Settled into a Rut

Everyday Spirituality is about experiencing the divine in the mundane and seeing lessons where problems are apparent.

Even with things like my desk chair.

It sits on a plastic carpet protector that is meant not only to protect the plush carpet but to allow me to move the chair easily.

But as time goes on and I sit in my chair day after day, something happens. My weight presses the chair wheels downward until the plastic (normally flat and unyielding) sinks into concave shapes, as though a golf club had cut four divots.

When that happens, I can no longer shift my chair—at all. I can’t move closer to the computer, nor to the left to open a desk drawer, nor to the rear to more easily leave the workstation. I am as fixed as if the chair were nailed to the floor, never mind the wheels and plastic surface meant to keep me mobile.

The only solution is to wrestle my way out, grasp the chair and force it—like pulling false teeth out of taffy—out of the divots. The heavy chair clearly longs to fall back into the ruts, but I wrangle with it to shove the wheels away from the grooves and onto hard, flat surfaces where the chair and protector can both perform as intended.

It forces me to wonder how many areas of life are just like that: where we have settled into ruts that will fight to keep us stuck.

 

       

Peace in the Time of COVID-19

The sun is out shining brightly; flowering cherry trees are in bloom; buds are already abundant with new life. This time of self-isolation, instituted in an effort to slow or stop the spread of the coronavirus, is also a time of stopping to notice what is around us.

A spiritual director friend of mine said: “It feels like an extended retreat.”

Along with doing what we can to safely help others, maybe the best use of this time is to pull ourselves back by the spiritual tether that links us to God, so we come back under His wing. A good verse to think about is Hebrews 13:5 from the Amplified Bible:
“For God Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. I will not. I will not. I will not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down. Assuredly not!”

May God keep you safely in His care.

       

Leap the Abyss

James Broughton wrote a wonderful, short poem, which I first noticed seven years ago and some small part of my mind has been thinking about since. It appears at the end of this post.

Not that I can actually take every position it recommends, but it reminds me of a favorite thought from Mark Twain, who said that twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you did not do than by the ones you did.

Regret is the one emotion I have tried my best to avoid. And this poem clearly attempts to offer ways to help a person not get too acquainted with regret—at least the regret of not trying what you wanted to try.

Take some time to remember whatever was once important to you but became buried by time and life experience. And once you uncover it, look at the advice in the poem to see how much of it you can undertake.

Choose not to upholster the rut you’re in; choose to leap the abyss to what’s more beautiful, what gives you life, what’s next.

 

Take the whole kit
with the caboodle
Experience life
don’t deplore it
Shake hands with time
don’t kill it
Open a lookout
Dance on a brink
Run with your wildfire
You are closer to glory
leaping an abyss
than upholstering a rut
~ James Broughton ~


       

Seed … Time … Harvest

I know this picture doesn’t look like much to you. But actually something remarkable has happened, and this photo is the proof.

You may ask, “What’s so remarkable about scrawny new grass growing in?”

I’ll tell you.

The grass seeds were sown over a year ago, possibly more like eighteen months ago. I can’t say that I actually planted them by the usual procedure. They were truly sown: scattered on the bare dirt in the backyard.

I wasn’t expecting much to come of it, and as far as I could tell, nothing did. I did minor tending of my hoped-for crop, but I knew from past experience that it would be difficult for grass to grow in where running dogs, persistent drought, and ever-increasing shade discouraged new growth. My professional landscaper had already tried twice without success and had asked me not to expect him to try again.

But well over a year ago, I bought a small sack of seed and sowed it. The seeds lay dormant. After five or six months, I gave up on them, and then I forgot about them entirely.  Now, after weeks of recent autumn rains, the seeds have sprouted and taken root. They are growing! New grass is coming up everywhere I haphazardly scattered those seeds.

Then I heard that archaeologists had discovered, in a sealed coffin, seeds estimated to be over 4,000 years old. Being researchers, they had to see what would happen if they planted some of them. What happened was that the seeds took root and grew. They were still alive and viable.

I have to wonder: what seeds have you sown and completely forgotten about—seeds that are just waiting for the right time, the right conditions to sprout? They may be seeds of kindness, of giving, of encouragement, of hope. I have to conclude that the seeds we plant into other people’s lives are just as hardy as those scattered seeds in my backyard and also never die.

       

A Writer Sees Red

From time to time, this blog looks at something about writing, which can sometimes be as much of a spiritual practice as meditation or prayer or labyrinth-walking.

Writing, though, is usually more intentional than many other spiritual practices. Part of the intentionality is how deliberate the writer must be about word choice and image choice.

Just in case you don’t believe that, here is a short and somewhat playful demonstration:

“Her face reddened” means one thing. (Has she been caught in a lie?)

“Her eyes reddened” means something altogether different. (Is she sad, or about to cry?)

“Her hair reddened” is a whole other thing. (Only her hair dresser knows for sure.) And “her ears reddened” is another shift in meaning. (Likely embarrassed about something — or possibly just caught out in the cold without earmuffs.) Yet, all of these are about redness occurring on the head.

We also talk about “red-handed,” which means something different from “her hands were red.” And a business might be “in the red” but might be saved by a “red-letter day.”

The English language offers so much meaning, often layers of it. It is a gift to find a writer who knows the depth of what’s possible with our language and how to employ it artfully.

       

Rushing God’s Timing

Today is an unexpected day off in the middle of a week-long fence-repair project. My contractor has pruned all the plants in the flower beds on the sides of the fence and covered them with painters plastic. She has replaced a rotten board or two and used a strong cleaning product along with a brush to remove algae. Through the process, the boards got a good soaking. She asked me to check the bottoms of the boards this morning to make sure they were dry enough for paint.

They weren’t. So painting is postponed. If we were to ignore the dampness and move ahead with painting, as planned, the paint would not adhere correctly, and the job would be botched. Soaked boards take time to dry thoroughly here in my shady yard; it would be a mistake to rush the process.

It’s the same way with God’s timing. All of us plan things for our lives, and we always have in mind exactly how it should all go. We usually have a schedule we’re working out, even if we haven’t consciously thought of it that way. We still have our ideas of what should happen next and when and how it should happen.

But often times God has other ideas. Maybe He knows the wood isn’t dry yet, even though we don’t detect the dampness, and if we’ll listen, we can avoid a wrong decision. Maybe there is really nothing wrong with the plan we’re trying to put into effect—other than that God has a much better one around the corner, if we can hold our horses. We’re always much better off to take the time to pray, to seek divine guidance, to try to discern God’s way for our lives, and never to rush God’s timing.

       

Another Look at Faith

You could almost say that faith is a gift that keeps on giving. That is, no matter how many times I visit the issue of faith, there comes another time when the subject deserves another look. It’s a very big subject.

Last September, in one of the rare occasions when I gave the message for the Sunday morning service at my church, I chose as a title, “What We Do; What God Does.” The message was about faith and grace—specifically, how our faith activates grace. Somewhere along the way, I had come to understand the concept that our faith is the mechanism that joins God’s promises with the fulfillment of those promises.

In other words, the promises of God are available to every one of us; they are the grace of God. But if I don’t come to them in faith that they are for me, I will never see them materialize in my life.

Both sides are required for the miracles to occur.

What prompts my latest reconsideration of this vast subject of faith is the book my Sunday study group has been reading: Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered, by Martin B. Copenhaver. A few weeks ago, the group took up Chapter 4: “Questions about Faith and Doubt.” In those pages was a quote by William Sloane Coffin: “Faith isn’t believing without proof—it’s trusting without reservation.” [Coffin was a former Yale University chaplain who was instrumental in creating the Peace Corps.]

I’ve spent some time chewing on the distinction Coffin draws. It doesn’t run parallel with the common Hebrews 11:1 guidance, which tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For one thing, the Hebrews verse is about faith as a noun; the Coffin quote is about faith as a verb. It’s hard to adequately compare nouns with verbs. Worse than apples and oranges.

You may think otherwise, if you take the time to live with the Coffin quote for a while, but it seems to me that if all we had was the first half (believing without proof), faith would have to be considered static, inactive, and even fairly lifeless. But that second half, now, (trusting without reservation), that’s faith that opens up unlimited worlds of life-giving grace.

       

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.

       


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(Author photo by Mark Bennington.)