Trying new things

I don’t like this.” That’s what I thought when our choir director introduced a new piece of music. It was a Nigerian tune with Nigerian words, the rhythm was difficult for me to sing, and I just didn’t like it. I could feel my face tensing, my eyebrows pulling together, eyes narrowing, nostrils pinching, lips puckering. “I don’t want to sing this song,” I said to myself.

But I did sing it for the six or seven minutes that our director led us, and I sang it again for a little longer at the next rehearsal, and again that the rehearsal after that. The rhythm became more familiar and the tune was peppy. I focused on the notes and the syllables and I stopped frowning. I didn’t know the song well enough to sing it without the written music in front of me, but singing it with the choir was pleasant.

As I recalled this process of getting past my initial reluctance I was reminded of myself as a child who needed coaxing to eat her vegetables some days. I resisted for all kinds of reasons, screwing up my face and saying, “Yuck!” This new music took me right back to my five-year old self, and to an appreciation for the people in my life who have helped me to try new things. The familiar things in life may be comfortable, but unfamiliar things, people, places, and jobs can be enjoyable too. With practice and patience they too can become familiar, even loved.

As I think about trying new things I am reminded of this verse from Isaiah: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19.) In this time of year as the winter solstice approaches, with shorter hours of daylight and colder temperatures in the northeast, it can feel as if nothing new is happening, or worse – as if God is far away. I am thankful for the reassurance of scripture, music, and the people in my life.

Lord, keep my close to you, and to the people who encourage me to be open to new ideas, roles, and experiences. Amen.

Saving the good stuff

“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not.’” Exodus 16:4

I was really happy with a devotional I had written and I thought I’d post it to my blog. Then I thought of the devotionals I had committed to writing for a publisher and I wondered about copyright issues. If I posted it here I might not be able to send it to the publisher, so maybe I should hold onto it and save it for that purpose. The problem with that, however, was that the essay wouldn’t be published for almost a year. Was I really going to wait that long to share it? Waiting really meant that I wasn’t confident that I’d have more good ideas to write about. A lack of confidence had me thinking about saving the “good stuff” in fear of a future scarcity. What if I couldn’t write more essays that I was happy with to send to the publisher?

Fortunately, my faith teaches me that God’s inspiration and grace are not finite resources. I do not have to live with a mindset of scarcity, but can live with a belief in God’s abundance. Like the Israelites who were given their daily manna and quails, I can give of myself each day and be confident that the well of inspiration will not run dry.

Are you saving your good stuff (love, talent, money, time), fearful that if you share it with others you may not get any more in the future? At Thanksgiving we are reminded to give thanks and share our abundance with others, but at other times of the year (or even the next week!) that mindset slips away. With repeated practice can we change our minds and our habits. We can do so by surrounding ourselves with stories of faith, remembering acts of bravery and good will carried out in the face of ill will, and giving thanks for the daily blessings and grace we receive.

Oscar Hammerstein wrote the following lyrics and they remind me to be generous in sharing: “A bell’s not a bell ’til you ring it – A song’s not a song ’til you sing it – Love in your heart wasn’t put there to stay – Love isn’t love ’til you give it away!”

Happy Give-thanksing to you!

Lord, give me the confidence to live with faith in your abundant grace and love. Amen.

Be bold!

“And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness . . . .” Acts 4:29

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” This is the question that greets me every day on a little sign in my kitchen. Some days I hardly read it, some days it stops me in my tracks and I wonder, “What would I like to do with my life?” One recent morning I allowed myself to admit that I’d really like to pursue inspirational writing – really pursue it, not dabble in it once every few months – and I was overwhelmed by a sense of God’s presence, a feeling of awe and gratitude. God’s spirit seemed to be saying “Yes! You can do this. You must do this.” Later that day I received an invitation to write a series of devotionals for a Presbyterian publication. When I described to the person who had sent the invitation what I had experienced that morning we both were amazed at the timing of God’s grace.

I invite you to contemplate, prayerfully, your response to that question. Let God work in your heart to reveal hopes and dreams you haven’t yet discovered, or been willing to admit. Be bold, shutting down the voices of doubt that immediately will crowd out any timid response. It may take some practice, so go ahead and make your own sign and put it in a place where you will see it every day. And let me know what happens!

Lord, thank you for your awesome, amazing grace. Amen.

Beware

“[The scribes and the Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Matthew, 23:4

Last week I was in Florida, sitting along the shore of Lake Pierce, at the Future Farmers of America Leadership Training Center, an educational retreat center where I was leading a workshop for faculty members and administrators from Florida Southern College. It was a gorgeous day, sunny but not humid, with a light breeze. I watched an egret on the shore and a great blue heron that was chasing the egret from place to place along what must be good fishing grounds. There were occasional splashing sounds in the reeds and water in front of the dock on which I was sitting. Those sounds made me a bit uneasy, thanks to the big sign warning about the alligator. By the time I heard the splashing and looked in its direction I couldn’t see any movement, not even ripples on the water’s surface. I wondered if the sign meant that there is one alligator to beware of and I doubted it. In this context I’m guessing that “alligator” is the plural as well as the singular, similar in an odd way to “moose.”

Beware of alligator sign

What were my “take-away” thoughts from this peaceful-although-occasionally-anxious setting?

  1. Danger is a part of life, whether we can see it or not. Depending on the kind of danger (an alligator) we can take preventive measures and be pretty confident that we will be safe. Other kinds of danger (illness, loss of income) can arise regardless of what we do or don’t do, and their unpredictability brings its own anxiety.
  2. Some people have more resources to deal with danger and its accompanying fear and anxiety than other people, depending on the form of the danger and the type of resource.

I should add here that I’m reading David K. Shipler’s book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, a very sobering account of Americans whose lives are different than my own. My parents remain married to each other (and celebrated their 63rd anniversary this year!), still are healthy, and both earned bachelor’s degrees before they had children. My dad had a steady job as a teacher and my mom was a full-time mom for my brother and me. We were well cared for and loved, got great educations, and were raised with a Christian faith that emphasized God’s love and minimized God’s judgment. I could believe in the American dream because that was my family’s experience.

Given what I’m reading, I have to acknowledge that for me to write about danger in life is like me writing about playing football – I’ve sat on the bleachers watching many games but have never played the game. So I’ll bring this essay to a close not by providing a happy, Pollyanna-type ending, but by being thankful for what I have been given in life (lots of advantages, including good health); praying for peace and justice in our country and our world; and committing to take action, in addition to prayer, for the same.

God, thank you for your loving grace, freely given and not earned. May all your children experience it every day. Give me humility and compassion, and the courage to work for justice for all. Amen.

Lake Pierce

Photo of Lake Pierce

Suspicion vs. Faith

The phone on my desk started ringing. The readout said Mitchell Publishing. I answered, suspecting that it was a solicitation call from someone who would try to sell me textbooks or an assessment product. When the caller stumbled over his words and asked how I was doing, I said with irritation “Is this a solicitation phone call?” “No!” he said. “I’m calling about my son.” I gave him the information he needed and then he asked, “Why did you think this was a solicitation call?” I explained that I had jumped to that conclusion based on the caller ID. He laughed, I laughed, and we said goodbye.

Later I thought about how quickly I had become suspicious and drawn the wrong conclusion. Was I crossing the line from healthy skepticism to unhealthy skepticism? My knee-jerk reaction had been to distrust the intention of the caller. After all, we do live in a world where all claims cannot be believed and we are inundated by stories – some true and some false – of scams, fraud and deceitful behavior. I could see how I was being conditioned to expect the worst.

I want regain a trustful approach to the world! I was raised in a family with an optimistic mindset and I am an optimist still, but I realize how my optimism can be undermined over time, worn away by repeated exposure to blatant lies, willful ignorance, fear-mongering, and a steady stream of sensationalized information that passes for news.

Taking positive action is one way to build up my reserves of optimism. So is prayer, reading scripture, and worshiping with a community of positively-oriented people. Being selective of what media streams I tune into is another way, and supporting local journalism is yet another way to resist the narrative that says that the sky is falling in. Reaching out to friends, going for a walk outdoors, cooking something from scratch – all are good ways to claim and proclaim God’s abundant goodness in our world.

Lord, give me faith that conquers distrust. Thank you for your light that casts out darkness. Amen.

Rules

As I poured myself a bowl of granola this morning I smiled in anticipation of how good it would taste and how much I like to eat it. Yet even as I finished pouring I thought to myself, “I shouldn’t eat this today. I should save this granola for a morning when I’m on the run. It’s the weekend and I have enough time to make oatmeal.” Then I caught myself. “Granola can be eaten only during the week and when I’m in a hurry? Says who?!”

Recently my son and I watched The Maze Runner, a movie about boys who have no choice but to make their own society. “Those are the rules,” Thomas, a newcomer, is told by the other boys when he wants to challenge the status quo and do something different. There is no awareness by the boys saying “those are the rules” that they made the rules and they can change the rules. The fear of change, of destabilizing the current set-up, keeps the rules in place, even when a change could help their situation.

I know that I have plenty of rules that run my life, rules made by me or made by others and internalized by me; some helpful (“look both ways before crossing the street”), some not. There are plenty of rules in the Bible, some helpful in our present day (“pray without ceasing”, “love your neighbor as yourself”), some not. Jesus was a big questioner of authority and he upset the status quo by holding people to the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law. Next time I hear myself saying “I should (or should not) do this-or-that” I will try to stop and ask by whose authority the rule was made and whether I need to follow it in this case. Rules of the road? A good idea to follow them! Rules that are habits, put in place because “we always do it this way”? Maybe it will be time to shake things up, toss out those rules, and feel the freedom from judgment that Christ’s example provides.

Lord, help me to focus on the spirit of your law rather than the letter of my rules. Help me to give up the “shoulds” and “should nots” that limit me in artificial ways. Amen.

Reminders All Around

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Mark 1:9-12.

[Note: I wrote this post in August, then forgot about it in the swirl of the start of the school year. It resurfaced recently and I thought it appropriate for the beginning of Lent, when we remember Jesus’s journey in the wilderness. Jesus was accompanied by the Holy Spirit and so are we as we face our wilderness in its many shapes and sizes.]

While driving my son to college – his first year, my first kid – I passed beneath a road marked Watson Road. One of my best friend’s last name is Watson so seeing it made me smile, and then I teared up as I thought of all the friends and family I have in my life. This has been a teary time in my life as I’ve prepared to send Conor off to college, saying farewell to the younger part of his life and this part of my life as his parent. I’ve commiserated with friends who have taken their kids to college, and who I’ve encouraged as they’ve faced this milestone. I know I will be fine and he will be fine, and that this is what we’ve been planning for and working toward for years. Still, or maybe because of all that, it is an emotional time, and I have gotten weepy at reminders of loved ones, special events, and ordinary events.

Seeing my friend’s name on a sign along the road was a good reminder, albeit a moist-eyed one, of the love that surrounds me each and every day. If I look, I can find reminders all around (as I typed that, we passed beneath a road sign for Lover, PA. I am not making that up!!) How blessed I feel and how thankful I am for the presence of a loving God in my life and in the lives of my loved ones. It is a privilege to raise children and to see them grow. It is a joyful (and challenging, tiring, exhilarating) journey that we are privileged to take together. The reminders of God’s love and the love of others are great companions on my trip today and everyday.

Gracious God, watch over all of us who are taking sons and daughters to college this season. Bless all those who work at colleges and universities too. Amen.

Leaving the party

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Mark 1:35

The gift of time alone. That is one of the things I got after my divorce. Time alone when the kids were with their dad. Not just for a night or a weekend but regularly for four or five days at a stretch. Painful at times, but also an opportunity to read and think and write. If it were not for those times of being alone I don’t think I would have written any of these essays. With other people in the house I think I would have filled my time doing things with them and for them, and for myself, but probably not writing.

Fortunately it is possible to find time alone without getting a divorce but it may not be easy. It involves choosing one thing over another, and building up the discipline of making the choice consistently, over the long term. Who wants to leave a party when people are having a good time? Or who wants to get up early, crawling out from under the warm covers or leaving the warm side of a loved one in the bed? Yet making these kinds of decisions provides other spaces to open up, spaces that are needed to accomplish other things: getting in extra hours of studying, getting to work early (or on time), exercising, reading, thinking, writing, praying. The discipline of leaving the party early (figuratively speaking) takes time to practice and repetition to strengthen, but it is not a magical skill that some people have and some do not. It is a choice made hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, until it becomes more like a habit than a disruption.

And, it helps to have some kind of accountability. The weekly phone calls with my “writing buddy” have been going on for years, providing encouragement and holding me to my self-imposed deadlines and goals (thank you, Jerry!!). It is easier to “leave the party” when you are not the only one leaving! It is easier to put in that extra hour of studying or work or those extra steps/laps/sit-ups when you are not doing it/them alone. I need to be alone to write but I do not have to make that choice a secret.

Lord, in this era of constant communication, remind me to seek some time for stillness and reflection. Thank you for the sustaining power of prayer, and for strength to focus on long-term goals. Amen.

Pushing the pause button

Pushing the pause button

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Mark 1:35.

I am reading An Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor, a book given to me by my dear friend Carol. It is full of meaty phrases and ideas, such that as I read I am sticking my fingers between the pages that I want to go back and reread right away. “Wow,” I think, “that is great. I will come back to it as soon as I read this next amazing description!” By the time I stopped to go back I had read four more pages of pithy insight.

The irony here is that I was reading about the practice of paying attention, of being immersed in the moment, rather than looking past this present moment towards the next moment. Taylor describes this as a way of being reverent, and thereby honoring the people and things around us. Fortunately, I did go back and relish the points I wondered at, and I marked up the page so that I can go back and find them again more easily. It took a little time to do this, but not much.

Call it what you will – stopping to smell the roses, pushing the pause button, practicing reverence by paying attention – doing so this morning allowed me to soak in the thoughts that caught my attention rather than having them ricochet off me before I could grasp them and  hold them and truly appreciate them. I will not spend my whole day this way, pausing to see or hear and appreciate the people and things around me. I wouldn’t get out of my house and yard if I did! But it is good to pause for five or 10 minutes to soak up the rain of blessings that bombard me daily.

Thank you, God, for the wonders of your creation that stop us in our tracks. And thank you for people whose gifts to help us appreciate your creation all the more.