Working with Stones

I’m fascinated by the limestone fences that line the Central Kentucky landscape. Constructed without mortar by skilled builders, many of whom were itinerant Irish and Scottish masons, they can endure for centuries. The Dry Stone Masonry Conservancy teaches this almost-lost art to local masons, preserving and spreading the knowledge that allows the old rock fences to be repaired and maintained in the original way, as well as new ones built.

To study a section of stone fence is to appreciate the depth of attention brought to the work. Rough and irregular stones are layered without gaps, as if each settled naturally into its place according to its nature. Even the smallest stone is an integral part of the whole, filling a space that would otherwise weaken the structure. Made of limestone from the surrounding fields, the fences come from the land and fit easily into the landscape. They were built from the necessity of working with materials at hand. They belong.

Labor and skill are apparent in these old stone fences, but so is a sense of reverence for the world as it is. The builders worked with the nature of the stones, so that the textured unity of the fence is not imposed through conformity but coaxed from diversity. The strength and beauty of a rock wall comes from working with what is given, carefully determining the placement of each piece so that is part of a cohesive whole. Nothing is forced; every stone is different. Yet put together in the right way the stones yield a structure that is beautiful, cohesive, and strong. Each stone lends its strength to something that endures.

The building method works because the stones are different shapes. They don’t just sit side by side, they fit into each other. Scattered across the ground, the stones don’t look like building material. They’re just rocks. They suggest nothing of the potential seen by a mason. But placed by a master builder, they become part of something beautiful and enduring.

In the same way, it can be hard to see what the scattered parts of our lives add up to. Sometimes we lack the perspective on our selves, or on our communities, to see anything more than a rocky field. At those times it helps me to remember that I’m not the mason. In spite of everything I try to do and learn and accomplish and create, there is only so much improvement of myself or the world that I can bring about under my own power. But there is a master builder who has the vision to make something good of my life and its odd-shaped elements, and of this world and its rough-edged inhabitants. There is good work in progress.

What helps give you a builder’s perspective?

When a Week Holds Too Much

Some weeks I feel like nothing more than clay thrown on the potter’s wheel. Hollowed out by forces beyond my control, I see once again that I am not in charge here. Life presses in, making it clear that I have not reached my final form. The potter is not finished with me.

Yet just as I’ve been pressed and pounded, I’ve also been stretched and shaped. The vessel’s curved sides are taking shape, rising in accord with the potter’s vision in these last few turns of the wheel.

We have a great deal of freedom in what we do with our lives, but we are not in control. Sometimes the best I can do is to be good clay. I can try for the balance of malleability and resistance that allows the formation of a good vessel. I can try to sustain the cohesiveness that allows good clay to hold its form.

The sum of the past several days may feel like more than I can hold—challenge and loss, hope and disappointment, love and sorrow—yet the week has nonetheless brought all of it. So I act as I am able, and respond as I can. I cannot assuage my friend’s grief, but I can offer soup and love. I cannot make the world kind, but I can make laundry clean. I cannot make life easy, but I can be grateful for the ability to work.

I cannot see the future, but I can appreciate the beauty of the world around me. I cannot make my wishes come true, but I can take a risk and reach toward them. I can neither force nor forestall change, but I can accept the love and grace that remain constant.

The wheel keeps turning; a hand I trust remains on the clay. All will be well.

What is the turning wheel bringing to you?

Clearing Space

A couple of days ago I noticed some interesting shadows in the evening light. The setting sun cast images of swaying trees and silhouettes of dancing leaves into the house. The most picturesque shadows were on the kitchen wall, below a board full of mementos. I set it up years ago to display children’s art work, but in more recent years it has held newspaper clippings, photos, and memorabilia from their activities. I wanted to get a picture of the light and shadow on the wall, but once I had my camera I realized there was too much clutter in the frame. Posters, newsprint, and a handkerchief hanging from the bottom of the board interfered with getting a good shot, so I quickly removed them before the light changed. I ended up with something kind of interesting:

I’ve been meaning to dismantle that board for over a year. Its role has passed. I’m still proud of my young adult children and their accomplishments, but it’s not about displays. The newspaper is yellowed, the medals are dusty, and the whole thing has been there, unchanged, for so long that no one even sees it any more. But the job I had been putting off—what do I do with all that stuff when I take it down, anyway?—is now underway.

It’s not an insurmountable job to remove the miscellany and open up the wall space, but it does mark the end of an era. Actually, the era has already ended and I’m just now catching up. The board was a simple and effective treatment for an abundance of artwork: a piece of matboard with clothespins glued to it, held on the wall with thumbtacks. It’s still in good shape. If you live nearby and need a way to display your children’s creativity, I’ll be happy to give it to you.

It feels odd to get rid of something that’s been part of the furniture for so many years. On the other hand, it will open up a lot of wall space. There’s something exhilarating about clearing out the old and making room for the new. I’ll enjoy the open space.

I wonder what will go there next.

The Seasonal Work of the Soul

Ecclesiastes is the source of a beautiful passage that has been on my mind in recent days:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;

A time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;

A time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to seek, and a time to lose;

A time to keep, and a time to throw away;

A time to tear, and a time to sew;

A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;

A time for war, and a time for peace.

These words may sound familiar if you know Pete Seeger’s, “Turn, Turn, Turn” from the popular recording by the Byrds. The words set to music convey a beautiful sense of everything held safely by the author of life.

This passage is around 2500 years old, but it speaks timelessly. Its wisdom is in accepting the variety of circumstances and challenges that arise as life unfolds. It passes no judgment as to what is good and what is bad; what should be sought and what should be resisted. It’s a radical kind of acceptance that differs from resignation or passivity as a response. It’s about not wasting our energy in trying to deny how things really are.

No single approach is right all the time. Life is too changeable, its phases too fleeting. What’s required of us in one stage may be all wrong in another. It doesn’t mean we were wrong before or that life mistreats us when it requires something new. We spend years raising children who will leave to make lives of their own. We devote ourselves to careers that eventually come to an end. We expend ourselves on work that is all too soon forgotten. Yet life goes on. Perhaps we have always cast away stones, but we may be required to gather them together, regardless of how strange it feels. If we’ve spent our lives in silence, it may be time to speak, as uncomfortable as it may be.

We don’t make the seasons in which our lives unfold, and it is beyond our power to change the forces that are so much bigger than we are. Life flows through us, manifesting in different ways at different times. We try to respond to the needs of the season, giving ourselves over to what the time calls for.

Ecclesiastes consists of “The words of the Teacher.” The title given to the speaker is a translation of the Hebrew Qoheleth, which is sometimes rendered “Preacher.” The Teacher, or Preacher, reminds us throughout the book that everything changes, everyone dies. Nothing is permanent; no one is spared. The flow of time and seasons carries us in ways that are non-negotiable. Within our lives we make choices, but the context in which we live them is given.

The Teacher also knows that ultimately we can’t get ahead. We don’t beat our fellow players or the game. Life is bigger than we are; all we can do is live it. “Vanity of vanities,” laments the Teacher. “All is vanity.” Yet in spite of the frustrations and reversals that make up so much of our days, he sees that God grants the gift of enjoying life.

The Teacher of Ecclesiastes has more questions than answers, which is probably why I love the book. What he does know is that we are given work to do, and our best hope is to find enjoyment in it. Be humble. Be grateful. Do what we can. Fix what we can. Let go of what’s out of our hands. Accept both our lot in life and the gifts from God that allow us to take joy in it.

What kind of season are you living, and what kind of work does it hold?

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?

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?

Holy Week: What We Learn from Looking into the Dark

It’s Holy Week, a time in the liturgical year that draws Christians into and through great darkness. But there is plenty of darkness in the world—why do we need to invite more? I don’t relish the thought of entering into the stories of betrayal and fear, of manipulation by people in power and humanity’s willingness to extinguish a light. It would be easier to take if that had all changed now, but we know it isn’t so. Even knowing that this story has a good ending, it’s not an easy one to engage with.

I approach this week thinking, “not again.” Why is this, of all weeks, the one labeled “holy?” It’s a week filled with unholy actions as well as holy moments, like all of life. Why is its suffering and desolation what we choose to lift up?

Nonetheless, it comes ‘round every year. And like any observance that occurs with that regularity, it brings a chance to look at a familiar ritual from the slightly different perspective that another year of living brings.

This year, I’m noticing that the story shows how quickly things turn around: from celebration and adoration to arrest and death; from horror at the crucifixion of a beloved teacher to wonder at the empty tomb. The first Easter morning wasn’t yet a triumph, but it brought hope wrapped in mystery. What the disciples thought was over was made open-ended. Despair was replaced with questions that led them to a new place.

In this week of reversals we celebrate the consistent thread running through all of them. Jesus knew who he was and what he was about, regardless of how the world around him shifted. Reality wasn’t determined by the crowd’s response, good or bad, but by his certain connection with God.

He knew his time was limited and he knew what was important. When the world was growing dark he washed his disciples’ feet and shared a meal in a way that remains in our memory today.

Holy Week shows us that everything in the world comes to an end. But we can endure it, knowing that life moves beyond the endings we can see, and that darkness does not have the final word.

Do you find light in this week of darkness? What do you do with Holy Week?

Learning to See

I enjoy taking pictures. It’s a pleasure to look at the world with an eye toward framing a photograph, and in that state of mind I tend to see more. Someday I might take a class or invest in a better camera, but in the meantime I just snap photos of what looks interesting.

So during a recent stay in an eighth floor hotel room I was glad for its view of the city, especially at nightfall. But when I pulled back the curtain with camera in hand, I found the scene obscured by water droplets and condensation. No good. With the window sealed so that it couldn’t be wiped clean, I would have to find another vantage point.

As I gathered my things for a trek down the hall, it seemed a lot of trouble to traipse around in search of a clearer window. But the light at evening had drawn me to look outside, the color and pattern of towers and skies held my attention, and I couldn’t resist trying to capture the image.

In looking for a better view, however, I was rejecting what I had already found beautiful. Photography helps me notice what’s in front of me, but it’s still easy to miss things. In this case I had only seen the foggy window as an obstacle and not part of the scene. I want to open my eyes and pay attention to the world I’m walking through. But that’s hard to accomplish with preconceived ideas about what’s worth looking at.

So I returned to the window and observed how the water on the glass reshaped the light from outside. I considered how the pane of moisture softened my perspective on the city. And I realized that for one evening, in that particular place, I didn’t have to resist the uniquely filtered view.

Is there something in front of you that you might cease resisting?