Maybe It’s Not So Complicated

This is a picture of one of my dogs taken a few days ago during the extraordinary snowstorms that came to the Pacific Northwest. Admittedly, our storms were not comparable to those that have repeatedly hit the eastern portion of the United States in recent years, but for us, with our ill-equipped municipalities and our never-ending hills, the snow accumulations were traumatic.

For some of us.

Then there is my dog. To him, it was the funnest event in his recent memory. You could read it on his face: “Got my ball. Got my snow. This must be heaven.”

Maybe life really could be that simple, if we would only let it be.

           

Loss of a Heroine, Mary Oliver

I was saddened to see the announcement yesterday of the passing of Mary Oliver, longtime favorite poet of mine and of many others in my circles. What an extraordinary woman and writer! I first fell in love with her over her poem “The Summer Day,” which asks big questions like “Who made the world?” and states big thoughts like “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” then devotes the heart of the poem to a grasshopper she has happened to meet. That’s the poem that ends with her famous question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Her close association with and powerful descriptions of the smallest details of nature kept all of her readers grounded, and she was clear in her instruction: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

She left a large body of work, more than twenty collections of poems. The latest, Devotions, was published by Penguin Press in 2017 when she was in her early 80s.

Of course, in all that work, especially work so closely tied to nature, there was bound to be something on death, because she thought about that too. She wrote: “When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

She didn’t simply visit. She graced us all with poems that remain with us, reminding us to pay attention, be astonished, and tell about it. God bless you, Mary.

           

Gratitude for What Has Been Taken Away

This morning I read a reflection by Henri J.M. Nouwen, the widely read priest and author noted for his work with the poor and disabled. Entitled The Spiritual Work of Gratitude, the reflection ended with this prayer: Lord, cultivate within me a spirit of gratitude for all you’ve given and all you’ve taken away. Blessed be your name, Lord. Amen.

Now, it’s easy to generate gratitude for blessings given, for people and events and things in our lives that we see as positives, but the second part about having a spirit of gratitude for all God has taken away from us – that’s asking for something else entirely. That’s probably why the prayer is for the cultivation of that spirit, because it doesn’t grow within us naturally. Nor is it necessarily natural to consider that important parts of our lives that have slipped away from us might have been “taken away.”

What would it mean to live in gratitude for all that has been taken away from us?

We can be grateful that what was so precious to us was, at least for some period of time, ours. We can be grateful for what we learned from the experience of having that promise/person/position/thing that we loved, and put our focus there rather than on the pain of the loss. We can be grateful for the implied possibility, that if we had it once, we can surely have it again. But beyond that, what would it mean to be grateful for what has been taken away?

If our perception is that the loss was the work of the Lord, the choice of the Lord, and if we at the same time believe that the Lord is good, then we become candidates for grace. Because then we will be living in faith. And faith is always cause for, always leads to, gratitude.

           

Happy Miracle of Hanukkah

It’s December 2nd. Tonight at sundown the Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins.

Historically the celebration is about the dedication of the second Temple at Jerusalem some 2200 years ago. Spiritually it’s about an approach to life that need not be restricted to those of the Jewish faith.

The story is that the Maccabees wanted to put together an eight-day celebration, lighting a candle each day, but when they looked at their supply of oil for the candle, they discovered that they had oil enough to light the candle only once. They could have allowed this perceived insufficiency to stop the entire festival, on the practical grounds of “we simply don’t have what we need for what we want to do.” Instead, they saw in their minds and hearts the eight-day festival they wanted to do, then they went ahead and used the oil they had to light the candle. The miracle was that the next day, when they looked at their supply, holding their vision in mind, there was again enough oil to light the candle. The same miracle happened again the next day, and the day after . . .

You and I have the same connection the Maccabees did to a Power greater than we are, to a Presence that is gracious by nature. The way to welcome the miracle of Hanukkah into your life is to hold a vision in your mind and heart, then take the first step and do what you can do, even though you do not have at the moment everything you will need to complete the entire project. Taking the step you can take opens the way to the step you can’t yet see. May you be blessed this Hanukkah season.

           

Something I’m Celebrating

These days, getting the mail is not usually something I celebrate. This week, however, I received an unexpected magazine in the mail that gave me real joy.

The publication is called BookPage, and it normally goes to libraries and bookstores to provide to their patrons. It’s full of feature articles on authors, book reviews, and ideas about books that would make good gifts. In the November 2018 edition, Barbara Kingsolver is pictured on the cover; she has a new novel out entitled Unsheltered, which I know I will be reading.

So, I casually opened the magazine, wondering how I came to be receiving it. And there on the inside front cover were ten books under a heading that read “Great Books for Every Reader.” AND THERE WAS MY BOOK!

 

To say that I am pleased and heartened is inadequate. It helps me want to keep writing! Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of encouragement to keep me going — but a little, now and then, is sure nice. I am grateful for BookPage!

           

The Other Serenity Prayer

My niece recently posted on Facebook something called “The Other Serenity Prayer.” Most of us know by heart the standard Serenity Prayer, which goes: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Anyone who was active in the various support groups that came alive in the 1970s and ’80s knew that standard prayer well, because it was how we ended every “codependency” support meeting in those days.

The Other Serenity Prayer goes like this:  “God, grant me the serenity to stop beating myself up for not doing things perfectly, the courage to forgive myself because I’m working on doing better, and the wisdom to know that you already love me just the way I am.” This version of the prayer is attributed to Unknown.

The Bible gives ample support for the idea that God loves us as we are, because of His plans for our lives. Here are just a few of the hundreds of verses that follow this theme. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” [2 Corinthians 5:17] “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:10] “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” [John 1:12] “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” [2 Timothy 1:7]

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, faith can make you whole.

           

The Bluest Skies

My friend Mary reminded me of that old song that includes the line that the bluest skies you’ll ever see are in Seattle. These October days show clearly why someone might have that thought. It is rare for Seattle to have such a string of beautiful, clear, vivid days like we have been having.

In such a stretch as this, it is easy to forget the unending days of rain, the relentless gray that once made Seattle the suicide capital of the nation, and the storms of winter that are escalating in recent years with more ice and snow than the locals (not to mention the thousands of new folks) know quite how to deal with, considering the seven hills on which Seattle was built.

It is easy to give thanks on days like this, when we feel blessed by the warm sun and the gorgeousness of the changing colors of autumn.

But the days will return when we simply have to know that the blue skies are up there somewhere, when we have to have faith that warm days will be with us again, when we will give thanks even though there appears to be less reason to do so. And the reason we will do that is because the Bible is clear:  “… in every situation [no matter what the circumstances] be thankful and continually give thanks to God; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (AMP).

           

Read It Again

Part of the joy of re-reading a book you loved in the past is getting to notice elements of writing craft that you cannot see the first time through.

For example, in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, there is early-on (Chapter 6) a very short scene in which the main character is being badgered by a reporter. His friend and protector “went through the door low and fast. The momentum of his drive slammed the intruder into a wall…” We as readers are told that this incident is “literally nightmarish” for our lead, but we have no idea why, nor do we know we’ve just had a bit of foreshadowing. That gift awaits us only if we revisit those early pages after reading the whole book.

In our age, many of us find it hard enough to finish a good book the first time through, let alone to tackle a second reading. But the second reading is where we find meanings impossible to see without the repeated exposure.

The same is true of Bible study. So much is there, waiting for us to find it, but we are best served by repeated readings. Our patient study and revisiting of Scripture grant us insights and blessings we rarely are able to see the first time through.

           

Praising and Giving

I’ve been thinking about the connection between praising and giving. There must be a strong, direct connection because congregations all over the nation, if not the planet, routinely close the “giving” portion of the worship service with the Doxology: “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

It seems to me that the relationship might look like a chain of links. The first link would be praise—the starting place of all things good. We praise God, from Whom all blessings flow. Those blessings give us the power, ability, and inclination to be givers ourselves. That’s the second link: us in the role of givers.

The third link is composed of all those individuals, causes, church functions, etc., who are the recipients or beneficiaries of our giving. Every gift has the potential of reaching an ever-widening circle in its impact.

I believe that something mystical happens in the second and third links. That is, the Presence of God is there.

The benefits received in the third link are cause for new praise, the fourth link, as people give thanks for the good that has come into their lives.

Praise is the beginning and end of every circumstance of giving.

 

           

Blessed Characterizations

A blog entry here two and a half years ago (January 2016) discussed a phase I was in of reading Marilynn Robinson books. The phase is currently being revisited because my reading buddy, Linda, and I have taken up Gilead—we’re both reading it and will spend some time talking about it.

Robinson’s gift as an author is not plot, nor setting, nor pacing, but rather characterization. Her key characters are deeply drawn to the extent that they become unforgettable. This is true mostly of the characters who actually appear on the page as part of the story (the pastor John Ames and his wife, Lila, for example), but also of a few who appear only in the memories of the key players.

Through John Ames’s memories, we come to know his grandfather pretty well, a difficult man long gone from the world but one who left his mark on his family and his church. No matter how dire a situation the old man faced—including the loss of an eye in wartime—he was inclined to remark: “I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.” How can you not love a character who makes such a statement his approach to life?

Gilead is a love story, of sorts, but much more it is a working out of one man’s theology and fortunately he is quite ready to admit when he’s in over his head. One of a great many lines I’ve marked is this one: “… there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.”

           

(Author photo by Mark Bennington.)