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.


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

We like short-shorts


During a writing workshop at Collegeville a couple of years ago, our marvelous instructor Marge Barrett encouraged us to write “short-shorts,” snapshot pieces of 250 words or fewer. It’s an interesting exercise, to see what stories this form suits and to impose word count limits where the story wants to seep out past its arbitrary edges. It’s also good practice in self-editing, whittling away here and there, gently carving off what absolutely doesn’t have to remain.

This summer Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Communitas journal published two of my short-shorts in the “Love Hurts” issue (“Pull” was published under the title “Love Hurts”). As I continue to work my way through a much longer piece, going very short was a great stretching of the opposite muscles. If you’re the curious type, about to use the word count tool, I’ll save you the trouble: I came in with one word to spare in “Pull” and was over by eight in “Neighbor.” But here they are.



Not yet in school, my little brother waited for me after school each day, pestering my mother so he’d know when it was time to walk up to the corner and keep a lookout. I can’t remember all the days he must have done this or what we talked about on the way home. I only remember the day he stopped.

I was with two friends and spotted him from blocks away. David had climbed onto the fire hydrant at the corner of our street to get a better view of my approach. He was waving his arms and hollering, “Deborah! Deborah!”

The girls I was walking with were both big sisters, too, and one of them had seven siblings. Still, somehow my first grade self became suddenly invested in “cool” and decided this wasn’t it. When we reached the corner, I stepped close to him and whispered fiercely, “Don’t ever wait for me again.”

He never did.

He knows I tear up when I remember this. He knows if I could take it back I would. He tells me it doesn’t have the hold on him that it does on me.

David lives four states away now and I see him once a year. It’s not enough. But on the phone last month when I worried our lives might go too far off in different directions, he cut me off and said, as if it’s obvious, “A lot of things come and go but siblings are like gravity.”


Love Your Neighbor

The golf pro is getting work done at Starbucks. It’s been raining for three days in this southern resort town known for temperate winters. Today it’s 45 degrees. Eyes bracketed by crow’s feet, set wide in his winter-sunburned face, squint at his laptop between calls rescheduling three days’ worth of cancelled lessons.

The sloppy twentysomethings sharing the long table with center electrical outlets have doughy faces, new laptops, and Vitamin water. Occasionally one speaks gibberish about list views, headers, and tap events, and one of the others yanks out his earbuds. It’s mostly the curly-haired boy and he’s loud, like he’s trying to get all three to take out their earbuds, like he wants to impress anyone who can hear.

The golf pro has old-school Sony earphones, bigger than a Kindle, the kind you can’t stuff in your pocket.

I didn’t bring mine. I relish the relative silence, waiting for my friend.

We’re in town for a conference. Coffee and conversation before the long day, campus ministers without nametags.

So it’s not like we’re wearing signs or anything, but five minutes into our conversation, the pierced boy sipping Frappuccino at the next table suddenly starts talking, wants to explain his single earpiece to us.

“I’m deaf in the other ear. That’s what happens when you fall asleep next to an amp. There was a bunch of feedback when they cranked it up. The doctor said if it’d started full blast I’d have 100% loss in that ear. But it’s 85%. Some stupid number like that.”

So we listen.


photo credit: “Studying in Starbucks,” © 2013 by Nicola Sapiens De Mitri, CC BY-SA 2.0

Holy Scarcity, Batman


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.


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