Sunday, August 30, 2009

Storytelling and Sawdust: my grandparents' influences on me

My mother's parents lived about a quarter of a mile away from us—our house was on their homestead. It was close enough that by the time I was four or so, I could walk to Grandmother and Granddad's house by myself, especially since I walked by the shop where my father was working, and I suspect that my mother watched until I got to the bend in the road by the shop and then called my grandmother to let her know I was coming. Either that or Grandmother was psychic, because she was usually standing in the doorway waiting for me. She was plump and good to hug and always had a treat ready.

Granddad was lanky and scratchy--or at least the stubble of his beard was scratchy, and he was not so huggable, but I adored him. He was, among other things, a very accomplished storyteller. My love of stories comes from him, and the hours he spent telling me stories. He told me stories of his early days in Oklahoma as a settler, he retold the comic strip Alley Oop, he told me all sorts of stories. We went on walks together to the orchard where we would smell the lilacs, pick a bouquet of tulips in season, examine the state of the cherries, gooseberries, mulberries, white peaches and big apricots. He would look at the fruit and it would remind him of a story.

His death in April, near Easter time, when I was eight, prompted a crisis of faith about resurrection and prayer that subconsciously lasted until part-way through seminary when it at least became a conscious question: when I got down on my knees and prayed why didn't God raise my granddad from the grave like Jesus?

As my daughter was growing up I told her a nightly bedtime story that I made up on the spot. Often there was a moral to the story; usually it was a way to recap or address the issues of the day. I think I might have a children's book or ten buried in the treasures of those bedtime stories, if only I would take the time to write them down. My daughter now loves stories too, and loves to write. My grandfather would be delighted.

One of the essential pieces of worship for me, and part of the Baptist tradition, is the Word, not just the sermon, but the reading of scripture. I was honored at my graduation by the faculty's award of the Massachusetts Bible Society award for Excellence in the Public Reading of the Scripture. I guess that award reflected my belief that telling the story really matters. I believe if we can't engage people in the story that the Bible tells then we can't really engage them in worship, living the faithful life, etc. So our scripture reading needs to be as engaging as storytelling, or perhaps it just needs to be storytelling. This summer while I was doing supply preaching all of the scriptures were practiced and read as reader's theatre, following the impetus provided initially in Ralph Milton's blog Rumors. So that's one powerful way to engage the bible as story. Also check out his collection of lectionary children's stories!

My watchcare mentoring pastor just got back from the summer conference of the Network of Biblical Storytellers. It sounded like a lot of fun—maybe next summer I will go to. We caught up at dinner last week at Speak Up in Lynn, MA. SPEAK UP! Spoken Word Open Mike is hosted by Tony Toledo, for Comedians, Storytellers, Poets, Community Organizers, and ordinary folks who want to rant—anyone can get 5 minutes. Several of the open mike people were people in search of an audience and in need of practice and others, including my friend, clearly have been practicing this art. The featured speaker, Judith Black, was really a premier storyteller.

It's not just Christians who are claiming the urgency and efficacy of storytelling. This week I got a link to Reimagining a Very Good Book, The Comic Torah. I recommend this to you Bible geeks who are not afraid to look at the scriptures in a new light. A further link led me to Storahtelling, and some great video clips of telling the Torah lesson.

For those of you who are more technologically inclined, the power of story telling even makes a difference in learning to program and in breaking gender barriers in computer programming: one more example of using stories as a way in that shows that people are more engaged and motivated to learn when there's a story.

And in a different part of my own story, this past weekend we stopped at a Super 88 Market—a local chain that specializes in Asian foods. We bought several more exotic things, but we also bought a coconut. Perhaps it was an unconscious remembrance of the anniversary of my grandmother's birthday last Friday. When I knew her, she had had all of her teeth pulled and never wore her dentures because they hurt. So she gummed all of her food. But she often bought a fresh coconut and made what we called sawdust, as a way that she could enjoy coconut and nuts, so I share the recipe with you.

1 coconut
1-1-1/2 cups shelled raw nuts, mixed varieties: almonds, pecans, walnuts, brazil nuts, hazelnuts--not peanuts.
four-six large graham crackers
1 T – 3 T, to taste, of sugar
Tools required:
hammer, nail, knife, grinder or food processor, bowls

Hammer the nail into one eye of the coconut, and remove. Hammer the nail into a second eye of the coconut. Turn upside down and let the coconut milk drain into a small bowl. Reserve the liquid—good for curries, soup. I don't know what my grandmother used it for, but she would never have thrown it out.

On a sturdy counter or board, begin tapping the coconut around its middle (where it would be wearing a belt) turning it as you tap. The idea is to make the coconut break in half so that you can scoop out the coconut meat. The tapping also loosens the coconut from the shell wall. This might take 3-5 minutes, but just regard it as therapy, and let loose a good whack every few taps. Once it starts to crack, keep tapping until it breaks in two.

Use a knife to score the coconut meat into wedges—that makes it easier to pry out. Trim any of the brown shell from the coconut. Put pieces into a separate bowl.

Set up your food processor. Put in about an eighth of the coconut, one square of graham cracker and 3 Tablespoons of nuts and process. The graham cracker is necessary to provide the sawdust consistency, so add more if the nuts and coconut start to get sticky. If necessary you can just process some graham cracker crumbs and mix it in afterwards. You can process in small batches until as fine a sawdust like as you want and then either stir together or put all of it back in your food processor (depending on capacity) and blend together. Take out into a bowl with a cover and add sugar to taste. Refrigerate. Good snack, or perhaps ice cream topping?

I made some this afternoon in my new food processor, mostly to test my memory of proportions, and it occurs to me now that you could form sawdust "balls" and roll them in melted dark chocolate. I may try that and let you know.

What ways did your grandparents influence you? I give thanks today for these memories.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Purpose? Attention!

My friend Bob sends a morning scripture reflection to his congregation and has included me on the list. Last week, his scriptures were about purpose.

He wrote:
The word I keyed in for biblical search this week is purpose. It didn't occur to me that I would find "purposely." Do you ever do things "accidentally on purpose"? I love that saying, although I can't recall anything I have done lately that has been done accidentally on purpose. I should try to incorporate more of such into my life.
The scripture he shared was:
And when she rose up to glean, Boaz commanded his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. Also let grain from the bundles fall purposely for her; leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her.” (Ruth 2:15-16)
later in the week, of course, he included this famous passage about purpose:
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to pluck 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; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to gain, 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 of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
He sent
this passage the next day and wrote:
But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:6-7)
I am not sure my fascination is with words as much as it is in finding rare ones. I never thought to use the word "purposes" until now. In fact, the little American Heritage Dictionary I keep on my desk does not list it, at least not purposely. Even so there is power in the word, for how better to explain a sincere desire to give of ourselves than to reference the intention of our heart, our soul, to overcome the practicality and reasonability of the mind.
He ended the week: "Who better to know purpose than a man willing to be crucified?" And the quote was this:
Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” (John 12:27-28)
This week, like Bob, I have been keying in on purpose. I am in a time of transition, and I've been feeling somewhat at loose ends. I've finished my summer pulpit supply. It's too hot and humid to garden or to do almost anything that is not in air conditioning. This week I have been training someone to take over some of my job responsibilities—so that means I have to figure out what I will be doing when she assumes those parts of my job. This week I also sent off my ordination paper to the local association committee who will review it prior to any ordination council being called. There is no news on the church search front. What is my purpose in life right now?

When I did a search on purpose in the Bible, this is the scripture that caught my attention:
God will fulfill God's purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands. Psalm 138:8
Maybe I am being called to pay attention to my purpose, or since I have been reading the chapter in An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor called "The Practice of Paying Attention," maybe I just need to be paying attention.

Taylor makes the connection between reverence and paying attention. In early August we visited the Clark Art Institute's exhibit of some of the early work of Georgia O'Keeffe, "Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence," and I bought a few O'Keeffe postcards and cards that are sitting near where I do my morning prayers, so this quotation in particular resonated with me.
(p. 24) Small wonder we are short on reverence. The artist Georgia O'Keeffe, who became famous for her sensuous paintings of flowers, explained her success by saying, "In a way, nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small, we haven't time—and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time." [quote from Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses, New York, Random House, 1990, p. 270]
The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else.
As the summer ends, I'm seeing a lot more of my friends. We're making time finally, because we said all summer that we'd get together and do something. The lesson here is that I have time now for attention, attention to small natural things, and attention to friends. Taylor suggests that reverence should not be reserved for an hour on Sunday, but in fact one of the reasons that people are not satisfied with church is that they want More; for her "More" is another way to name God:
(p. 7) No matter how hard I try to say something true about God, the reality of God will eclipse my best words. The only reality I can describe with any accuracy is my own limited experience of what I think may be God: the More, the Really Real, the Luminous Web That Hold Everything in Place.
Taylor wrote the chapters of this book as a series of responses to the question posed in an invitation to speak, "Come tell us what is saving your life now." (p. xv)

Perhaps that is what we each need to pay attention to: what is saving our life just now. What is the delight that sustains and lifts us up, or calls us to attend, or distracts and lulls us?

It might be the smell of the freshly crushed mint leaf, or the pungency of a bunch of basil.

It might be the drop of sweat dripping down neck or face.

It might be the sweetness of late season berries for breakfast.

It might be the susurration of fans.

It might be the pink roses opening in full bloom.

It might be the sight of my daughter's focused concentration as she completed her seven and a half foot Hogwarts style scarf in a week and a morning!

For now, I guess, my purpose is to pay attention, to see and hear and feel and taste and smell and be, knowing that in love, God will not neglect or forsake God's own work—me, you: each of us and all of creation.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Summer Reading: Confronting Demons, Finding God

This week I finished Lamentations by Ken Scholes. Preview chapters and other stories are available on the publisher's website (sign in required, but if you like fantasy/science fiction this is a good site). This is a good read about religious authorities who try to control the flow of information and what happens when power corrupts. It is post-apocalyptic in that this world has already survived disasters, and confronts another one. How do we learn from our mistakes, how do we confront our own demons, what will we kill for, what will we die for, who will we bury: a man who had been Pope, an orphan, a king, and a courtesan are the lead characters who must answer those questions. I stayed up to finish the book and just downloaded some short stories from the author's website. It's the first in a series, and that's good news!

Last summer I "met" Sister Fidelma, the medieval Irish dailaigh/detective/religious woman/sister to a king who is the central character of a mystery series by Peter Tremayne (a pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis, a historian). Having zoomed through most of the books available at the time, I was delighted to find Dancing with Demons in the new books section at the library this summer. This particular book is not a "whodunit," but a why did he do it, but of course with a wonderful final denouement. I would recommend starting at the beginning of the series. It's a glimpse into a time in Ireland when women had equal rights and when Celtic Christian spirituality and religious life had not yet become overcome by the Roman church but is still confronted by its Druid past. As a current fan of the Iona Community, I think that Sister Fidelma does a good job at revealing the roots of Celtic Christian practices while providing a good mystery read. If you like the Brother Cadfael mysteries by the author Ellis Peters (pen name of Edith Pargeter) you probably will enjoy Sister Fidelma.

Then, because it's been one of those weeks, I find myself in the middle of reading four other books, depending on where I'm sitting. The first paragraph of Tethered by Amy MacKinnon sets the tone for this mystery about a woman undertaker who believes in death, not life—at least so far:
I plunge my thumb between the folds of the incision, then hook my forefinger deep into her neck. Unlike most of the bloodlines, which offer perfunctory resistance, the carotid artery doesn't surrender itself willingly. Tethered between the heart and head, the sinewy tube is often weighted with years of plaque, thickening its resolve to stay. More so now that rigor mortis has settled deep within the old woman.
The demons that this heroine confronts are her own childhood traumas in the person of the young girl who finds peace and safety playing in the funeral home, and her belief or fear that death is stronger than life and love.

I indulged myself with a trip to my local independent bookstore on Thursday and got Empress: Godspeaker book One by Karen Miller. How does god speak to us: in slavery, in war, in our children, in our friends, in certainty, in love, in pain or in sacrifice? When do demons overcome god's will? What is sin? The heroine has more will to live and to endure than any other fictional or real character I've met recently, and so far, Hekat is certain that she knows god speaks to her and that she is in god's eye. The god in this book is not one whose eye I would want on me necessarily, but it is an engrossing read, nonetheless.

Barbara Brown Taylor faced a number of her own demons in Leaving Church—a book that was hard to read as I am trying to find a church. But she's a great writer, so I picked up her new book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. She writes about practices for encountering God in everyday life, not necessarily within the walls of the church. I just started reading this and hope to participate in the book group discussion on Monday September 28 at Rev Gal Blog Pals.

Finally, as an antidote to the early August Red Sox slump, I picked up The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture, edited by Christopher H. Evans and William R. Herzog II. This book of essays discusses baseball as a central part of American civil religion. Although this book was published before the Red Sox broke the curse to win the World Series in 2004, it reveals and captures the religious fervor of baseball fans, a fervor most ministers might wish their congregations shared just in part. It is a fascinating analysis of American culture and how sport influences our religious institutions and vice versa.
(p.217) Commentators who wax poetically about the virtues of baseball will point to what they believe are its intrinsic qualities of greatness—the fact that the game reflects a uniqueness that metaphorically and literally can open our souls to a vision of paradise. Yet, what the accounts of the Dodgers [1956 World Series] and Red Sox [1975 World Series] suggest, and what many of the chapters in this book suggest, is that baseball is just as likely to break our hearts as give us ecstasy. For many who passionately follow a sports team, who play a sport, or who love someone who plays a sport, we are amazed at how difficult it can be to absorb a loss—even with the passing of years that pain still lingers (ask any Red Sox fan about the 1986 World Series). To say "It's only a game" is little solace when we as a culture are so passionate about winning—no matter the context or the cost.
As I am in mid-read and describing these books, it occurs to me that these authors are trying to describe the ways we not only seek meaning, but also redemption. Because, often, in trying to make meaning of events in our lives, we find that we need to make reparations or at least to make things turn out differently, or to find a way to change our experiences of loss and conflict. As summer draws to a close and we begin to gear up for fall and school starting (how odd it is, after five years, not to be thinking of fall classes), perhaps these summer reflections set the stage for a time of t'shuvah—the forty days the Jewish sages set aside for repentance and making things right prior to Yom Kippur.

May these last weeks of summer still offer time for making meaning and making amends, for confronting our fears, finding love and knowing God, catching up with ourselves, our gardens, our friends and family, and for getting back into the lead in the AL East
, or at least into the wild card race.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Saying Good-bye while Still Present

Today I am mulling what tomorrow is bringing me. I've hired a new person and the staff that has been reporting directly to me for the past twelve years will report to her and she will report to me. Partly this is succession planning for the time when I either leave or go part-time when I get a church, and partly it is so that we strengthen the financial depth and skills at the agency. All good reasons, and I think the person I've hired will be a good fit for the department and the agency. Nonetheless, tomorrow I am saying good-bye to certain relationships, as I am welcoming someone new, and as I am facilitating change.

What I'm doing is not so unusual—we all navigate relationship changes of one sort or another throughout our lives. Still it's hard. I am reminded of the insistence by my CPE site supervisor on the need to say "good" good-byes. A "good" good-bye is not slinking out the door without saying anything or acknowledging how you feel; it is not a hit-and-run good-bye—see you around. A "good" good-bye takes the time to say to people, "you are special to me, and I'll miss you, and while I may be in touch, this particular relationship we've had in this space and time will not be the same." CPE interns have to say good-bye to make space for new interns, pastors have to say good-bye to allow a new pastor to do the work, and tomorrow I get to say good-bye while staying, and allowing new and old people to form relationships with one another, and trust that I have enough internal security and confidence to know that my relationships will survive and matter, although they'll be different, and allow a new person to change what I've been building for the past twelve years, while I watch.

I understand grieving and loss, have taken classes about it, written about it, experienced it myself and with others. In some ways it is easier to face our own losses rather than those of others. I know what I can bear. I can feel when my breaking point is coming. I really do have a break in my voice when talking about those things--a real breaking point when sadness gets the best of vocal self-control. And now when confronted with the immediate tough griefs of sudden deaths, I have grown unfortunately more practiced in being with my friends, colleagues and loved ones. I listen, I empathize, I give a hug, I sit: I've been there.

Gradual loss, saying good-bye while still there, is a different thing, and I have begun to face my own questions about how to be a friend and companion with people who are on that journey, and how to be on that journey myself. I have two friends at church who have been diagnosed with memory disorders, probably Alzheimer's disease. They are still here, still present, but in some ways they are starting to be not here. It's hard to know what kind of friend I can still be, both to them and to their spouses.

I just talked to the son of my next-door neighbor—well, I haven't seen her in three years because she had a cardiac incident and the blood flow to her brain stopped for too long, and perhaps—I think he feels—not long enough. She lives with her daughter now, has supportive caregivers, has a "g" tube. She's alive, but maybe not really living; present, but not here. Some days she recognizes him, some not.

Admitting that you have or that someone you love has a chronic illness is hard. At my workplace we are running support groups for people with chronic illnesses, based on a model developed by Stanford University School of Medicine. One of the things that the research has shown is that while chronic diseases have different symptoms, they share in common these symptoms: fatigue, depression, anxiety, frustration, stress, pain and isolation. Those common symptoms combine to keep the person from living as fully as possible. Chronic disease often and unnecessarily robs a person of control and independence.

In one of my seminary classes, The Transforming Power of Rituals, we brainstormed a list of events for which we have no rituals, and chronic illness was on that list. We have rituals for liminal events, those transitions from one state to another: christenings, dedications, weddings, bar/bas mitzvahs, confirmation, baptism, graduations, and funerals, for example. Clearly we need to create rituals and ways to acknowledge the impact that the gradual loss of capabilities has, not only to the person who is losing capabilities, but for all of us around that person, because our relationships change. The activities we used to do together, the food we ate together, the conversations we had together: all of these can change with a chronic illness. But when it affects your own life it becomes a hard personal task, and any help you might get is a good thing.

Pain and illness do have important functions that we don't usually acknowledge. Gregg Levoy writes this wonderful essay in his book Callings, called "Pandora's Mirror" (p. 90-92).
Several years ago state educators in Lansing, Michigan, halted plans to teach a breathing exercise as part of a health course in kindergarten through the health grade, deferring to concern that deep breathing could promote "devil worship and mysticism."

I understand why they're afraid. As a child, I knew the power of breath. I knew that is I held my breath long enough, I could turn blue and pass out, thereby generating gales of attention. And I used it regularly, or so I'm told by my mother, who still describes it with the kind of dreadful fascination people typically reserve for reminiscing about floods and earthquakes.
Breath is life. It the holy wind that carried the Word. When children begin to feel that this power resides within them, they become too powerful to control, too intuitive to frighten easily.

But Lansing didn't let the program through, thereby doing its part to prevent any swelling in the ranks of devil-worshipping kindergartners, and adding to the already colossal alienation people feel from their bodies. It is an estrangement that prevents us from honoring our bodies as the emissaries they are. Who, after all, wants to enter into intimate relationship, or even conversation, with any-body they were taught to rise above or ignore?

Besides, who knows what we'd find out about ourselves if we peeked into that Pandora's box? Who knows what we might discover our souls are missing, and who needs the grief? A lot of us prefer to treat the symptom rather than face the source. We would rather be cut open from stem to sternum than open our hearts from the inside out.

In addition to our appalling disaffection from the body, we also have a long and pernicious history of linking sickness with sin, of dressing our wounds with guilt and judging our illnesses as failures and evidence of general unworthiness. The cruelest question that is always present, even if unasked, in the presence of illness, said the anthropologist Ernest Becker in his book The Denial of Death, is "Why are you sick?" Or worse, "Why have you done this thing to yourself?"

This attitude is guaranteed to make a sufferer feel worse, and it betrays a kind of arrogance. It implies that we are masters of our fate to such a degree that we can not only create disease but also make it disappear by the ordination of sheer willpower and the proper sort of faith. We are not, I think, so much in control of things. We have not necessarily drawn to ourselves everything that happens to us, and not every symptom is a metaphor. There are bugs in the world, and they carry diseases. There's arsenic in the water and exhaust in the air. There are tragedies like pits that people fall into. There are accidents, wrong times and wrong places, floods and earthquakes. There is also no guarantee that healing our lives will cure our diseases.

Rather than using sickness as an opportunity to beat yourself up, or set off on a crusade to figure out why bad things happen to good people, better to try and use illness and pain for what they were designed for—to get your attention. Understand that though you may not have created them, your soul may still be attempting to communicate something to you through them. We are not so much responsible for our illnesses, says author and Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine, as we are responsible to our illnesses. The question is not so much what to do about our suffering, but what to do with it.

Being responsible to an illness, he says, means being willing to relate to it, have a full-on experience of it, and investigate not just the pain but also your reaction to it. It means letting it communicate with you rather than merely trying to subdue it. Though that's certainly the natural reflex, it probably is an accurate mirror of how we resist whatever is painful and unpleasant in our lives, whatever doesn't go our way, whatever makes us feel out of control. It's a mirror to how we regard not only the physical but also the emotional symptoms in our lives: our sulfurous marital fights, our obsessions with money or love, our wayward kids, our debts piled up to here, that low-grade anxiety running like a white noise through our days, the constant feeling of something missing. To say nothing of the symptoms scattered around the body politic.

This sense of responsibility cannot be soft-pedaled. It will try your most grim self-restraint, for instance, to lie in bed and just let sciatic pain be while it yowls at you. But there is knowledge and therefore power in following its migrations, plotting its geometry, and noticing how sometimes it burns and sometimes it vibrates, sometimes it spills boiling oil down the legs and sometimes it spreads hot coals in the pan of the pelvis, and always it make you feel so vulnerable. It would be so much easier just to grab a fistful of aspirins, wash it down with an immediate appointment at the chiropractor's, and get back to business as usual—which might be what landed you on your back to begin with.

Being responsible, Levine says, means asking not "Why am I ill?" but "What is illness?" Not "Why am I in pain?" but "What is pain?" It means seeking the what rather than just the why. The mind is so desperate for answers, and so easily settles for the simple and convenient ones, that it often ends up leaving completely untouched the deeper truths and deeper processes. It also routinely ignores the need for change, which is the unspoken petition of any illness. This can be the need for a change in priority or posture, a change in attitude, approach or tempo.

Change may or may not ameliorate the symptom, depending on how long we've waited before making the change, but it can have a powerful impact on the course of not only an illness but also a life. For instance, among those who have experienced spontaneous remissions—inexplicable recoveries from "incurable" diseases—over 90 percent, Bernie Siegel says, first experienced major, and favorable, change in their lives prior to the healing: dramatic reconciliations, religious conversions, the admitting of long-denied truths, the removal of obstacles to a career or a marriage, the birth of a child or grandchild. These people, however, didn't make their changes in hopes of effecting such an outcome, but "to do things more appropriate to living than dying," as one man put it. Healing was the by-product of the change.

If our only approach to the body's deep cries is to clamp our hands over our ears, we have dismissed the dreams of the body. If we medicate our symptoms away or get them "fixed" by the doctor, hoping to return to our lives and pick up where we left off without missing a beat, then we've missed the point of pain. Fortunately and unfortunately, though, the opportunity to grow will come around again.
As I reflect again on tomorrow, being responsible to this good-bye while still present means that I need to say good-bye and to say welcome, and to accept the change that I am facilitating. My ritual for doing so is to bring in some food, some fruit and breakfast breads, and to make introductions while sharing hospitality, and to acknowledge the bittersweet moment that this is. Perhaps in making space for these feelings and in facilitating this change, I will find that I have removed an obstacle to my full-time ministry—that being the sense of commitment and responsibility to this agency that I have, and haven't been able to let go.

May God grant us all the gifts of "good" good-byes, of being present, of listening deeply to our bodies, and of accepting the moments of grace that can be a part of each day as we pay attention.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

God’s Green Earth

I am writing from a chemical free, green, organic bed and breakfast, Topia Inn in Adams, MA. Coolest decorative finishes here: the walls are covered with clay, not paint; wood, some cherry, I believe, and some oak, floors were finished with non-toxic finishes; the carpets on the stairs are cotton and hemp; linens are organic cotton, air is filtered. Topia provides organic, chemical fragrance free toiletries for your use—not that all organic means non-allergenic—I can sneeze at organics and biologics too. Like many such places this green renovation of the inn was prompted when one of the co-owners developed multiple chemical sensitivities during the renovation of an old armory into an arts center and while running a restaurant. We got a peek at the armory cum theater and it is clear that detox still needs to occur, although the first pass has made a big improvement. Inexpensive theater rental rates now—all a part of an artistic and economic redevelopment project for the town.

Artistic highlight of our visit: On Thursday evening we went to a concert in the courtyard of the armory. Singer/composer Razia Said and her band performed. Razia is from Madagascar, and her band members were from Madagascar, Brazil, New York and Cleveland, as well as getting back up vocals from the inn co-owners, and the sitar player of the Greek raised inn co-owner, Nana. Still on the green theme, several of the songs she sang, promoting her new album Zebu Nation, soon to be distributed by Putamayo Music, were about the ecological problems facing Madagascar: Slash and Burn was the only one in English, but she has composed both laments and songs of hope in Malagasy, and if you ever listen to world music, track this down—I recommend it, and plan to bring home a copy.

Over breakfast both mornings we had great conversations with a couple of our fellow guests, and it turns out that David runs an information website called the
Green Yankee
. I checked it briefly and it is as wry, witty and down to earth as he was in person. He’s a cook, gardener and generally curious/interesting person, and the website reflects that.

If you haven’t had the chance to drive Route 2 in the western half of Massachusetts, aka the Mohawk Trail, this is a good year to do it. Everything is lush and green from all of the rain we’ve had—this was in marked contrast to the dry high desert mesas of my trip a couple of weeks ago, but truly an example that God must love and encourage variety as a creator and in creation. Do pull off Route 2 onto Route 8 north and take 30 minutes to an hour to see the Natural Bridge State Park. With water levels high, the only marble dam in the country is letting a lot of water pour through the Natural Bridge—one of the wonders of the natural world—where water has carved a tunnel through rock and left a natural bridge above. This is one part where I am reminded of the Arches National Park rock formations in Utah, only most of these rocks are marble, not sandstone. Cool, both in temperature and as vista, but noisy from the rush of the water!

I'm preaching next Sunday, and have been thinking about using the alternative Hebrew Bible text about Elijah’s encounter with God in
1 Kings 19:11-13 where Elijah meets God at Horeb—not in wind, earthquake, fire, but in sheer silence.
"… and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?'"

Perhaps this green excursion can serve as a reminder that we all need to find some quiet time to answer that question, particularly as it regards God’s green earth: "what are you doing here" to protect and be good stewards of creation? I am heartened that many Christian conservatives have begun to rethink the dispensationalist position that the earth was going to burn up, so we may as well use it up.

And finally, fittingly, I found where the phrase God's green earth originated: this poem originally published in The Scottish Christian Herald:

The Spirit of the Seasons
By the Rev. W. M. Hetherington

Оh! beautiful is God's green earth!
When in the gentle Spring

Its flowery beauties leap to birth,
And wild-wood echoes ring.

Instructive with melodious joy,
Glad Nature's anthem pure and high,
To Him whose goodness gave them birth:
Oh! beautiful is God's green earth!

Oh! beautiful is God's bright earth !
In Summer's golden prime,

When tides of light and life roll forth
Round every kindling clime;

Till the full bloom of gracious love,
O'er earth below and heaven above,
Beams in majestic splendour forth:
Oh! beautiful is God's bright earth!

Oh! beautiful is God's rich earth!
'Neath Autumn's gorgeous skies,

When the deep robe of ripened worth
O'er Nature's bosom lies;

Benignest dignity and grace
Adorning her maternal face
With heavenly smiles of conscious worth:
Oh! beautiful is God's rich earth!

Oh! beautiful is God's grand earth!
When Winter's mighty spell

Bids tempests in their savage mirth
O'er land and ocean yell;

Locks up pool, lake, and stream, or throws
O'er hill and dale soft veiling snows;
Pours through each vein health's glowing mirth:
Oh! beautiful is God's grand earth!

Oh! beautiful is God's green earth!
The changing Seasons all,

But give its varied glories birth,
And on man's spirit call

For grateful praise: О God above,
While life is mine still shall I love
Thy works, still shew their beauties forth,
Still praise Thee in thine own green earth!