An Invitation, and the Urgency of October

I’d like to invite you to a reading celebrating the 75th issue of The Louisville Review. It’s tonight at 7:00 at the Carnegie Center in Lexington. I’ll be reading along with some literary lights of Kentucky: Sena Jeter Naslund, Frank X Walker, Bill Goodman, and Karen Mann. You can find more information about the reading and the readers here.

Also, I have a post over at the KaBooM Writers Notebook this week, about the beauty and the urgency of October. It’s called “October Inspiration.”

 

Fall foliage 002

 

I hope this beautiful autumn finds you well.

 

Story and Spirit

Lately I’ve revisited stories from the Bible in a new way, serving as a storyteller for children’s worship at church. Following the “Children, Worship, and Wonder” program we rely on, I’ve learned to present the stories in a ritualized way.

 

Worship & Wonder Beside the Sea of Galilee

 

During Worship and Wonder, children experience sacred space created especially for them. Influenced by Montessori practices, each story has its own materials, stored neatly on a wicker tray and placed in its particular spot on a low shelf. Once the story has been told, it is available for the children to work with on their own for the rest of the year.

As in the Bible, these stories are told using relatively few words. They are acted out with simple but beautiful materials crafted from wood and sanded to a natural finish. There are quiet pauses to allow the parts of the story to sink in.

 

Worship & Wonder 002

 

The action of the story might be played out on an expanse of felt representing the Sea of Galilee or in the sand of the desert box. The characters move, they make decisions, they speak, they react to what happens, things change.

 

Worship & Wonder Jesus and Levi

 

In telling stories this way—mindful of the setting, allowing pauses between lines, showing a character’s response through action—I’ve become aware of the spaces within the story. There are moments when the action might have played out differently, where a person might have responded in another way, or where other conversations might have occurred. The drama grows, the questions multiply, the possibilities increase.

It’s a contemplative way of entering the story, leaving room for something new to appear. It brings an element of Ignatian spirituality, a practice established by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. In Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, a practitioner places himself in a scene from the Bible, brought to life through the imagination. She imagines taking part in an episode from the life of Jesus, watching to see what happens and listening for what might be spoken to her.

 

Worship & Wonder Jesus Eating with Tax Collectors and Sinners

 

Children easily and naturally use their imaginations to enter a story, offering ideas of what people might have said, how they might have felt, or what they might have done next. This way of dwelling in a story creates a sacred space where the spirit can work. Seeing this happen is a reminder of the power of story for all of us.

At the end of the hour, the storyteller gives each child a blessing before they leave. It’s a quiet moment, one-on-one. On a recent Sunday I knelt at the door to speak to a child at her eye level. I told her I was glad she was there at Worship and Wonder today. “I’m glad you were, too,” she whispered.

I hadn’t expected to be the one blessed.

 

Room for the Spirit

Last week, workmen installed a new hardwood floor at our house. Preparing for that work looked a lot like moving—books packed away into boxes and furniture carried out. When the room was empty the old carpet looked even worse; this project was long overdue.

Two and a half days of noisy work followed: an electric saw wailing on the front walk, hammers pounding the planks into place, sporadic shots of a nail gun driven by a compressor that reverberated through the entire house. But in the midst of it all was the encouraging scent of fresh lumber and the satisfaction of seeing good work in progress.

Bare Wood Floor

After the oak was stained, the guys brushed the finishing coat over the wood, working their way toward the front door. They stepped backwards onto the porch, leaned in to close the door, and wished us well.

It was quiet. And beautiful.

An empty room with a glowing oak floor has a Zen-like tranquility. Waiting for the finish to dry meant it had to remain bare, and I enjoyed seeing this kind of space in the house. Later, even as I missed the comfort of the room’s furnishings, I was reluctant to move everything back in. The openness invites a sense of expansiveness, of possibility, that I didn’t want to give up.

Not allowing everything to return means making some decisions. It means sorting through shelves and baskets deciding on what’s worth keeping. And it means not letting things pile up once that paring down is done.

But I’ve been here before. And before that. It’s a cycle that continues. But in this case the change started at the foundation, and the decision is not what to carry out but what to bring in. Maybe that will make a difference. I keep having to learn over and over again that changing your space and changing your life seem to go together.

That expanse of uncluttered space, anchored by the warmth of natural wood, made me think of meditation. Maybe it seemed a perfect room for meditation because the open space, both restful and expansive, is like the mental and spiritual uncluttering that happens through meditation and prayer.

It’s also a physical embodiment of what the Sabbath is meant to be—an opening of time for what we value most, a space that allows some perspective on what’s most important. Sacred space and sacred time seem to be two sides of the same coin, and both help make room for the Spirit.

There’s a sense of renewal in transforming this room, just as meditation and prayer renew mind and spirit, as Sabbath renews the week. Creating it gives rise to the question of what is worth allowing into our space, and offers a reminder of how much choice we have in making that decision. It’s a practice worth repeating every week, or even every day.

 

Prayer-Filled Air

At the edge of the parking lot at Third Street Coffee is a section of tall chain link fence. It might serve as a divider between lots, but its primary role is that of connection, just as the coffee shop serves to foster community. The chain link canvas is a place for statements to be made without words, a place that emanates prayers.

 

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

Love Locks for Lexington at Third Street Coffee

 

Mostly it holds small padlocks, an echo of the love locks attached to bridges around the world. The practice apparently arose from a poem called “Prayer for Love” by Serbian poet Desanka Maksimovic.  The result has been bridges where so many couples have attached locks as a symbol of their love and devotion that the cumulative weight threatens the structure of the entire bridge. The locks, meaningful as they are individually, become more than the bridge can bear and have to be removed. The fence at Third Street invites Love Locks for Lexington, a sign of commitment to this city.

The image of all those locks, the public statement that the love they represent matters, has power. The symbol of commitment, locked together in love, has power as well. An outward manifestation of an inward grace—that’s the definition of a sacrament. Perhaps that’s the best way to think of this expanse of chain link. It’s a structure that supports something sacramental, an organically arising symbol of devotion. The practice hasn’t been handed down through the ages, but is something rising up, like blades of grass.

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Prayer Flags at Third Street Coffee

Also on the fence is a line of brightly colored squares of cloth, embellished with simple designs. What can they be but prayer flags, sending prayers and blessings into the world with every passing breeze, through every fleeting glance.

Some devout Buddhists turn small cylinders they carry with the words of a prayer tucked inside, or spin larger wheels built into the walls of a monastery or placed in the river and powered by water. Each spin of the prayer wheel sends the words into the universe, an act of merit for the one who offers the prayer. Prayer flags work the same way, releasing blessings into the air as they flutter in the wind, the air filled with prayer, thick with blessing, a palpable presence, the people changed by breathing power and grace, day and night.

Appropriately enough, there are coffee mugs on the fence at Third Street, too. There are more, of course, inside the café where it’s noisy with talk and laughter and music. The air is filled with the aroma of coffee, and bustles with the delivery of fresh Peruvian beans in a cardboard box, the opening of doors and scraping of chairs, the sounds of connection, conversation, the exchanges that change a day, change a life, change everything.

 

 

A Sense of Order and Sacred Space

Lately I’ve been learning about creating sacred space and leading worship for young children. Familiar rituals, an unhurried presence and clear focus, quiet voices, a space arranged in an orderly way, and a tranquil and consistent way of doing things—all of these are part of infusing the space with a sense of sacredness. The insight of thoughtful people who understand both children and worship has me thinking about the connection between a sense of order and sacred space, not only for children but for adults as well.

 

Sanctuary

 

Our world is messy and the days bring disorder of various kinds. Interactions between people go awry; the systems that should facilitate our lives often put up roadblocks instead. Our bodies, our plans, and the myriad details we juggle are all subject to breaking down. In ways both large and small, we are continually reminded that life is out of our control.

Especially when life feels chaotic, we need to find a sense of order somewhere. Within ourselves, if nowhere else, we need a sense of stillness and peace to move through the day with any grace at all. Nature can be a refuge, but we also need beautiful and tranquil spaces indoors, sheltered from the elements. From the most exalted to the most humble, the sanctuaries we create offer a place apart from the disordered world. We hope they will be infused with meaning, order, and beauty. When done well they embody sacredness beyond any particular beliefs associated with them.

A sanctuary with meaningful rituals offers a place and time for finding order in the midst of confusion. It creates a clearing where we can regain perspective, remember our priorities, and pull ourselves together to face whatever comes next. Sometimes we encounter the divine, other times the reassurance of a familiar practice is enough.

But in either case our impulse to seek order and ritual, and to find in it a connection to a higher order, puts us in touch with the holy. Our instinct to create sacred space is itself a divine gift. Whether or not we feel we’ve encountered God, the sense of finding order and tranquility is restorative. It helps us to act more effectively, live more compassionately, and appreciate life more fully.

Of course order alone doesn’t make a space sacred. A shallow kind of order can be imposed on all kinds of spaces, and preoccupation with order can crowd out vitality and creativity. There’s nothing sacred about oppression or stagnation. Faith communities and their places of worship can be a rich source of ordering one’s life and clearing the way for growth, or they can impose world views that are stifling and limiting.

Jesus said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” but so many oppressive claims are made in the name of Christian religion that many folks have given up on Christianity and on religion in general. That’s unfortunate, not only because many Christian communities are loving and inclusive, but because few other places are prepared to offer the sacred spaces and rituals that human beings need. People at all stages of life need somewhere to find order and tranquility. Are there places outside of religious communities to offer it?

Where do you find sacred space? What helps you to sort things out and find a sense of order and peace?

The Stories that Feed Us

I’ve been thinking lately about what faith is, as practiced in community. And about the tension in religious life between nurturing faith and acting for social justice. Not that they’re opposed—they are yin and yang, a union of opposites. The truth, the full picture, transcends each and holds them together. Each at its fullest point gives way to the other, requires the other to continue, loses meaning without the other, whether in the life of an individual or a community.

Herbs on Serving Platter

But where do we put our energy? Feeding the hungry matters, but it matters both physically and spiritually. Soup kitchens and food boxes meet basic needs, but the spirit’s needs are essential as well. The world is hungry in a thousand ways. People must have food, but they are starved for meaning, for hope, for beauty and peace. We cannot live by bread alone.

This week’s radio show, On Being, is an interview with Avivah Zornberg, who explores biblical stories through the Jewish tradition of midrash. She makes the insightful observation that faith is about asking better and better questions.

During the seder meal in the Jewish celebration of Passover, the practice of asking and answering questions is part of the sacred ritual. Children at the table see unusual and interesting foods, placed before them in part to invite questions. Why is this night different from other nights? Why are we eating these herbs tonight? A child’s simple question echoes through layers of experience in the minds of the adults. We need more than simple answers as life goes on, but we continue to ask why.

In the Seder ritual, the answer to the child and to the adults as well, comes through story. There is richness in that kind of teaching. Open spaces with room for exploration are made present in the world of a story. There is wisdom in demonstrating to the young that when people gather around the things that matter, we create a place and a time for questions.

Those early questions usually have answers. Children need information; stories are literal. But when the information comes in the form of stories, the answers invite more wondering, more questions, as time goes on.

The true teachings may be less about what can be known than about the stories that shape our lives, and the questions we’re invited into. A story changes as we inhabit it, and we are changed, too. I wish I had understood this better when my children were young, but we’re all still learning. Still asking questions.

The Challenge to Become Wise

“Where shall wisdom be found?” is an ancient question that remains as relevant as this week’s New York Times. An interesting article in Sunday’s paper provides a glimpse of how some researchers in our time understand wisdom. The attributes they discuss bolster quality of life in any circumstance. But in particular this article looks at how traits of wisdom foster positive, meaningful lives as people get older, and help in coping with serious physical decline.

Job 28 12

One aspect of wisdom has to do with the ability to accept change, including changes in ourselves. Psychotherapist Isabella S. Bick points out that if we reject our current selves for not remaining the same as we were in the past, we cut off our ability to grow wise. Yet in different ways, and at different levels, this is exactly what we do. We spend a lot of energy trying to argue with what is.

One inevitable change, of course, is aging. In a culture that reveres youth as much as ours does, it’s hard not to feel diminished by age. But deep change happens in many ways, pushing us out of our comfortable places. Activities and relationships that gave life meaning go away. Involvements and priorities that once mattered no longer seem important. We are dealt new challenges.

Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965)* calls this “the shaken and devastated surface of [our] former lives and thoughts,” and says that facing it is how we grow. We are meant for a life of greater depth, and greater joy, but “the road runs contrary to the way we formerly lived and thought.” It’s a dismaying thought—all those miles in one direction just to turn around and go the other way.  And who wants to disrupt a life, or a world view, when we’ve worked so hard to get where we are?

Tillich answers by reminding us that too much of the time “we talk and talk and never listen to the voices speaking to our depth and from our depth. We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are. . . We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life.”

People who have looked beneath the surface and “found that they were not what they believed themselves to be” know something of the depth of things. No one wants to endure a painful disruption, but it moves us toward wisdom, something most of us do hope to have in some measure at the end of our lives.

Tillich clarifies what we’re looking for. He says, “the name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, or what you take seriously without any reservation.”

The heart of things lies beneath the potholed surface of our lives. But life’s challenges are real, and we need more than social research to help meet them. We need insight from beyond our current time and culture to help us become wise. Interpreting the spiritual wisdom of the ages is part of what we need from religion, and we stand in great need of theologians like Tillich who could bring a rich intellectual and spiritual life to his ministry.

He challenged his flock from all walks of life to deepen their existence. He told them, “the mark of real depth is its simplicity. If you should say, ‘This is too profound for me; I cannot grasp it’, you are self-deceptive. For you ought to know that nothing of real importance is too profound for anyone. It is not because it is too profound, but rather because it is too uncomfortable, that you shy away from the truth.”

The quality of our existence, individually and collectively, depends on meeting that challenge.

 

*The quotes from Paul Tillich are from “The Depth of Existence,” in his book entitled The Shaking of the Foundations.

Meditation in Lent

At meetings of my writing group, we often undertake a freewrite exercise together. Using prompts of various kinds, we spend twenty minutes or so writing without editing, simply letting the conversation and the shared energy around the table work with the prompt to elicit new work. This post is from today’s group meeting, where I drew the the words “decision,” “demand,” and “would  you pay” from an Altoid tin full of provocative words. My writing friends found meaning in this writing and urged me to post it. Going with their judgment, here it is. 

Sand Dunes

 

I’m thinking about the feather in Forrest Gump, swirling on currents of air, the lovely way it’s lifted and carried from here to there, rising and falling but always remaining aloft and traveling on to a new place, in harmony with the prevailing winds, peacefully moving through the world. When the movie came out I lived next door to a preacher who said to his flock: Don’t be like that feather, don’t just be blown by the breeze—make your life count for something.

I didn’t like his message, its hostility to the flow of things. I didn’t want the bulldoggedness of his theology or to be someone who operated that way. I didn’t want to reject the organic movement of the world, of life with others, to plow forward as if my own motives mattered most.

Maybe I wanted to picture the Holy Spirit as the air lifting that feather and sending it where it needed to be. How else could a feather know where to go? And how much more about where to go do I know?

But in this world decisions are required. Moving forward demands a decision, necessitates action. We come equipped with our own vision; I think we’re supposed to use it. Even if it’s limited. Even if it’s inadequate. Maybe filling out that vision is where the Holy Spirit comes in.

What would you pay is a question that drives this world. We have to pay. And we need to be paid. What would you pay for what I have to offer? That’s how we measure so much of our worth. Too much, but that’s the world we live in.

What would you pay to have what you want? And with what currency? With money? with time? with attention? with training? with dogged effort? with constant tending? with scraping for hope? with gathering the necessary vitality for one more try, one more day? Would you pay with sacrifice? with humility? with impoverishment? with pleading? with force? with violence? with insistence? with demands? with exile? with rejection? with woundedness? with letting go? with love? What is the price of what matters most? Is it anything short of a cross?

 

A Different Way to Fight

“Everyone talks about fighting cancer,” a dear friend in the midst of that struggle tells me. “They talk about it as a battle. The doctors say you have to fight.” But she goes on to say that “battle” isn’t the best way to describe what she has to do.

Labyrinth Covered in Leaves

 

A battle implies a clash in which the enemy can be vanquished. It suggests a singular foe. But my friend understands that her challenge is to continue living her life with the people she loves, even as she endures treatment and manages its details. The cancer she contends with is a chronic condition that will, in some way, remain present in her life. The hope is less for a victory than a truce.

For someone who does not want the disease to define her, making it the primary focus of her life would be a kind of giving in. To cultivate the discipline of mind and strength of heart to live and love, even through the ongoing demands of cancer treatment, is an entirely different mindset.

My friend is required to spend a great deal of time caught up in the medical machine that is our health care system. Even with the support of family and friends, she has a difficult task in trying to bridge the gaps between the realms of the different physicians involved in her care, and in navigating the labyrinth of the way our doctors and hospitals practice medicine. All of that is on top of the myriad details in keeping everyday life on track. It would be easy to allow those challenges to take over.

But she continues to be involved in the lives of her family and friends. She spends time with her grandchildren, works on her poetry, has coffee with her writing group. She maintains her interest in politics as well as her walks around the park, and lends a sympathetic ear to others. She remains grounded in her life even as she undertakes the requirements of her treatment.

Her battle is for her life, at least as much as it’s against cancer. She tries to avoid being consumed by the fight, so she can enjoy what is precious to her. She resists being focused only on treatment, not wanting to put off her life until later. Her fierceness is in her determination to live, even now.

She is like a birch tree, rooted in her life, bending with the force of the strong winds blowing and straightening when they subside. I respect her strength and courage, and I appreciate her wisdom. I am blessed to have her as a friend.

 

 

 

Science and Creationism

On February 4, Bill Nye (“the science guy”) and Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis) will meet at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, to debate the question of the world’s origin. At least that’s how the debate is billed. But the real fight is less about what happened eons ago than about what’s important now.

Calculus and Cross

Advocates of creationism are concerned about the authority of scripture. And for something to be authoritative, it must be true. So those for whom scripture is important are naturally concerned with it being true. Of course, there are different ways to express what is true—through poetry, metaphor, myth, drama, literature, music, art, and more. But in our culture we tend to equate truth with scientific fact. To our detriment, we often treat science as the single measure of what is unassailably true.

This is how the waters get muddied: authority=truth=science.

But this equation leaves us impoverished. This is because science deals only in facts. Science can give us all kinds of valuable information. It helps us understand the world around us, invent new technology, and make our lives better. But science cannot assure us that our lives have meaning. It cannot give us hope or courage. It cannot give us a sense of belonging or of being loved. Science cannot ease our fears or teach us what it means to live a good life. Spiritual questions and longings are part of being human, but science is not designed to address this aspect of human existence. For grappling with spiritual issues, we need the kind of truth we find in religion.

There are two creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis. They vary in terms of the order of creation and the focus of the stories. But the writers of Genesis placed them side by side because those contradictions do not matter. The stories aren’t there to talk about the chronology of the universe. How would that help us? These stories have something more important to convey: that creation is good, that we are placed on earth by a loving God who cares for us and wants us to have what we need. We need that kind of assurance, which religion can offer and science cannot. Scientific claims take nothing away from religious ones—they address different realms of inquiry.

The fear is that if our culture accepts the scientific explanation of creation, then we are rejecting the divine message in Genesis. But these two ways of considering our origins are not in competition. Science is not fit to answer questions about the meaning of our lives. Religion is not equipped to address the physics of the universe.

Nothing is gained for science in denigrating the human search for meaning. Nothing is gained for religion in denying the discoveries that science has gained. People need both.

It’s interesting that Nye is makes something of a moral argument for taking on the difficult role of participating in this debate at a potentially hostile venue. His concern is that children be able to learn science. As he told NBC news:

“We’re just trying to change the world here, and draw attention to these forces in our society that are trying to get creationism in science textbooks. My argument is, this is bad for the country, bad for our economy. We can’t raise a generation of science students who are not scientifically literate.”

The Bible is not made to be a science textbook. Neither is a science textbook equipped to serve as a Bible. They don’t undermine each other, at least they don’t have to. There is no reason why these areas of human endeavor cannot co-exist.