Becoming Peacemakers

I’ve been re-cultivating the discipline of push-ups against the door frame lately. Fifteen was a challenge to start with, and now I can do thirty. I’m stronger, but it wasn’t entirely my doing.

I did stick with the activity, remembered to take time most days, persevered in pressing my weight away from the door frame until my muscles complained, endured the sense of weakness as I reached my limit. That much I could do.

But the getting stronger part is a mystery. It happens quite independently of anything I can direct. The body’s own wisdom and intelligence is knit into how we’re made.  It repairs the tiny fissures in the muscles in a way that leaves them more powerful. I invite that repair by exercising enough to stress the muscles without overstraining them. But the growing strength is the body’s own doing. That potential is built into the design of this miraculous embodied experience.

We do our work—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—in co-operation with the universe. Hopefully over time we learn to make space for the greater wisdom and power available to us. Into that space enters a transformative life force beyond anything we can put there. Trusting that process is what faith means. We aren’t alone; it’s never up to us alone.

Just before I fall asleep at night I know I’m being carried and I can let go. In fact, only if I let go can I sleep. Such a mystery, this space that opens up when I step back from thinking, planning, reviewing, worrying. In that space is an unnameable reality more real, more enduring, than all the plans and work and details that pass away. In that space is the experience of safety, wholeness, and love.

We’re part of the magnificent flow of life. We do our best to do our part, whatever that may be. Whether we’re in the calm before the storm or the storm before the calm, we’re carried by something bigger.

Making space to connect with that source of wisdom can change our perspective. As we rest from our labors, it knits us together stronger. And when we take up our tasks again, the strengthened source of wisdom within helps us offer the peacemaking presence that this world sorely needs.


Work is Love Made Visible

Years ago, when I was doing a lot of calligraphy, I lettered a gift for my son’s elementary school teacher. It was a line from Kahlil Gibran: Work is love made visible. As an at-home mother doing unpaid work, I found encouragement in those words. They also spoke to the way this wonderful teacher gave so much of herself to her students. She brought out the best in them, and inspired me as well.

My Calligraphy Tool Drawer

I happened to see her last week at the gym, where she told me that she still keeps that piece of calligraphy on her desk. I’m touched that she still values it after all these years. The idea of work and love being connected remains meaningful to me, though I think about it in broader ways now that my children are grown.

Gibran not only speaks of where the best work originates, but offers a different way of understanding the purpose of work. His is a world view that values the heart more than remuneration. It views life as more than a market exchange, and sees work as an offering, not a commodity.

This perspective is a lifeline when we’re trying to create something new. In a world that measures the value of work by the price it brings in the marketplace, creative effort with no guarantee of reward can look like a waste of time and energy. Showing up to work when there’s no certainty of the outcome requires ignoring the clamor of the buying and selling, and placing ourselves in the service of something else. It can feel pretty risky.

Gibran understands that submitting to the work we are called to do is an act of devotion. We manifest love of life, of other people, of art, and of the divine spark in creation, when we undertake our work. What I’m realizing these days is that an artist’s work, too, is love made visible.

In Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Materialistic priorities get in the way of seeking a rich spiritual life, or what he calls the kingdom of God. Over and over, he tries to get people to see that through dwelling more fully in the spirit we find not only our truest self, but the essence of life, and joy, and meaning.

His teachings help us focus on the work in front of us, apart from its material reward: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  We can’t make the world praise or even accept our work; we can’t expect the market to validate our efforts. We can only do our best at the effort we’re making today.

We’re all asked to look at the world with love, to listen for the ways it calls us, and to respond as best we can. That call and response depends on where we meet the world, on our gifts and circumstances. It can take unlimited forms.

But in whatever way we respond, answering that call becomes more meaningful, and perhaps somewhat easier, in remembering that we are trying to manifest a spark of the divine—to find a way of making love visible.

Art and Sanctuary

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing a folk music performance that happened to be given in a church sanctuary. The setting had me thinking about the idea of sanctuary and how it is created—or at least invited. Even more, as the evening progressed I was able to experience the mysterious arrival of that sense of sanctuary as it permeated the room.

I didn’t know the music of Iris Dement before I saw her perform, but I was immediately charmed by how she connected with her audience. She shared how vulnerable she felt coming out from behind her piano to face the crowd with only a microphone stand and a guitar to “hide” behind. And when she mused aloud about her songwriting prowess, asking “What is the opposite of prolific? Because whatever that word is, that’s me,” I was taken by both her understanding and her acceptance of herself.

The venue was the historic downtown First Presbyterian Church, where stained glass and ornate wood carvings spoke of the long traditions that shape Christian worship. “This pretty room,” Iris Dement called it, in a way that appreciated her surroundings even as she resisted their traditional gravity.

She spoke of her family, and the songs she shared about them honored those lives who so clearly informed her own. She alluded to her spiritual journey, remarking that in reading back through the stories in the Bible, “I found that I didn’t love them as I used to” except for the one she wrote about: the parable of the good Samaritan.

In sharing so much of herself as well as her music, she drew her audience close. She exuded both humility and strength, presenting herself simply as she is. I don’t know her story, but I know that kind of firmly rooted stance is hard-won.

The architecture and design of the space we were in brought forward the idea of sanctuary, a word that sets out the spiritual aspirations for the place. It’s meant to offer a respite from the clamoring world, a place where we can hear the still, small voice that reminds us who we are and where we can find the heart of life.

But on that evening, the experience of a sacred space apart from the world was ushered in by this talented musician whose maturity as a person as well as an artist enabled something rare and wonderful to happen in that setting.

Art at its best creates sanctuary. An artist who grapples with what matters most, then brings skill and dedication to expressing what she encounters, offers work that can elevate our lives. Art in all of its forms invites us into a space apart from the schedules we keep and the demands we meet, where we can be refreshed by the encounter with another soul. It brings the renewal of spirit we sorely need to live our lives the best we are able.

Worship at its best works this way, too. It’s an art form in itself, enriched by architecture, music, language, and dramatic ritual. Good worship depends on good art. Meaningful worship, like meaningful art, is soul work. The encounter that happens through that work, whatever the setting may be, is where we find sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a gift. We invite its presence by the deepest human work we do, but when the spirit of sanctuary descends, with the peace that passes understanding, it is a gift of grace. May we find those spaces in our lives that quiet our minds and soften our hearts. May we know sanctuary.

The Physicality of Prayer

We don’t just have a body, we are embodied. Christianity itself is centered on embodiment, with the incarnation of God into fully human form at its heart. Our bodies are central to who we are and how we experience this life. It makes sense that our physical selves would be part of how we pray.

It’s easy to get the idea that prayer is something we do in our heads, but sometimes what we need most is to get outside of our heads. Often when we place our bodies in an attitude of prayer, our hearts and minds will follow. Physical practices can help in getting out of our own way, in emptying ourselves enough to receive some spiritual nourishment.

There are many ways of cultivating a prayer life that incorporates the body. Singing, walking, dancing, gardening—practices that involve movement, the senses, or the breath can help us feel close to God when we enter prayer through them.

Praying in a different posture can bring about a fresh experience in prayer. The position of our bodies affects how we think and feel. Craig Dykstra, author of Education and Christian Practices said, “You can know things on your knees that you can’t know sitting in a chair.”

Even a simple gesture can make a difference. Praying with hands extended, palms up, offering to God our problems and ourselves, is a physical manifestation of a spiritual attitude. It helps us remember what we want to do. Praying with hands extended, forming an empty cup, ready to receive what God intends for us, is another way to reinforce the spiritual openness we want to bring.

Solitary physical work can be another opening to prayer. Tending the yard, doing laundry, cooking, even filling the gas tank—all can be an opportunity for prayer. We can offer thanks for the strength to do the work, and ask for the ability to work generously. We can use it as a way of noticing the interconnectedness of our lives, praying for those who will benefit from the work we do as well as those whose work has allowed us to accomplish what we’re doing.

And finally, placing ourselves in a different setting can help us step away from the noise of our lives and enter into prayer. We don’t have to go into the woods, or to the beach, or to a quiet chapel to pray, but it can help. We are affected by our surroundings, and so is our prayer life.

What helps you to feel the presence of the divine?

The Work in Front of You

I like what Karen Maezen Miller says about work in her memoir, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.

“Accord yourself with what needs to be done—the very thing that appears before you. What appears before you is not only the most important thing; it is the only thing, all other things existing in your imagination, for the time being.”

Miller is both a suburban mom and a Zen Buddhist priest, a combination of roles that seems particularly apt to me. When she talks about the work in front of her, she often means the same work that confronts me: piles of laundry and a kitchen to clean. Work that an unenlightened being on a bad day might consider drudgery.

Yet I know enough to recognize the wisdom in her teaching. I know that the dread I feel when the insurance company demands documentation is far worse than the effort of retrieving those papers from the files. I know that the frustration of cluttered counters and closets is far more painful than actually clearing them.

The problem is that I have better things to do with my time, or at least I think I do. I have more creative pursuits to follow, more important work to accomplish. I have a more fulfilling life to live than the messy one in front of me with all of its exasperating details.

On the other hand, sometimes the work in front of me is more complicated. That work may be the next step to take toward a larger goal. Often the problem that arises then is that I don’t know how to do it. Which means the additional task of learning to take on something I haven’t done before. There’s no ease with that, no sense of mastery. It would be so much more comfortable to just do what I’m good at.

I can avoid the big scary projects for a while, immersing myself in other things. But no one moves forward that way. And eventually all other endeavors lose their flavor if I’m not doing the work that calls to me. At the same time, it’s hard to do that higher level work when I’m tripping over the shoes and magazines piled on the floor.

So the work in front of me may be a sink full of dishes, or it may be the next step in making a dream come true. Both matter. Sometimes I experience a day in which each kind of work is a welcome respite from the other, a day in which I can gladly take on what’s in front of me without feeling I should be doing something different. When I can bring that kind of presence to my working, I’m released from the draining effects of second-guessing and doubt. What I’m doing is the right thing, and it’s all that matters.

As Miller says, “At the moment when I’m in the muck, at the moment when I’m doing anything, it is my life, it is all of time, and it is all of me.”

What work is in front of you?

When Searching Doesn’t Work: Being Prepared to Find

For the past few weeks I’ve had a single silver earring hanging from the stand on my dresser. The forlorn half of a pair, it hasn’t been worn since the day I lost its mate.

I looked everywhere I could for the missing dangle—in the weave of my sweater, the folds of my scarf, the lining of my coat; behind the seat cushion of the car, in the carpet on the floorboards, among the detritus of a day of errands; on floors and countertops and inside grocery bags. I could only conclude that it lay somewhere among the miles of parking lots and store aisles I had crossed that day.

The earrings were a pair I wore often. They were simple and well-formed, bought years ago from a local artist. Back then I stretched a bit to afford them, though given their price per wearing they were a bargain. I was sad to lose something that fit so well into my life.

Today an easing of winter’s onslaught inspired me to sweep the garage, motivated mostly by the prospect of less dead leaves, dirt, and crud to track into the house. Pushing a mound of debris in front of the broom, I noticed a glint of light. When I stopped to look, yes, there was the earring missing for these many weeks.

I had examined the garage floor in my search, and since then had crossed and re-crossed the path where that familiar silver form must have fallen. But somehow I missed it.

Not until I swept things clean, tumbling the leaves and dirt and trash together, re-ordering that small part of the world, could I find what I had searched for so diligently and nonetheless overlooked. There’s a lot to be said for a cleaning binge. In sweeping out and putting things in order, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

It pays to do the chores with eyes open, to notice what gleams among the debris. It helps to have some idea of what we’re looking for as well. Remarkable things, even the things we search for, sometimes show up in unexpected places.

What are you looking for?

How to Welcome the New Year

I love the fresh start of the New Year. It’s usually a time of introspection for me, a chance to look back at events and changes in the previous year, and to dream and plan for the new one.

Lots of people are doing a great job of sharing their approach to that work this year. Christine Kane lays out a promising technique for using a single word as a beacon for the year. You can find the link to her free download describing the process here. Bradley J. Moore at Shrinking the Camel has a great post on setting goals that spur growth here. If you’re interested in specific, entirely do-able actions to take now to help in reaching goals for the year, Marelisa Fabrega has a wealth of ideas here.

This year I find myself less able to dwell in the dreaming and visioning space that I associate with year’s end. I miss it, but what I’m drawn to instead is the physical task of clearing out all kinds of work spaces throughout the house.

I’ve filed months of papers and notes accumulated from the year’s various projects, tossed old files, taken bags of donations to Goodwill, and I’m about to get to the bottom of a very old pile of ironing. Yes, it’s tedious and exhausting. But it needs to be done and it’s satisfying enough that I keep going.

I do have in mind work I want to accomplish in the coming year. At the very least I’m clearing space to do that work. On another level, I’m purging the clutter that encroaches not only on my house but on my self. Clear space, perhaps, will help with clear thinking. Room to work, perhaps, will make room for action.

So this is another way—a workmanlike way—of preparing to welcome the New Year. Not with resolutions, but with a certain kind of resolve.

Happy New Year!

How is the spirit moving you to greet this New Year?

The Volunteer Blues – What Work is Worth Doing?

The world rests on work that happens outside the realm of work for hire. Family life, civic and religious life, community life of all kinds would disintegrate without it. Society benefits richly from the people and organizations bolstered by such work, but most of the rewards for doing it are strictly internal.

The dedication, creativity, and strength required to raise a family or tend a volunteer organization are unrecognized in economic terms. The work of counselor, organizer, or visionary is valued in the marketplace but seldom acknowledged, much less rewarded, outside of it. Even our president was dismissed and derided by some for his time working as a “community organizer.”

In a world that measures worth by paycheck and position, it seems miraculous that people give so much of themselves to monumental effort that is economically worthless and socially invisible. There may be some intrinsic payoff, but a great deal of the work is anything but rewarding—at least in the short term. Yet they, we, choose to do it. Amazing.

Responsible people take on difficult situations in all kinds of contexts, many of which are frustrating, unpleasant, and hurtful. “It’s part of the job,” they say, acknowledging the balance of good and bad that is part of their position and livelihood. But when the “job” has no pay, no cumulative value as professional experience, and little or no appreciation, it’s hard to maintain that equanimity.

Martyrdom in the service of anything less than the ultimate good seems to me like wasted life. And much of the time it’s hard to know what such an ultimate good would be. But when there’s a choice about what work to do, it makes sense to exercise some discernment about that choice.

I love Bob Dylan’s song, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” He tells us “It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ll have to serve somebody.” It’s true, but then there’s the problem of figuring out which is which.

What really, truly counts as working for the greater good? What is the measure of good work? What is worth serving? These aren’t rhetorical questions. This week, I really don’t know.

Everyday Rituals

Lately I’ve been thinking about how a task can be transformed by a sense of ritual. Ritual lends weight to what we’re doing. To clear space in our mind and schedule for a particular task is to acknowledge its importance. It says there is nothing we should be doing instead, and no reason to hurry through this moment on the way to the next thing. That alone is a relief, and all too rare. Ritual invites us to be fully present, to set aside anything else pulling at our attention and focus on the one thing in front of us.

Cooking dinner can be that kind of experience on days when I clear the countertops, turn on “All Things Considered,” and set aside the time to chop, saute, and simmer. Other days it’s a chore I squeeze in between other things, hurrying on to the next thing I need or want to do. The difference is whether I make space around it and become present in doing it. Ritual encourages presence, attention.

I remember as a child watching my father polish his shoes. He had a box where he kept everything he needed: the round tin of dark polish, the cotton rag saturated with its orange-brown color and oily scent. He would spread a newspaper on the floor to mark his work space, then open a tin and rub the cloth over it in a circular motion. After he worked the polish into the leather he would take up the wide wooden brush with soft black bristles, placing his hand inside the shoe to hold it and brushing with long sweeping strokes until it shone. I can still hear the thump of the brush against the shoe, the whisper of bristles across its polished surface. Then he folded the newspaper and threw it away, carried the box and gleaming shoes back to where they belonged.

I remember my mother preparing to iron, sprinkling clothes with water from a Coke bottle fitted with a metal-capped cork, its rounded surface filled with holes like a salt shaker. There was the muted sparkle and splash of water inside the glass bottle and the dark spots of moisture on cotton. She rolled up the clothes for the dampness to permeate, with an extra sprinkle over the bundle for good measure. With its hiss and rising steam, the transformation of rumpled fabrics into crisp, clean, finished laundry, ironing didn’t look like a chore. It looked like an important part of the week.

As I didn’t have responsibility for doing them, those tasks never appeared to be a burden. Instead they seemed special, meriting the time set aside for them. To a child fascinated by its particular tools, the job was clearly important. It offered elements perhaps of pleasure, but at the very least of satisfaction. I liked ironing handkerchiefs and helping to brush shoes.

I don’t know if my mother and father brought the same attention to their tasks that I brought to watching them. I was free to do something else if I grew bored, while they had to see the job through. And having raised a family myself now, I’m sure they had other things on their mind. Perhaps it’s easier to be mindful about someone else’s work.

Nonetheless, I think that how they went about their work taught me something of value. Ritual creates space around something important. When we turn the pages of a magazine, a few words on a large field of white rivets our attention. In the same way, we can put focus on the most important aspects of our lives by giving them breathing room. We add meaning to our lives when we notice what they contain. We elevate our work when we set it apart through the simple rituals that center us in the moment and ground us in our lives.

What are the tasks that give you satisfaction? Are they enhanced by a ritual of some kind?

In the Meantime…or Late Summer

August, for me, is the month before things really get started. Heavy with the accumulated heat of the season, it flattens all ambition. Even as the long days grow shorter, with summer slipping away, there is no energy to spare.

My daughter returns to college soon; life is about to change. Soon it will be time to take on new projects, but not quite yet. If there was ever a waiting time to fill, August is it.

What to do in the meantime? Tomatoes ripen faster than we can eat them, the urgent culmination of the season’s growth. The basil desperately tries to go to seed, anticipating the first frost that still seems far away to me. Summer wanes, yet for the moment I’m not ready to move forward.

I’ve been looking around at what needs to be done, giving the attention that’s harder to bring when I’m in the midst of things. I’ve culled cookbooks and recipe files; kept appointments with the vet, the dentist, the rug cleaners; read through magazines I’ve been saving; cleaned out the refrigerator.

In the meantime is valuable in its own way. A time of gathering energy, of clearing a path through the clutter of to-do lists. It’s a particular kind of waiting, like emptying the dishwasher while the tea steeps, or finding a good read while watching for a friend at a bookstore. It’s a way of attending, not “killing” time but filling it.

John Lennon reminded us that life is what happens while we’re making other plans. Our goals and hopes and plans are important, but so is the life we live on the way to attaining them, in the meantime. It’s good to remember that, because sometimes life surprises us with what is substantial and what isn’t. The things that look solid as a stone wall can crumble, and what may seem ephemeral as a delicate weed can endure among the rubble.

Soon and suddenly, we’re pulled into the forward momentum of September. It happens so fast I’m in it almost before I see it coming. This year August has cooled down early here, with the autumnal weather bringing a corresponding change of pace for me. Those languid days seem slow, but they pass quickly by. September will soon be upon us.

What do you do in the meantime?