet up with people I didn’t know, to try out swimming in a body of water I’d never seen, while wearing my bathing suit in front of complete strangers. Buttons were pushed. I almost bailed. I woke up that day feeling nervous about it, uncertain about whether I could keep up, whether I’d be able to site the buoys, how thin and athletic all the other swimmers would likely be. I wasn’t sure I’d even like open water swimming, so wasn’t this kind of a waste of time and money?

I talked myself down. I recognized all those demons and agreed they could even be right. And I agreed to go to this one practice session anyway and just see. If I hated it, fine, no obligation to continue or do other open water swims after that. But I was not going to bail based on fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, and what ifs. (During the academic year, it would have been much easier to bail. The time and money concern trolls would have had a lot more sway if that evening’s jaunt to Richmond had been sandwiched in between meetings and a buzzing phone.)

I was glad I went. Not everyone there was athletic and skinny. I was not the slowest. I loved it when we swam straight out into the middle of the lake to make a loop around an instructor standing on a paddle board. I loved it even more when the complete stranger I got paired up with said to me after one lap, “You go first and don’t worry about me. I could barely keep up with you.”

Spiritual practice involves repetition and new territory, ritual and change.

I was never particularly worried that I might have drowned, but when I heard Lucy Kaplansky’s “Swimming Song” for the first time late this summer, I recognized my own bravery and playful pride, swimming my way up and down the waters of the east coast. Kaplansky sings, “This summer I went swimming. This summer I might have drowned, but I held my breath, and I kicked my feet, and I moved my arms around.” Sounds simple and it kind of is, but simple can also be hard.

Spiritual practice takes trust and bravery, allowing yourself to be held up by something you are participating with but that’s not you. This is also one of the “tricks” to open water swimming, especially when you get scared or unnerved by the vastness and the murky depths. The key is to remember, “The water wants to hold you up.”

1-mile medal_cgl_july 9 2016

Today the cicadas are singing summer towards the door. We are experiencing an unusually temperate and humidity-free start to the week and we got to open up the windows again yesterday. It won’t last long. By Friday it will be sweltering, but that won’t last long either. Fall is on the way.

I’ll get in a few more swims in the neighborhood pool before it closes for the season. And I have designs on a quarry, where a new friend swims as late into the fall as she can. I’ve started wondering about open water swims for next year. In the meantime, after a summer of peripatetic swimming, I will log a lot of miles in the gym, same place each day, but never the same “river”—or swimmer – twice.

 

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Photo credit: Photos ©2016 by Woody Sherman. Used with permission.

Fallow

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I’ve always liked the word “fallow.” I like the sound of it, the short “a” sound followed by the long “o” sound. I like that it’s almost “follow,” but not quite. Mostly, I appreciate its indication that when it looks as if nothing is happening, looks are probably deceiving. Rest is some of the deepest work to be done.

Here’s how Ken Chitwood recently described it in Sojourners (“A Crucial Ingredient in Justice Work: Rest”): “Leaving a field to lie fallow means leaving a paddock to be unseeded, uneaten, and unspoiled for a season or more. It is one of the best ways farmers can allow the land to replenish its nutrients and regain its fertility. It also helps prevent erosion — the roots of the plants left free to grow help to hold the soil in place against the ravages of wind and rain.”

To lie fallow is to engage in a season of rest. One of the things I love about liturgical life is its emphasis on seasons. We move around the cycle of a year, changing the colors of vestments and paraments, focusing on certain parts of our story and then on others. I’m tempted to say winter is my favorite season of the year because I love the cold and snow and we rarely get enough in Virginia to satisfy me, but the truth is I love every season while we are in it. I love the annual cycle and the delights that belong only to the season at hand, the inchworm-green of new spring shoots, the languorous late-light evenings of summer, the crisp bite and mature colors of fall.

Only sometimes, I have trouble being in the season at hand. I know something about the ravages of wind and rain, exposed roots. Jesus had to be hunted down while he was praying in a deserted place by himself (Mark 1: 35-36) and he regularly took time out and away. This is supposed to be a model for me, for all of us. I also know it’s easier to fill up the empty months of a sabbatical than it is to empty out one day a week for Sabbath. As Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (The Writing Life).

I don’t want to spend my life as a fallow field. But then again, I’m not really in danger of that happening. I am in danger of trying to earn my way to the grace of rest and replenishment.

I’m on study leave this summer, three days in. When I’ve mentioned this, most people have immediately asked what I’m going to do. I suppose I could be studying something “out there,” people do this all the time, take a break from the routine to write a book on church leadership or home canning. I’m on a writing retreat with my writing group this week, but I don’t have a project in mind to complete this summer. I’m going to rest and not-do. I’m trying to “study” myself. I’m lying fallow.

My goal is to resemble a field of clumpy sod, unplanted, no harvest in sight. I hope and trust God will tend me, but I’m going hands-off, list-rogue. I’m asking to be replenished and getting out of my own way so it can happen.

stainedglassview_abbeyworship_collegeville

Looking up and out from worship in the St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota

Nora

I feel bad about what I’m about to say, but the first time I watched When Harry Met Sally I didn’t like it. I was in college and trying to like Woody Allen and be “cultured” and I claimed it was a rip off of Annie Hall. I think it was because of the montage sequence showing Harry and Sally ordering in a restaurant, dropping mail at the corner mailbox, and lugging a Christmas tree home through the streets of New York. Something in there – along with Sally’s high-waisted baggy pants and the brimmed hat she wears walking through the park being reminiscent of Diane Keaton – reminded me of Annie Hall. I can remember claiming to think Annie Hall was a much better film, probably because I had just seen it and back then people only used sophisticated revered tones when talking about Woody Allen.

But this is not about him. It’s about Nora Ephron, and so I have to come clean about that embarrassing and off-base first impression/pose I adopted in my misguided youth.

I don’t know how long it was until I gave When Harry Met Sally another try but from then on I have done nothing but love it more and more. I guess that’s appropriate, given their description of the evolution of their own relationship:

Harry: “The first time we met we hated each other.”

Sally: “No, you didn’t hate me, I hated you. The second time we met, you didn’t even remember me.”

Harry: “I did too, I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.”

Sally: “We were friends for a long time.”

Harry: “And then we weren’t.”

Sally: “And then we fell in love.”

Sometimes you do not just know – at least not at first – the way you do about a good melon.

Drop me down in this movie and I can find my way out. Just start me on a line of dialogue and I’ll keep going, like being plopped down in a familiar liturgy or hymn, one you weren’t sure you had memorized until it bubbled up from within. I once bet a lawyer friend who loves When Harry Met Sally as much as I do (and who shall remain nameless in case this is searchable in court documents somewhere) that he couldn’t find a way to slip an actual line of dialogue into his oral argument. Granted, he didn’t go for a laudable degree of difficulty with something like the “stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table” but he did manage to say to the other lawyer, a la Harry on the airport moving sidewalk, “I’ll just let you go ahead.”

But this isn’t really about When Harry Met Sally, either. It’s about Nora Ephron.

I have a deep vein of kinship with Nora though we were generations apart, geographically mismatched, and the only religion she ever wanted to claim was her adherence to the principle that you can never have enough butter. She was a funny feminist, a sensible artist, a die-hard New Yorker, an astute cultural commenter, and a damn fine writer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora recently, after watching Everything is Copy, the documentary her son, Jacob Bernstein, made about her. In the film, several of Nora’s friends confirmed my belief that her great and final film, Julie & Julia, is her love letter to love and partnership and marriage, especially her own to Nick Pileggi. I stayed up late to watch the documentary and felt like I’d visited with an old friend when it was over. In the way of devotees, I spent a few days afterwards reading articles about her online, re-reading her essays, and buying books I didn’t already have.

In my internet oblations, I came across this NPR interview I’d never heard, part of a series in which they asked writers to name a scene they wished they had written themselves. Nora chose a scene from another of my all-time favorite movies, Tootsie. Strangely, my relationship to Tootsie, as with When Harry Met Sally, also began with my own stupidity and stubbornness. I was in high school when it came out and I irrationally and snobbily decided that since all of America was raving about this movie, there was no way I would be interested. So I wasted about four years until I saw it in college and then promptly loved it and began a long term relationship with it, too. The point being, of course Nora loved Tootsie.

I don’t know if I have an inner New Yorker, but if I do, she’s named “Nora.” And she probably exists at all because of Nora. I grew up watching and re-watching I Love Lucy with my mom but whenever Lucy picked up the phone to order a side of beef delivered to the apartment, I zoned out when she gave the address, “623 East 68th Street.” It didn’t sound like addresses where I lived (and yes, I know now that it’s a real street but not a real address, unless they lived at the bottom of the East River). There were too many numbers. It didn’t mean anything at all so I simply heard “numbers, numbers, address.”

This was the case until my early 40s when we stayed at my in-laws’ apartment on the Upper East Side and walked everywhere. That weekend I was reading Nora’s I Feel Bad About My Neck for the first time. In the chapter called “The Lost Strudel or Le Strudel Perdu,” Nora shares her quest for a savory cabbage strudel she once had in Manhattan but which had since disappeared. She tried for years to find a bakery that made them until one day a friend gave her a tip about a Hungarian bakery “on Second and Eighty-fifth Street.” I looked up from the book and out the window, thinking about the cross streets and how many long blocks we were from Second. I hollered out to my husband in the other room, got my shoes on, and we set out to find cabbage strudel, returning within the hour with our prize. It was the single most New York moment of my life, thanks to Nora.

If Nora herself had been in the bakery that day, I probably would have been too shy or too play-it-cool-with-celebrities to speak to her, even though I am intensely jealous of Lena Dunham and would love to have been taken under Nora’s wise wings. Even so, I’ve known Nora and her work for a long time and, thankfully, this is the sort of relationship that continues past death. I’ll be re-reading her essays and watching When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia until my own end. I’ll keep wishing I’d written any single one of the many oft-quoted lines she penned.

I’ll also continue to feel a little bit bad about my first impressions, but I think Nora would understand.

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photo credit: “Katz’s Deli=When Harry Met Sally,” © 2006 by Aaron_M, CC BY 2.0

The exuberance of forsythia

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I have friends who hate forsythia. Detest it. Feel the need to proclaim their disdain on social media. For all I know, they probably spit on the bushes when they walk by them. I’ve never tried to plant or tend it so maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe it’s invasive or threatening to other nearby plants. I’m trying to be generous here: maybe they have good reasons for spending their energy hating a plant.

As for me, I delight in it. When we have enough warmish spring days in a row, it peeks its head out with bright – practically neon – yellow blooms, stark against its long, woody, still leafless stems. Everything else in sight – even the early showstoppers like Bradford Pears and cherry trees – is still tucked in for winter and biding its time, when forsythia shows up early to the party, wearing an outlandish hat and too much lipstick, carrying a game of Twister, hollering, “Let’s party!”

In addition to its sheer proclamation of color, I love the way forsythia branches jut out in crazy, spiky, improbable, irrepressible angles, the plant world’s version of the way Elaine used to dance on Seinfeld. It says, This is how I grow, damn it. Woo hoo! It’s spring! I love the way it naturally grows, untamed, wild, exuberant. It pains me to drive past a lawn where someone has taken matters into his own hands, trimming this marvelous beauty into symmetrical bland balls. Forsythia trimmed like this is merely a round bush with a haze of yellow, a herald with his mouth duct-taped so his announcement is garbled. When I see forsythia reined in this way, it reminds me of women who go too far in plucking their eyebrows. Like eyebrows, which on occasion can be too unruly and need a wee bit of help, I understand forsythia requires just a bit – but not too much – pruning help from a restrained gardener, to help it grow into its natural shape without becoming overgrown. Last year’s efforts paying off in early spring blooms; restraint flowering into exuberance.

I’m writing this in the fullness of Holy Week, which follows a fantastic and full weekend of hosting Nadia Bolz-Weber’s visit to Charlottesville, which follows a fantastic and full week of traveling to the Navajo Nation with students on an interfaith service trip. It’s been non-stop lately and I know I’m not the only one.

In the midst of this, the sheer timely gift of forsythia. Something we don’t have to create or remind or schedule, something beautiful that just shows up on time. Something lively, bright, festive, and over-the-top enthusiastic. Something that knows what time it is even when we want to stick our heads back under the covers for another month. Something that simply is – unmanaged, unchosen, uncomplicated beauty. In a leafless, weary world: a gorgeous, energetic, reliable gift of bursting bright beauty.

 

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photo credit: “Forsythia,” © 2012 by Barbara Eckstein, CC BY 2.0

Campus Ministry Stocking Stuffers

There comes a time when you need to make a list and leave it out next to a plate of cookies… Here’s one I made, with a few suggestions for campus ministers (and others) who are looking for new books, shows, and resources for enlivening faith and community. Take a look over at the National Campus Ministry Association blog…and feel free to leave your browser open where someone jolly might see it and pick up a thing or two for your stocking.

WoodySherman2014_close up Xmas tree with bow and lights

My neighbors want me to keep Christ in Christmas

I should start by saying we don’t know many of our neighbors. There’s the one I refer to as The Encroacher for his wild disregard for property lines, and there are the seemingly nice ones across the street who I’ve spoken two twice since they moved in, once when I delivered a welcome cake and the second time when we were all out shoveling snow last winter. There are a few I know by sight from the pool and there’s my accountant-neighbor who I actually look forward to seeing each tax season. Overall, not a great track record for someone who’s supposed to be familiar with loving neighbors.

Keep Christ in Christmas lighted message

It’s bigger and brighter than it seems from this picture I took with my phone.

I do not know the neighbors with the new Christmas lights, the ones who made a large Christmas tree out of lights and stationed it so it shines through their back woods and directly at the main road into the neighborhood. You can’t miss it. When it showed up last week I enjoyed the novelty of the giant lit tree in the midst of the real bare winter trunks, and it was a nice surprise, to be greeted through the woods like that.

After a couple nights away, I drove back into the neighborhood in the dark last night and it was suddenly apparent which neighbors had been busy putting up their lights and decorations while we were gone. I love exterior Christmas lights, so I drove slowly and took in the new splendor of the neighborhood – and I saw that the Christmas tree neighbors had added to their message. They’ve staked out more ground in the woods and you can see from the picture that they want me to keep Christ in Christmas. (I suppose it’s possible they want me to keep a cross in a tree, but I’m going with the simplest explanation being the most likely.)

The woods were brighter. There were more lights to catch my eye on the drive through the neighborhood. I don’t exactly disagree with their message. So why did I struggle to like their full message as much as I’d liked the tree on its own?

I think my trouble with it has to do with audience. If I went to worship and the sermon was about “keeping Christ in Christmas” I’d listen attentively and hopefully for what that might mean in the context of our gathered Christian community. If I met a friend for coffee and he mentioned some specific ways he was attempting to “keep Christ in Christmas,” I’d want to know where he was coming from and what I might glean for myself from his experiences of the season and his personal devotion. In my neighborhood, where most of us don’t know one another well and where we can safely assume we aren’t all Christian, is a prominent drive-by “keep Christ in Christmas” message the best, most faithful way for a Christian to greet her neighbors?

Christmas display of lights

I’m thankful for this neighbor’s candy canes and reindeer.

What if Christ was never in Christmas for some of our neighbors, who might be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu – but who might still decorate their homes in lights at this dark time of year and who might even participate in some of our cultural Christmas traditions? What about the cultural Christians or former/lapsed Christians who also know this as a special time of year, who put up lights and experience holy longing, though they may be estranged from God or religious community right now?   As Christians, is our best seasonal greeting an indiscriminate reminder to observe a religious tradition that not everyone is part of? Obviously, I don’t think so. I would have preferred just the lit tree. I would have even been fine with a message like “Christ’s light shines in the darkness” – biblical and a statement of faith for the person making it rather than a correction for everyone else.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but Christians don’t have a lock on celebrating all he ushers into this broken world. If my Muslim neighbor can demonstrate this with a hug or my non-religious neighbor with festive seasonal lights that don’t have much to do with John’s warnings or Mary’s song, I’m OK with that. In church, we can remind ourselves all we want to why we do all this each December. In the world, I wish we’d preach less and open ourselves more to seeing the lights in our neighbors’ yards. We have never been able to contain Christ, thank God, and we might be surprised by how Christ does indeed shine, even without his name in lights.

Beginnings. Advent.

mitten Advent calendar at hearth

The beginnings of things are sometimes hard to discern, as they are happening. Sometimes we experience that lightening bolt of recognition, a sudden, stark contrast between then and now, seeing in a stranger’s face the one we are beginning to love in that same moment. More often, we realize in the midst of things that they’ve already begun, something new seeping into the familiar terrain, changing the texture like steady gentle rain saturating dry ground. What was hard and dusty becomes damp and spongy, the moment of change imperceptible.

Advent doesn’t officially begin until the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but if you are paying attention to the lectionary you’ll notice the end of one Christian liturgical year and the beginning of the next seep into one another over several weeks before Advent. There are anxious and bored people who concoct “wars” regarding Christmas: that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the way it can be hard to tell where we are in the circle of the year, how professing Christ as Lord of all sounds a lot like talking about his second coming. I mean to point out how, when we are busy with lines in the sand between Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas retail displays, the bareness of winter arrives in the midst of falling colored leaves and pumpkins, gratitude arises weeks before and after Thanksgiving Thursday, and the practice of waiting opens into the necessary miracle of an unclenched heart, making enough breathing space for today.

It’s the space that interests me most. No room in the inn. Census cities full of crowds. Sidewalks bustling, full social calendars, and long lines at the register, where everyone peers down into cell phones while they wait. Even the space in Mary’s day to allow time in solitude for reading before Gabriel shows up. More obviously, the literal space she makes in her own body to carry another body for most of a year. I imagine that was good practice for making space as her son grew up into exactly who she’d been told he would be, and more than she could have conceived.

It’s the space I need most right now, and pray for. The downside of being an accomplished scheduler is any empty space looks like it needs an agenda. I am ready for the unclenching of heart and time, the strangeness of open anticipation, the space for something wholey new and holy to be born. I am ready to lay off organizing my days and to experience making room in myself to receive the gift God wants to give. I’m OK with being pregnant a while, giving attention to simple, daily patterns of eating and sleeping, while God works out the rest.

What if this is the way Advent comes? What if this slow and simple longing for what’s missing in my life is the seed God’s ready to water and tend, if I leave enough room and let myself be tended? This is not a plea against the marketplace or holiday gatherings or Christmas cantatas. It’s a simple prayer, reminding myself that I’m not God, that I need God, and that I’m ready (again) to let God be God.

The carpenter from Nazareth knew long workdays, sweaty lunch breaks, lazy coworkers, small paychecks…delicious dinners, restful sleep, the warmth of family, healing touch. The incarnation means there is nothing secular anymore. No place to hide from God. No part of life God-in-Christ is not intimately familiar with, in human form. We miss this all the time, like most people missed the lowly birth of God into this world. It would have been easy to go on about your census business in Bethlehem the next day, unchanged. Even for the wise travelers who recognized something had happened, did they know what to do with it those thirty years the baby took to grow up and take on his ministry? It’s too easy to hold our breath through “the weeks leading up to,” through shopping lists, long workdays, countdown to vacation, advance baking – as if all of that doesn’t hold the potential for incarnated holiness, too.

Seeping-in texts, festive foods, special soundtracks, candlelight at church and at home. Space looks like these, too, like ordinary spaces and paces transformed, like flickering lights in the yard. Holiness has not escaped the everyday. It’s shining right through the middle of it. If we remind ourselves earlier than normal and linger longer in the music and lights, so be it.

When holiness is harder to see – as it has been this week and too many angry, violent weeks – or, when we forget how beautiful and ordinary and accessible it is, it helps to make a point of seeing and celebrating it. Unmistakably. Longer and larger than a season itself can hold. Until, without quite knowing when the change occurred, our dry-cracked hearts are drenched with new rain.