Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Writing Prompt 4

The divine speaks to each of us in language we can understand and respond to. What language of the Spirit inspires you uniquely? Teaching, preaching, art, music, hospitality, nature, community, silence, conflict resolution, prophecy, peacemaking, political action, environmental protection? Any of these, something else? How are you, or can you be set on fire to share your gifts and passion in this world?

Come, Holy Spirit

On the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fired up the disciples, “The crowd was bewildered because each one hard them speaking in the language of each.” The divine speaks to each of us in language we can understand and respond to. In Sara Miles’ case, it is the language of food. Miles, an atheist and former restaurant cook among other things, responded to Jesus alive in her life by feeding Jesus’ sheep––that is everyone who would come––and establishing a food bank ministry in San Francisco.

Reading Mile’s memoir, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, I was struck by the inconvenience and terror, as well as the growth beyond our anticipating and understanding that can come from following Jesus. This was certainly true for me when I knew God was calling me to write. I was busy running my home, raising two children, volunteering in their schools and church, in fact I was embarking on a year of home-schooling my oldest daughter for her fifth grade.

I didn’t think I could do it, but I couldn’t put God off once I recognized God’s lead. Unlike Sara Miles, I’m not providing food to hundreds of people each week. I offer a different sort of food. I believe in the power of writing to feed our hunger to know ourselves and be known and have seen glimpses of that deep connection in the few hours I am privileged to spend with strangers and friends when I lead workshops . And like Sara, I see that saying, “Yes, I will follow,” is a continual process that opens up new challenges and vistas.

For me that new place is writing with troubled youth. Why? My nephew is a violent, mentally ill teenager. As much as I want to, I can’t fix anything in his life. What I can do is pray for him. What I can do is offer writing to other at-risk youth, to give them a safe place, if only for a few hours to explore their lives on the page. At least that’s what I’m sure God told me to do during a worship service at Annual Conference a few years ago.

Once I finished crying and faced my fears in the wake of that experience, I said to God, “I hear you. I intend to do what you ask, but I’m not ready. I’m not equipped.” Through the synchronicity of the spirit, and the generous support of my local church, I will be attending a training from June 27 through July 1 in the East Bay to learn the Amherst Writer’s and Artists method of leading writing workshops . This method is used in many situations that need healing––with women in poverty, cancer patients, at-risk youth and more.

In theory, when I leave the training, I will have the skills to work with troubled youth. It’s another way to feed Jesus’ sheep. I’m still apprehensive about whether I'll have the skills, and how I'll relate to those sheep. Will I, a middle-aged, middle-class white woman who doesn’t like rap music, will be able to offer any of the “food” they so desperately need?

On Pentecost my church choir sang Come, Holy Spirit, an anthem by Mary K. Beall who wrote that the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost wasn’t so much about beginning the church as it was about equipping the church. I pray that I will keep trusting the Spirit to equip me as I attempt to be a faithful follower.

I pray for each of us, wherever we are in age, circumstance or fitness––spiritual or physical––that the Spirit will come to us in the language of Pentecost, a language that we each understand uniquely, to blow wind and set on fire the gifts we can share in this world. May we all be food for Jesus’ sheep.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Forgive the World

On Memorial Day it's fitting to think about Peace.
Check out this video featuring Kim McLean's song
Forgive the World
recorded for the United Methodist Church's
Peace With Justice Sunday coming up on June 3.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Writing Prompt 3

In the tradition of Sei Shonogan's Pillow Book (Japan, 1002), write your list of
"Things That Are Beautiful."

On Beauty

"That which transports us transforms us." -Luther Smith

"Beauty is an essential spiritual practice. Are you attentive to beauty?" Luther Smith asked us at my most recent week at the Academy for Spiritual Formation. Then he quoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes -
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

When I reflected on beauty, I was inspired to use a list in the spirit of Sei Shonagon of Japan who wrote The Pillow Book in 1002. I was introduced to Shonagon's lists in the book My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki--reading My Year of Meats will introduce you to the meat industry, DES infertility, documentary filmmaking and spousal abuse, as well as Shonagon's Pillow Book, in an ultimately hopeful book. Reading the lists from The Pillow Book may even inspire you to see your grocery and to do lists as literature!

Here is my list, one that is by no means exhaustive of "Things That Are Beautiful":

The bottomless blue of a glacial pool surrounded by craggy walls of ice.

Crackled frost on fallen leaves plastered to the hood of one’s car.

Twelve pounds of purring tabby cat nestled on one’s lap.

The glistening red nursing blister visible on a baby’s upper lip in sleep.

Wax stalactites formed by candles dripping in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning.

A mile long ribbon of Mexican Free tail bats looping across the San Antonio summer dusk.

The top forty song one sings while showering and chopping onions that is secretly a love song to God.

The sound of one’s name whispered in the dark low and soft as a caress.

The exhale—loud and forceful as a hundred tired men—of an orca surfacing off San Juan Island.

Gleaming berries in a clear glass bowl and a cherished friend to savor them with.

One who holds open a door, physical or metaphorical for one who is burdened physically or metaphorically.

The music of the Holy Spirit that trills up one’s spine like fingers on piano keys.

Any flower painted by Georgia O’Keefe that entices one to became a bee, crawl inside and suck out the nectar.

The bruised rice paper skin of the grandparent’s hand one holds.

“The world will be saved by beauty.” -Dostoevsky

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Writing Prompt 2

Are you able to share your faith? Not just the "things" you believe, but the way you experience God? Write a dialogue between yourself and a person--real or imagined, about your faith story. Answer their questions, admit your doubts, account for your hope.

Genuine Hospitality

At the end of April I returned from my seventh week at the two year Academy for Spiritual Formation, mind and heart full of what it means to truly be gathered in, all peoples, on a journey toward God. What struck me over and over again during lectures and reflection is the need for genuine hospitality. Each night at the Academy we gather in covenant group where we’ve worked hard to create safe and sacred space to share who we really are and how we experience God in our lives, without judgment or criticism.

I long for the rest of life to be as welcoming. How many times have our spirits been crushed by “well meaning” people bent on convincing us of the errors of our beliefs? If we are going to do more than simply put up with differing theologies and religions, we have to be both gracious hosts and guests in one another’s physical and spiritual homes, and wherever we gather. Embracing inclusivity asks for generosity of spirit, where we are willing to be companions in meaningful conversation with those whose beliefs are different than our own, within the Christian tradition and outside of it.

The only way I know how to do this is on an individual basis. Befriending “the other” one person at a time changes both me and my friend, expanding our ideas, letting God out of the box that’s comforting to contain God in. In order to do this, though, we need to put away our hammers, and let the accounting of our hope and faith arise from our lives and experience, not as dogma we pound into someone else’s head.

Easier said than done, and as you’ll read in the following poem, I am one who is skittish, having been burned by those who insist they are right. May we let go of our own need to be “right” as we explore ways to recognize that all of us are gathered one to another and to God.

Safety First or Why I Avoid Religious Conversation

Every bush is burning
wildfire on the loose
God emblazoned emboldened
everywhere the trees explode
the branches rain down fireworks
and you’d think that I would notice
covered in ash
choking on dust
eyes stinging with smoke
that God has kindled
and consumed the world.

But it is all too much for me.
I want a campfire
of little twigs
confined to a cement ring
maybe Smokey the Bear
some marshmallows on sticks
and a round of Kumbayah
led be a uniformed ranger
from exactly eight to precisely 9 p.m.
on a Saturday night.

And if by chance a spark
should crackle and leap
from that fire pit onto the ground
at my feet
you know that I will automatically
stub it out with my shoe.

It’s what I was taught early on.
Stay away from matches.
Don’t play with fire.
You might burn down the house.

It is after all a perilous world
and I don’t want to get burned.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Writing Prompt 1

For you writers, those I know and those I don't––I'll now be posting a weekly writing prompt. Feel free to use it as a spring board for your writing, modify and reshape, rearrange and discard as you feel led. Our stories are sacred, our words a gift. Holy Ink!

This week's prompt:
Write about a time you hosted someone you didn't know in your home. How did you feel about the experience before, during, after? What did you talk about it? What did you eat? What did you learn about this stranger? What did you learn about yourself?

Holding Open the Door

Thursday May 10:
I’m hosting a writing workshop in my home on Saturday. I prepared the room today, set up chairs in a big circle and end tables here and there to hold drinks and snacks. I chose 16 different coffee cups that people can use throughout the day, located sharpies to write nametags and names on water bottles and cups. I’ve grocery shopped already. I washed apples and grapes, found bowls for carrots, pretzels and trail mix. I vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, set out Kleenex. My decks are swept, patio furniture washed, spider webs swept off stair-rails and outdoor tables. The writing exercises are prepared and packets are printed. Directions and reminders have been emailed. I’ve tried to attend to every detail.

As a host, I want everything to be accessible and enjoyable for my guests. Is it strange to pay such attention to preparing the space and the day, and to enjoy the process so much? Maybe hospitality is part of writing. Not too long ago I was reading Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir by Elizabeth J. Andrew. When she came to the part about revision, she spoke about being a good host in one’s writing, helping the reader feel at home, providing directions so the reader can navigate and feel welcome in the landscape of the written word.

I have learned that creating space in life and on the page for others opens doors for sacred and holy encounters smack in the middle of what appears by all accounts ordinary and mundane. I invite people to write for the better part of day, promise snacks and swimming, and they think, “That sounds fun.”

It seems safe enough, just a pen and paper and few hours writing about one’s past and thoughts in a beautiful setting away from home. But hah! Next thing we know, there are tears and exquisite laughter, and deep feelings, joy and pain, bubbling to the surface after ten or twenty or forty years and read to a room of strangers. There is recognition in the stories of others of the ways our stories, lives, and experiences intersect, our commonality amplified, our differences celebrated.

This is what I like best––in reality the workshops have nothing to do with me. I prepare the room, and writing suggestions, provide some guidelines for sharing, and hold open the door. In that space, while no one’s looking God sneaks in and does the things God will do, like removing the scales from our eyes, so that new light is shed on our lives. Talk about subversive behavior!

It is this devious divine that pulls me out of my introvert shell, shows me again the gifts shared and received in community, tells me that this is my work in the world.

Sunday May 13:
Thank you to all those who shared their presence and their words with me and the writing community we created yesterday. God was at work among us.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A Wheel Inside a Wheel

Katy and I wore matching terrycloth cover-ups––two-toned pink sculpted bath towels sewn together with an opening for our heads, and two more for our arms. We pushed her mother’s upright Hoover into the middle of the beige shag carpeted living room, not to vacuum, but give her mom a concert. The vacuum handle was the perfect height for me, a nine year old, and Katy, a year older and wiser.

We sang a song, our current favorite that Katy learned at catechism. The lyrics allowed us to perfect our hand motions, furthering our dreams of becoming backup singers for Diana Ross, or even Glenn Campbell, if he had that sort of thing.

So we stood in Katy’s living room, our skinny calves sticking out from the slits in our pink terry sacks, blocking Katy’s mom’s view of the TV from where she sat on the pea green couch, her feet in white Keds kicked up on the coffee table, smoking Virginia Slims.

We rolled our arms barrel style in front of us, then at our sides as we leaned into the Hoover mike and sang––

Ezekiel saw two wheels a rollin, way in the middle of the air.

Never mind that I had no clue who Ezekiel was, here came the part where our hand motions grew even more elaborate.

A wheel inside a wheel a rollin, way in the middle of the air.

I couldn’t help but picture my pet rats’ exercise wheel spinning inside an even larger one, suspended six feet in the air.

The big wheel ran by faith. The little wheel ran by the grace of God.

We swiveled our hips a bit at that part. During rehearsal, before Katy’s mom got home from work, we’d tried singing our song while hula hooping, but with the arm motions and our need for the microphone, it just didn’t work.

As I swung my hips and churned my arms, I simply couldn’t picture faith or grace or God or how those things could possibly make wheels spin in mid-air. But then, I wasn’t Catholic, and I wasn’t in catechism, like Katy, who went to Saint Anne’s on Wednesday’s after school to learn about God.

We performed our one song concert on a Friday night, and when we were through, Katy’s mom turned her attention to the six o’clock news. We traipsed into the kitchen, opened the freezer, pulled out a package of fish sticks and another of tater tots, lined them in neat rows on a baking sheet and slid them into the oven. Any other night of the week, Katy’s family would eat Hamburger Helper or Sloppy Joes, but not on Fridays. Fridays had to be fish.

Katy said it had something to do with Jesus, who was as impossible for me to imagine as a wheel inside a wheel a rollin way in the middle of the air.

Almost 38 years later, Ezekiel is still a mystery to me. An Old Testament prophet, his visions of wheels full of eyes and his eating scrolls before he went to Israel on God’s behalf with words of gloom and doom, make him a difficult figure for me understand.

But, I still remember the song, both melody and words. It comforts me to know that whether or not I understand the ancient prophets, God is there in our lives, in all our attempts to keep our wheels spinning, juggling our lives and our responsibilities. By God’s grace, and by our faith they don’t all come crashing down at once. Even when it seems they have, there is a perspective larger than our own. If we can see beyond the living room and our own little concerts, we can see that we’re offered abundant opportunities to sing, to learn new songs, to stretch our understandings of our own lives, to embrace the unknown, to believe in the impossible.

And in doing so, we open the doors for God, just a crack. While we’re busy rolling our arms, swinging our hips and saying we don’t have all the answers, Jesus just might enter in and offer some answers of his own.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

In the Beginning Was the Word

It's been a while since I posted a poem.
It's been a while since I wrote a poem. This one for Felton Library Friends (a contest I didn't win, alas) on the theme Beginnings started me thinking about a different version of
In the beginning was the word...

In the Beginning

In the beginning was Word
and Word was with us
formed from ashes, dust and breath
and not one thing came into being
without Word.

Word was fruitful and multiplied
birthing wrinkled and radiant Poem.
Poem ate of the apple and ventured
from the garden into the wilderness.

In the forest, Poem encountered Story.
Brave and sturdy Story journeyed with Poem
scattering on their trail knights, wolves
bears, and girls in red hoods
so that they would not be lost.

Spring arrived and they happened upon a meadow.
Poem flitted from blossom to bloom
and Story burst forth in riotous color.
From the nearby village they came.

Those hungry for Word plucked fragrant Poem
from low branches and gathered
perfectly tasty windfall Story from the dirt
carting them home in aprons and bushel baskets.

And they feasted on Word abundantly.
Once upon a times
recited by old men at the hearth after supper
sung by mothers at the foot of cradles.

So it was that Word dwelt among them
petals of Poem and husks of Story
stitched with leather thong
bound to become Book.

Book beckoned all saying
Come unto me
you with eyes to see, ears to hear
and tales to tell. Come and feast.

Verily they came to sit at the feet of Book
learning the ways of ever after.
As it was in the beginning is now
and ever shall be––Word without end.