Ordinary Time

The rush of wind and tongues of flame in the story of Pentecost are powerful symbols of transformation. The drama of the Christian story breaks into flame, and a bewildered body of believers is energized and empowered to become the church. It’s a moment of incredible intensity, but the story doesn’t end at that crescendo. In real life, it never does.

We celebrated Pentecost on Sunday, honoring the power and presence of the spirit in myriad manifestations then and now. But on Monday, the church simply entered the season of ordinary time.

Fire creates a drama that’s tough to follow, and the liturgical calendar makes no attempt to top it. The high seasons of Lent and Eastertide have passed, the liturgical purple, white and gold, and red are folded and put away. Through the remainder of spring and summer, and well into the fall, the church wears green—the color of life and growth. It’s time to move into a growing season that unfolds in its own time, yielding the fruit that the coming days will nourish. Whether it’s in the church year or in our individual lives, growth is manifest in ordinary time.

The drama wanes in the return to everyday life. When tongues of flame set us alight, we know there’s something happening. We’re part of something big, and life is exciting. When we’re merely a vine trying to put out a new leaf, the work is hard and the audience is gone.

The return to ordinary time is like the lesson from a Zen master—Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water; After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. Our spiritual life may change, but ordinary chores remain. We may awaken to a richer reality, but we live out that new perspective in this world—the only one we have.

A vision of what life might be depends on the work of carrying it out. The miracle of transformation is only experienced when it is lived. Transcendence can be visited upon us in a moment, but following through in the world takes time and strength.

Moses came down from the mountain to the mess that his people had made, and he led them to a better life. Though Peter encouraged Jesus to dwell on the mountain of his transfiguration, he returned to his ministry and made the journey to Jerusalem and the cross. Mountaintop moments come to fruition when we return to daily life.

When the Holy Spirit blew into the lives of Jesus’ followers, it was through the hole in their world left by his departure. It blows into our lives, too, through openings we may not even realize are there. Its arrival may not be dramatic, and its presence may be subtle. But it abides where it matters—in ordinary time.

What happens next?

Don’t Do What I Do

I’ve been trying for two days to write a post about maintenance vs. creativity. I wanted to look at how the endless chores of maintaining a life are necessary, even as they consume the energy needed for creative work. A paradox. I struggled unsuccessfully with the writing, but phone calls, paperwork, appointments, meetings, shopping, cooking, and laundry I’ve done.

I wanted a spiritual approach to making peace with what’s required of our limited time and energy. I wanted to offer some wisdom about the legitimate need for order, valuing the effort without being a slave to it. But I have no mastery of this subject.

I have not learned how to balance tending the details and rising above them. Instead, I keep riding this pendulum. I push away to-do’s that need attention until they’re so thick I can’t move. Then I set aside everything else to focus on the neglected tasks, desperate to be free of chaos and disorder. Only then can I turn my attention to the work I’d rather do, and the cycle repeats.

I’d like this blog to offer something of value, but in this case I can only say don’t do what I do. I don’t even want to do what I do. I know that maintenance and vision doesn’t have to be either/or; we call that a false dichotomy. Stacks of mail won’t obliterate creativity. Errands can’t negate a fulfilling life. But balance is elusive. Quite simply, I want to be freed from disorder and from the work of putting things in order. But I live in the inherent conflict of these desires.

Maybe the totality of my life will average out to be balanced—orderly enough with a glimmer of creativity. But I keep swinging past the sweet spot, overdoing it one way or the other.

Lord, have mercy.

Make Us Free to Dare and Dream

Graduation day at Lexington Theological Seminary is announced with bagpipes. The piper, in full regalia, fills the air with tradition. The past is present as we look to the future. Today the Class of 2010 walked down the green hill of the LTS campus and across South Limestone, led once again by the piper, Will Young.

The sound of the bagpipes carries, whether across the moors or across a busy city block. The tones evoke a sense of ancient memory and speak of spiritual longing. The graduation procession winds down the hill, leaving the campus of the seminary—a fitting ritual for commencement. The traffic of modern life pauses for a moment as the line of choir, faculty, trustees, and graduates threads its way across the busy street to the swell of the piper’s chords.

The church has been changing for centuries upon centuries, and the education of its ministers has changed as well. Those connected with LTS are now living through the necessity of change, its uncertainty, and the arduous effort it requires. The seminary is making a transition into new ways of reaching and educating students, and the churches its graduates serve will be finding new ways to reach out and to embody Christ in the world.

Through all the change, we continue to be shaped by memory and longing. The wail of the bagpipes is a way of describing the place where we stand. In our own lives, and in the lives of the institutions we foster and depend on, we stand between what has been and what will be. We hold the teachings and traditions we have received, with our hopes and longings for the world we want to see shaping the way we pass our faith along.

It was a privilege to hear Rev. Dr. William L. Lee, Senior Pastor of Loudon Avenue Christian Church in Roanoke, Virginia give the commencement address. He spoke about the power of being “Chosen,” and the responsibility and accountability that comes with such a designation. He reminded the graduates: you have not just been invited—you have been chosen. Jesus has done the choosing; he knows you for better or worse, and yet he chose you anyway. He sees in you what you cannot see in yourselves. So don’t dwell on what you are not; focus on what you have. God’s grace will always be greater than any failure. And when you no longer believe in God, know that God believes in you. “God knew just what she was doing when she laid hands on you,” he assured them. You can know that, because you have been chosen.

One of my favorite aspects of the LTS graduation ceremony is the hymn, “God of Wisdom, Truth, and Beauty,” sung to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It names God in fresh and revealing ways, ascribing divine presence to a vast scope of human endeavors. It offers encouragement to all of us who stand in the transition between what has been and what will be. I leave you with these word to the hymn below:

God of Wisdom, truth, and beauty, God of Spirit, fire, and soul,

God of order, love and duty, God of purpose, plan and goal;

Grant us visions ever growing, Breath of life, eternal strength,

Mystic spirit, moving, flowing, Filling height and depth and length.


God of drama, music, dancing, God of story, sculpture art,

God of wit, all life enhancing, God of every yearning heart;

Challenge us with quests of spirit, Truth revealed in myriad ways,

Word or song for hearts that hear it, Sketch and model—forms of praise.


God of atom’s smallest feature, God of galaxies in space,

God of every living creature, God of all the human race;

May our knowledge be extended, For the whole creation’s good,

Hunger banished, warfare ended, all the earth a neighborhood.


God of science, history, teaching, God of futures yet unknown,

God of holding, God of reaching, God of power beyond each throne;

Take the fragments of our living, Fit us to your finest scheme,

Now forgiven and forgiving, Make us free to dare and dream.


Unnecessary Agitation, and Other Lessons from a Laundry Odyssey

This past week included, among everything else that a week brings, a late-night watery floor. It resulted from what I expected to be a typical load of laundry, with too many other loads awaiting their turn. I mopped up the water, put the clothes in the dryer, and resolved to think about that tomorrow. This is my first choice in dealing with any crisis that arises after 10:00 at night. Most of the time it works quite well.

Insight 1:  Sometimes we get messed over by our own procrastination, and it feels lousy.

Lesson 1:  Don’t procrastinate.

Caveat:  This is easier said than done.

It was a busy week, but a couple of evenings later I gathered the strength to face the question of whether it was a hose problem or a washer problem. I ran water into the machine, watched it drain and spin, and there was apparently no problem. Wanting to believe that the prior event was an anomaly, I started another small load and walked away. Which resulted in water on the floor again.

Insight 2:  We know what we know, even if we don’t want to admit it.

Lesson 2:  We can avoid messes if we take responsibility for what we know.

Caveat:  Sometimes it’s hard to know how.

Clearly it was not simply a problem with the hose. With the washing machine several years old, and the high cost of a service call, we chose to replace the machine. I was glad to have that option, and assumed I would find something similar to the old washer, have it delivered, and get on with the laundry.

But the technology of washing machines has moved on, and there were things to learn in order to make a good decision. When I finally understood this, I regretted my thoughtlessness and began trying to learn enough to choose wisely.

Insight 3:  Good decisions require knowledge and attention.

Lesson 3:  Acting responsibly involves making an effort to learn.

Caveat:  There are limits to what we can know; we simply do the best we can.

Now I have a front-loading washing machine, which uses less water, detergent, and power than the old one. I’m still getting used to it. For as long as I’ve been doing laundry, getting clothes clean has meant agitation—energetic churning of fabric through great quantities of water and suds. I had to embrace a new paradigm as I watched the first load of sheets cycle through the wash.

The drum turned, lifting the sheets gently to the right until they dropped, and continued to turn slowly, lifting and dropping. Then the machine stopped and turned in the opposite direction to lift and drop the fabric again. Over and over. It was more like the movement of women beating laundry against river rocks than my familiar modern way of washing clothes. The new machine uses just enough water to wet the fabric, then lifts and drops the laundry until it’s clean. Amazingly, it works—the steady, rhythmic motion of the ancient way is apparently the right idea.

Insight 4:  All the agitation that I thought of as necessary…isn’t.

Lesson 4:  Some assumptions about how things must be done are wrong. Look for a simpler and more sustainable way. There are clues to be found in the past.

Caveat:  I’m grateful not to be washing clothes in the river. New technology can be a good partner to the old ways.

I realize from the whole experience that it’s important to leave room for what genuinely needs attention. Including the need for sleep. But I’m also wondering about other kinds of agitation I’ve assumed was necessary. Maybe I need to rethink some of them.

Is there another way to do things without so much churning?

Remember the Sabbath?

Work and rest serve one another when they’re in the right balance, but finding the perfect equilibrium is an art I have not mastered. The feeling that I’ve done enough and deserve to rest eludes me. The question of what counts as real work, which always shadows a creative effort, makes the issue even more complex.

Yet whatever our work may be, we can’t exhale indefinitely; we have to take a breath. We can’t continue producing without replenishment. But I’d like to have some assurance that I’ve done enough, and that it’s ok to ease up for a while, short of the need to collapse.

The issue of balancing work and rest is ancient. When Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, they were a people misshapen by centuries of slavery. They needed guidance as they learned to structure their lives for themselves. The Sabbath was a gift to them, which established a rhythm of work and rest, material effort and spiritual replenishment. It conveyed the divine message that for this week, you have done enough. It was essential to being healthy and whole, living in relationship with God.

We still need that rhythm. But with no one descending from the mountaintop with stone tablets for our culture to insist that we keep it, it’s up to us to create space for the Sabbath in our lives. Doing that requires some preparation. It means valuing the Sabbath enough to plan ahead for it. I love the idea of keeping a Sabbath, but maybe it could be even more than a Sunday afternoon nap.

The challenge is that working ahead to clear a space takes effort. Cleaning up the house, preparing food ahead of time, getting the essential chores and errands out of the way requires a commitment that’s simply easier not to make. Those are things I might make myself do if company is coming, but I’m less inclined to make the effort for myself.

My brother and sister-in-law are avid football fans, and when their team plays at home they prepare for their weekends in just this way. On Thursday evening after a long day of work, they nonetheless clean their house as they look toward the weekend. They plan for how to feed their guests who come in for the game, and prepare many of the meals and snacks ahead of time. By Friday evening the work is done, and they’re ready to kick back and enjoy the weekend. Visiting them during football season is relaxing and fun. They’re able to be generous hosts while genuinely relaxing and enjoying themselves.

It seems to me that’s a pretty good model for observing the Sabbath. A day to rest and be restored, doing what we truly enjoy, is worth claiming. Perhaps in preparing for the Sabbath we can relish the feeling of having earned it, as well.

Knowing this and making it part of my life are two different things. But I’d like to work on having that kind of balance.

What helps you get the right rhythm of work and restoration?

Praying the Psalms

Part 3 in a series on Breath Prayers

The Psalms show us that any emotion offered to God is appropriate for prayer. Nothing is off-limits. Psalms express grief, despair, vengefulness, fear, rage, and desolation, as well as thankfulness, hope, faith, trust, celebration, and joy – to name a few. Every aspect of who we are is acceptable to bring to prayer.

Within the vessel of prayer, emotions that might feel overwhelming in another context are held within a relationship with God. We bring our emotions to God, and recognize God’s power to reach us through them. We allow the possibility of being transformed.

There are many ways to pray the Psalms, including finding lines within them that can serve as breath prayers. Many lines of the Psalms are paired, echoing a thought in different words that may suggest a slightly different meaning. Reading them is like looking at a sculpture, taking a step left or right, then looking again from a slightly different angle. Sometimes the shift in perspective shows something we didn’t see before.

A breath prayer can use one or both of the paired lines. A single line might be said in one breath, in and out. A pair of lines will probably require two breaths. To learn more about breath prayers, have a look at:

Part 1 of this series, “Breathing a Prayer”

Part 2 of this series, “Simple Prayers that Fit our Lives”

The Psalms hold a lifetime of possibilities for breath prayers. Here are a few lines taken from various Psalms, using the NRSV translation:


The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,

the world, and those who live in it.  (Psalm 24)


Be still and know that I am God.  (Psalm 46)


Create in me a clean heart, O God.

and put a new and right spirit within me.  (Psalm 51)


You show me the path of life;

in your presence there is fullness of joy.  (Psalm 17)


May God grant you your heart’s desire,

and fulfill all your plans.  (Psalm 20)


O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and by night, but find no rest.  (Psalm 22)


How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?  (Psalm 13)


Relieve the troubles of my heart,

and bring me out of my distress.  (Psalm 25)


O my God, do not be far from me.  (Psalm 38)


The LORD is the stronghold of my life,

of whom shall I be afraid?  (Psalm 27)


As a deer longs for flowing streams,

so my soul longs for you, O God. (Psalm 42)


You desire truth in the inward being;

therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.  (Psalm 51)


Cast your burden on the LORD,

and God will sustain you.  (Psalm 55)


In God I trust; I am not afraid.  (Psalm 56)


O LORD, Make haste to help me!  (Psalm 70)


This is the day that the LORD has made;

let us rejoice and be glad in it.  (Psalm 118)


On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased the strength of my soul.  (Psalm 138)


Give heed to my cry,

for I am brought very low.  (Psalm 142)


Teach me the way I should go,

for to you I lift up my soul.  (Psalm 143)


Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!  (Psalm 150)


What are your favorite lines?

Simple Prayers that Fit our Lives

Part 2 in a series on Breath Prayers

It’s unfortunate that so little teaching about breath prayer is offered in today’s church. These prayers fit beautifully into the lives we lead in this time and culture. They’re brief and portable, a manageable doorway into a richer spiritual life. And they help to meet our great need for spiritual respite.

A breath prayer is connected with the body, offering a tangible experience of prayer. The life force that draws breath in and out of us through every moment of our lives, with or without our awareness, tells us something about the presence of God. Similarly, a breath prayer is a reminder of God’s presence.

There are many ways to center our prayers in our breathing, including simply becoming quiet and aware of the flow of the breath. Awareness of the breath is a good place to start in prayer; it helps us to relax. But adding words can help to keep a prayerful focus.

Words for a breath prayer can come from poetry, scripture, or prayers we write ourselves. It claims an attitude toward God, a longing, a request, a need, a hope, a confession—an opening of the heart to the divine. When we adopt a prayer to say in rhythm with our breathing throughout the day, we acknowledge something about ourselves, something about God, and something about that relationship. We allow the prayer to become part of us, to shape our thoughts and our heart.

The words to a breath prayer are brief and simple, like a mantra. It does not voice everything we think, and isn’t made to sum up all that we trust in, or hope for, or seek. It uses pared-down language that suggests more than it states. It points beyond us, toward the divine object of our longing.

For example, part of Psalm 13 reads, “Give light to my eyes.” I love the line and the wealth of meaning it implies. A breath prayer using that line might be, “God of all wisdom, give light to my eyes.”

The words to the prayer are said in rhythm with the breath, a phrase on inhalation and a phrase on exhalation. A single breath, in and out, might complete the prayer; a longer prayer might require two full breaths.

You might find words for a breath prayer written in scripture or penned by spiritual teachers or poets. The possibilities are everywhere. In the next post, I’ll offer more from the Psalms.

What words inspire you?

You might also be interested in Part  1 of this series, Breathing a Prayer, on wordless breath prayers. Or in Part 3, Praying the Psalms.