Bike Fail

“Find another way to keep fit,” said the podiatrist in uncharacteristically stern tones. Decades of walking had netted me two very unhappy feet. What to do? I needed time out in God’s nature and, never much good at sitting, had used the rhythm of my steps to focus my prayers.

I rummaged up warm memory from my youth: cycling home from the library with a basketful of books. Eureka! Calling in wifely and motherly chips 2016 Mother’s Day, I requested the gift of a bike. I loved her on sight: old-style frame, cream-colored paint, and stenciling that reminded me of ice cream parlors and The Music Man. I named her Cordelia.

Worry: would I remember how to balance after all these years? A surreptitious ride around the neighborhood allayed those fears: you really do never forget how to ride a bike! But an altogether different problem arose. The slopes that seemed gentle to my walking feet grew Everest-sized when I pedaled them. Breezes that mercifully cooled my walking skin buffeted my biking body with maniacal force. And, it turns out, you use different muscles bi-peding than you do bi-peddling. My quadriceps screamed, “What did we ever do to you?”

I finished the ride on willpower. I was clearly past it. Done for. Failure with a capital F.

But what of Cordelia? She was a gift of love and hope. I couldn’t give up on her. I painted my bike helmet like van Gogh’s Starry Night and, following the advice of the ages, got right back on the, um, bike.

Not great. Not disastrous.

Today I can ride longer before my legs turn into overcooked noodles. I can manage inclines with a bit more panache.  It’s not as easy as I’d like, but it’s worth the effort. Plus, I learned that failure, while harsh, has benefits. I learned

  1. Failure doesn’t kill us. Even though at the time our mortification might wish it did. In surviving failure, in a larger sense, we win.
  2. Failure defines our values. Sometimes we give something a go and failure tells us, in no uncertain terms, “Nope. Not for me.” Other times, when we face a challenge that’s hard, but somehow energizing (what I call God energy), failure spurs us on. We test unused muscles and set our determined chins.
  3. Failure fosters humor. We grow in self-acceptance when we can laugh at our humanness. Not in a derisive way, but in a way that says: “Yep. That’s me. Warts and all. Gotta love me.”
  4. Failure cultivates community. We all fail. Sharing that honestly helps us discover—and share—the refreshing truth that failure doesn’t define us.

Sure, it’s frustrating to re-tackle with determination (and Ben Gay) a skill I once mastered with nary a thought. But it’s frustration with benefits. I feel a kind of wondering joy as I wheel Cordelia out of the garage and slap on my helmet. There are adventures out there just waiting for me. I intend to pedal out and find them.

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Hark! It’s Wesley, Mendelssohn, Paul, & the Peanuts Gang!

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It’s become a family tradition. We tilt our heads back, haul in a breath, and, with gusto, sing “loo loo loo, loo-loo, loo loo…” The iconic scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas lifts our smiles and our “loos” each holiday season. Even without the words, Felix Mendelssohn’s tune is recognizable: “Hark the Herald Angels.”  Mendelssohn, a gifted German composer who died too young, crafted a tune accessible to sing, as well. Every note works its magic within the treble or bass’ five bars: a range reachable for all. We’re not sure why Snoopy and crew had to assume that awkward head angle to produce the tune, but it’s their self-expression and who are we to judge?

I will confess that, as a child, the carol gave me visions of an angel named Harold who sported beard stubble and held a half-smoked cigar. A unique view of the angelic presence. And, yep, I was a weird kid. Charles Wesley, lyricist of the song and the most prolific hymn writer of all time, obviously had a different image in mind. Charles, a Latin scholar and Oxford graduate, is credited along with his brother, John, with founding Methodism. Charles also owned a poet’s heart, as we find in today’s carol:

Joyful all ye nations rise/Join the triumph of the skies.

“Hark the Herald Angels’” lyrics echo the poetic message of Philippians 2: 5-11 incarnation poem. Here’s a bit of St. Paul’s poem:

Christ Jesus,

 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

 

Paul’s message and Charles’? That Christ reduced Himself to human form: not to take advantage, not to punish, but to show us the face of God and to draw us Godward.

Light and life to all he brings/risen with healing in his wings.

Healing. Hope. Life.

Wow. That is good news.

We’re invited, via Mendelssohn’s melody and Wesley’s poetry, to lift our heads and voices in good-news song. Perhaps this is what Charles Schultz had in mind with his Peanuts animation.

So, are you ready? It’s not too late—we’re still in the Twelve Days of Christmas. Heads back, voices raised, now—give it all you’ve got! Here’s some inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP37k831y9U.

 

Filthy Rags & Faithful Treks

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Growing up, each Wednesday night and three times on Sunday, I got told I was a sinner. More than that, even my “righteous acts were as filthy rags” to God. I got the distinct impression my preachers and teachers thought Jesus erred in judgment when He came to save me.

For a sensitive child leaning hard toward perfectionism, the words were toxic. Shame soaked my soul; to this day I battle its dreary chill.

Recently, I heard a Ted Talk speaker share results of her research on human connection. Shame, she discovered, disconnects us from relationships: well-connected persons believe they deserve love. That’s a profoundly different message from the filthy rags exhortation.

“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”                            

Joyful? Triumphant? Could God really want that for me? If so, where does such joy abide? Over what might I triumph?

“O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

Dame Julian of Norwich described sinning as falling in a ditch, the benevolent Christ reaching down a hand to draw us out. What a compassionate image of sin—who would not adore such a Lord?

That’s the joyful journey: to live Godward, to adore Christ. I can do that. I want to do that. Sure, I’m going to foul it up; I’m going to sin. But that’s not the big story. For Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

“O Come, All Ye Faithful” depicts faith as a journey to seek and then to adore the Christ child. Along the way, there will ditches to fall into, brambles and ambles to divert and distract. But as long as I get back up, or turn around, or clear away the rubble, God is waiting with a hand to help me up. Not to slap my face.

As an adult, I wonder and I worry about the motives of my early teachers: did they truly want me to struggle with self-loathing all my life? Or were they, too, soaked in shame? If so, I hope they, too, discovered Jesus’ gift: life to the full. Because, wow, that’s cause for joy and adoration.

Prayer: Jesus, it’s a confusing journey down here. I’ll sin. Lose my way. Forget my first love. When I fall in a ditch, reach out Your hand; I will gratefully grasp it. And adore You. Amen.

Hard Times & A Holy Night

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Our car, affectionately dubbed “The Dude” after our nonprofit’s icon, has quite a story. An enraged woman keyed its driver’s side, stem to stern. For months I drove the car, sickened by the violence pressed into it, praying for direction. I didn’t want to hide the scar—I wanted to transform it. In the end, the gash became part of a living tree from which dudes, created and named by our spacious folks, blossomed. I even took the art up onto the car’s roof, painting a dude cloud formation. More spacious folks joined the fun, creating personalized dudes to sail among those clouds.

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“The Dude” has been, for years, integral to our nonprofit’s ministry: trunk crammed full of supplies to inspire creative expression; wheels traversing the miles from our place to the places we serve; interior transporting children, safely buckled, to clubs and camps.

I got rear-ended last week. And, due to The Dude’s advanced years, he’s history. Just like that.

For me, the wreck and the unexpected costs it incurred just piled onto months and months of hardship and loss.

Too much.

And right at the beginning of Advent.

 

I share this story, because, sooner or later, we all get piled on. Overwhelmed by hard times and their attendant emotions, we cry with the psalmist, “How long?”

For me, faith isn’t reconstructing reality to match a smaltzy Christmas movie (but don’t we love those?). Faith is choosing God no matter what life throws my way. Driving around in a rental, a snatch of the carol, “O Holy Night,” struck me: “…till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

Those lyrics describe what Advent anticipates. They also reminded me why we do what we do at A Spacious Place: through creative expression, we help souls know their worth.

A Spacious Place moves forward with deep gratitude to The Dude. I won’t paint our new car—at least not at first. There needs to be a reason. But she—I’ve a feeling this one’s a dame—needs to be blessed. In this season of hope and expectancy, will you join me in blessing The Dame with best hopes for her years of service?

Whatever life is for you this holiday season—Wondrous, Even-Keeled, or Hard Timed—I hope you will come to know your soul’s worth.

 

Thank you for your service, Dude. We love you and we’ll miss you. So much.

Carol Lovin’

carols-smallChristmas Carols are, in some theological circles, frowned upon. Considered musica non grata, if you will (my apologies to Latin speakers everywhere). But this God geek loves carols. Loves them. In carols, the joy, the wonder, the hope of the season finds voice.

During Advent (which starts today) and through the Twelve Days of Christmas, which end on Epiphany, I’ll share my ponderings on some carols. I promise at least one posting a week, and I hope to hear your carol thoughts as well. Just no carol hating, okay?

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel…

 

Emmanuel: “God with us.”

As a Christian, I believe the long-anticipated Emmanuel became flesh in the person of Jesus. A Messianic child born into poverty, Jesus walked our earth, showing us the face and the heart of God. Still, I find myself still seeking an Emmanuel for right now.

Specifically, I yearn for an Emmanuel to save our nation: someone to embody God qualities our beleaguered country needs.

I look to our history: With artistry and hope that resonated God power, Thomas Jefferson inscribed the vision of a new nation onto parchment. Abraham Lincoln risked all to unify a deeply divided nation: his rectitude demonstrating each human’s God-given potential. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with eloquence in both word and deed, challenged us to live into Jefferson’s words, “All men are created equal.” King knew full well what his stand would cost him, and it did. That’s God courage.

We need that kind of leadership today. Right now. I’d hoped for it. Prayed for it. But leaders like that come rarely, and I am left with my prayers hanging in empty space. Or so I feel.

But it occurs to me that when we our leaders do not embody the God qualities our nation needs, we are called upon to cultivate those characteristics in ourselves. We become what we hoped for in another. And, in the pages of my Bible, I have the ultimate mentor: an Emmanuel for all times, including this one.  Jesus.

I ached for a leader I could watch on today’s news. Instead I am challenged by a timeless text: the life, the death, and words of Jesus.

And I find that I need more courage than I currently possess.

Prayer: O Come, Emmanuel. Give us courage to live into Your best hopes for us— and for our nation. Amen.

Votes & Hopes

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Voting as a spiritual practice? Well…yes! A spiritual practice is an act intended to strengthen our relationship with God. If our vote expresses our lived faith, then yes. It’s a spiritual practice.

This year our faith vote is crucial. Before we enter the voting booth, let’s consider the purpose of a vote and how our vote reflects our values.

  • A vote is an act of hope: Jesus taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our vote can help answer our own prayer; we can move our world—the world we leave to our children and grandchildren—Godward. We help create the world of God’s best hopes.
  • A vote is an act of awareness: We vote open-eyed: aware of the hard realities of greed, abuse, and hatred; aware also of more prevalent acts of generosity, inclusiveness, creativity, and love.
  • A vote is an act of global connection: Today’s connected world makes isolationism obsolete. A strong vote creates positive connections between ourselves and others in the world community.
  • A vote is an informed act: From a diversity of sources, we learn what we can about issues and candidates so our vote is thoughtful, reasoned, and hopeful.
  • A vote is an act of faith: Fear is a powerful, sometimes needed, force. But a spiritual-practice vote is one of faith, not fear. Of inclusion, not exclusion.

We cast a vote: what a strong verb! While we may simply pushing buttons to register our vote, the impact is both phenomenal and enduring. So let’s go out there and rock our faith vote.

Celebration Times, Come On!

DancingAt a creativity camp in days gone by, our campers created original films. We explored shot angles, storylines, and pacing. One group wrapped their film with an animated rendering of Kool and the Gang’s song, “Celebration.” Except, instead of the original lyrics: “Celebrate good times, come on,” our gang belted out, “Celebration Times: come on!” Those words, sung with gusto, have become legend at our nonprofit, A Spacious Place.

We’ve entered Celebration Times. On the Christian calendar, Easter Sunday opens the door onto the Easter season, which culminates fifty days later on Pentecost Sunday. But whatever your faith walk, spring is surely a season of celebration: tissue-paper pinks of the redbud trees; vibrant reds and yellows of the Indian blankets; deep, serene blues and purples of the bluebonnets.

And our current world climate makes celebration times especially needful. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “With the fearful strain that is on me day and night, if I did not laugh I should die.” The joy of the Lord is, indeed, our strength.

How we rock our Celebration Time is as individual as our souls. Below are some possibilities:

  1. Put on some dance music and let loose.
  2. Read a book just for fun (that’s right—the one you’ve been eyeing in the grocery store).
  3. Call someone you’ve not spoken to in a while. Laugh together over good memories.
  4. Create something that delights you (you knew that one was coming).
  5. Cook a feast, invite some friends, and watch Chocolat or Babette’s Feast.
  6. Dress up—even if it means wearing that new stunner to the grocery store (the produce section deserves our respect).
  7. Go on, belt it out! Studies show that singing eases depression.

So…Cut loose.

Party.

Fiesta.

It’s Celebration Time—come on!

Good Friday Spiritual Practice: Endurance

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Each day of Holy Week, I will post spiritual practices from my book, When God Walks Away. The book (pictured) likens the dark-night journey to the events of Holy Week. Since engaging with art can be a spiritual practice, you will notice references to music, films, and visual artworks in addition to more traditional forms of spiritual discipline.

I hope these practices provide nourishing soul food as you make your way toward Easter.

Book:

The Singer by Calvin Miller: The strongest in a trilogy of poems (fear not, they’re readable poems), Miller sings anew an old, old story, and we feel its violence and pathos afresh.

Film:

The Passion of the Christ directed by Mel Gibson: It begins in agony and does not let up until literally the film’s last seconds. Excruciating—almost impossible—to watch, The Passion is also beautiful and epic-sized. Flowing through its murderous madness run two clear streams of sanity: Jesus’ commitment to His call and Mary’s love for her suffering son.

Endurance Exercises:

Psalm & Response: Rewrite Psalm 22 in your own words. How does your experience connect with the pain expressed by the psalmist?

Questioning Prayer: Over the course of a few weeks, jot down the hard questions you have of God. Seek a time and place for solitude, and offer your questions aloud as a prayer. Sit in openness to whatever God might bring you.

Music:

“When I Survey” by Isaac Watts and Lowell Mason: I’m nuts about hymns—poetry, living theology, compelling music; let’s not lose such majesty. “When I Survey” weeps with the madness of divine love.

“Question” by the Moody Blues: Why can we never get answers to our hardest questions? The Blues ask theirs right out loud.

“Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla: God questions asked in the language of the child: endearing, perplexing, resonating.

Visual Arts:

Guernica by Pablo Picasso*: Depicting the bombing slaughter of a small Basque village in northern Spain, Picasso’s riveting work screams against the insanity of all violence.

The Magdalen in Penitence by Donatello*: Donatello, near the end of his life, depicts Mary near the close of hers. She bears the scars of hard living, but she wears the face of faith.

* Find these artworks in your neighborhood or Internet library.

Maunday Thursday Spiritual Practice: Brokenness

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Each day of Holy Week, I will post spiritual practices from my book, When God Walks Away. The book (pictured) likens the dark-night journey to the events of Holy Week. Since engaging with art can be a spiritual practice, you will notice references to music, films, and visual artworks in addition to more traditional forms of spiritual discipline.

I hope these practices provide nourishing soul food as you make your way toward Easter.

Books:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee: Okay, this is not on my list of favorite light-reads. But George and Martha, in their bizarre, destructive relationship, are the ultimate marriage cautionary tale.

Two-Part Invention by Madeleine L’Engle: Marriage is seen as melody—not a falsely sweet tune, but one that plumbs disturbing depths while remaining true to the original composition. L’Engle ignores cultural marriage taboos and opens a window into her forty-year marriage from beginning to end.

Film:

A Beautiful Mind directed by Ron Howard: Promoted as the story of Nobel prizewinner John Naish, the film celebrates love’s power. Amazing as Naish’s determination and discipline is, his wife is the film’s hero. Can love do the impossible? A Beautiful Mind says YES!

The Emperor’s Club directed by Michael Hoffman: A quietly promoted and played film, I still think on Emperor’s Club years after viewing it. As a teacher and minister, it blew me apart: have I set my sights on a select few, blind to the needs and gifts of others?

Endurance Exercises:

Discernment Practice: Label a sheet of paper: “To What Am I Called?” List all the ministries in which you presently serve—within your church and without. (Anything we do can be ministry if, in the doing of it, we serve others and honor God.) Set aside your list for two or three days while you ponder the question. Cull from the list activities that take your energy from what God is calling you to do.

Dark Night Generosity: For your congregation, take on a simple project or create an artwork that shares what you are learning on your Dark-Night journey. You may choose to write a Bible study, create a banner, or plant a garden.

Music:

“Blackbird” by The Beatles: “Flying on broken wings”—who can live long in this world and not feel her heart rise at such words? Brokenness is its own beauty; less self-absorbed, more dependent on the grace of the wind, we fly freer.

Visual Art:

The Glass of Absinthe by Edgar Degas*: Ever felt more isolated in someone’s company than if you’d truly been alone? In this moment, Degas’s couple sits side by side in utter isolation.

The Dance by Henri Matisse*: Painted in vibrant colors, this canvas celebrates both individual—male and female, the stumbling and the graceful, the energetic and the lithe—and community. All clasp hands in a living, dancing circle.

* Find these artworks in your neighborhood or Internet library.

 

Holy Week Spiritual Practice: Letting Go

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

When God Walks Away: A Dark Night Companion

Each day of Holy Week, I will post spiritual practices from my book, When God Walks Away. The book (pictured) likens the dark-night journey to the events of Holy Week. Since engaging with art can be a spiritual practice, you will notice references to music, films, and visual artworks in addition to more traditional forms of spiritual discipline.

I hope these practices provide nourishing soul food as you make your way toward Easter.

Books:

Time Quartet by Madeleine L’Engle (anthology of A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters): Though marketed as “family values” reading, there’s more—much more—here. The heroes, including the supernatural ones, nestle into our souls; we grow to love them because somehow these people, these stories, are our people, our story.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis: Volumes One and Two of the Narnia Chronicles, these books attest to God’s love for, trust in, and dependence on children. Who would not trust their beloved son or daughter to Aslan’s care?

Film:

A River Runs Through It directed by Robert Redford: This simply beautiful movie closes with a sermon for all who love someone.

Fiddler on the Roof directed by Norman Jewison: A jovial Job figure, Tevye is losing his children and his home. He takes it all in stride until one event rocks his faith. Fiddler is proof that musicals need not be fluff.

Endurance Exercises:

Letters of Hope: Compose a letter expressing your best hopes for someone who walks with you through the Night. Either deliver the letter or offer it as an intercessory prayer.

Gethsemane Ponderings: After reading the gospel accounts of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer, create a poem or artwork that expresses its message for your Dark-Night journey.

Into God’s Hands: Visualize a loved one for whom you have concern: holding a photo of the person may help. Then speak each concern aloud, followed by the words, “Into Your Hands.”

Music:

“Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon: “Life is just what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans”—wise advice from father John Lennon to his son and good for us to remember in the Night.

“Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables by Alain Boublil and Claude‑Michael Schönberg: When Colm Wilkinson sings “Bring Him Home” (the Broadway album), it’s almost unbearable. His anguished prayer pleads with a desperation parents know well. In the 2013 film version of Les Mis, Hugh Jackman brings his own sense of beauty and pathos to the song.

Visual Art:

The Lost Sheep by Alfred Soord*: Most Good Shepherd depictions look like someone who wouldn’t last a day out of doors. But here is a determined, muscular shepherd with whom I can trust my lambs.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange*: Feel hopeless to protect your children? Lange’s photo mirrors our anguish even as it tears out our hearts.

* Find these artworks in your neighborhood or Internet library.