Monthly Archives: April 2012

Thoughts on Kairos and Epiphany, the ‘unbidden and unexpected’

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I’ve been reading and loving my newest happy discovery, In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice. Its author, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, is a theologian and the book is a straightforward theological teaching on the things we’ve been talking about around here. She’s a mother who believes the Church has missed its opportunity to honor the spiritual formation that can arrive out of the mess of everyday parenting. Often we’re taught that in order to encounter God we need to step out of the dailyness of life with children. Miller-McLemore, instead, holds up Christ’s own mother (and all that pondering she kept doing!) as our mother-hero of the faith.

Miller-McLemore is sharp and dryly witty and her insight is fantastic. I’m having this problem where I’m underlining every other paragraph and drawing lots of hearts and exclamation points in the margins, as well as phrases like: “Ordinary Awe!” and “Live graciously WITHIN time” and “Mysticism of Everyday life—-> Ignatius.” If all that doesn’t prove it to you already, this book is right up my alley.

So, on this Monday morning following a weekend with four trips to the airport, one night of watching New Girl episodes and eating Vietnamese food with my sister-in-law on the couch, one soccer game, four emotional breakdowns from August, one 93 degree/shadeless soccer game (with a back sunburn to prove it), and two bags of popcorn, I’m going to share some of my favorite words of Miller-McLemore’s so far.

Seriously, I can’t get enough of this stuff.

Just when my six-month-old fell into a predictable sleep pattern and I thought we had it all together, he grew and changed and we had to adjust…

The profoundly interminable and shifting nature of the work of parenting is both its challenge and reward. More than this: many parents would agree that in this practice of attending, they must learn, change and develop or the child will not thrive. For decades, modern psychology presumed that parenthood required little or no change in the already existing mind-set of the parent … Only recently has it begun to dawn on us that birth and rearing children a powerfully transformative for parents an children alike.

If I attend well to my sons over time, there is opportunity, however irregular, for astonishment … Children’s author Judith Viorst has learned , from watching her three sons, that “it is possible to find delight in us hanging around the kitchen while one kid is making a chicken salad sandwich and the other is tossing a napkin into the trash and missing.” It is just this potential for joy int he most mundane moment, pondered and attended to with care, that leads her to conclude, “Family life is better than most any other thing going on in the universe.”

Recently, a pastor who is also a father admitted to me apologetically that family devotions fall by the wayside in his household…

Here’s what I wish I could have said. Although family prayer has its important place … prayer and scripture reading do not alone determine faith. Faith is not one more thing to check off the list. Family prayer; check. Bedtime prayer; check. Ritual for dead hamster; check. It is not something set aside outside regular time. It is what we do in time and space, with our bodies and through our movements. The practices of this man’s family—playing with the children after school, interacting around dinner, greeting and parting, attending and pondering—these practices are formative of faith…

There is no ultimate solution to the dilemma of enacting faith in families in time. One cannot control kairos or schedule an epiphany … This is precisely the gift and bane of kairos and epiphany: such moments come unbidden and unexpected.

In the Midst of Chaos: Caring for Children as Spiritual Practice, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, 2007 Josey-Bass, 56-57, emphasis mine.

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Poem-a-Day Friday: Luci Shaw

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I had the honor of hearing Luci Shaw and Jeanne Murray Walker discuss “Ambition” together a week ago Thursday. What a gift it was to be at the Festival of Faith and Writing and hear two stunning poets discuss the writing life in the context of faith, to listen to Luci Shaw speak about how she investigates her own inner motivations and questions her need for affirmation. Such honesty and humility is so rare in the poetry world and I soaked their words up with all my heart.

I should also add that Luci Shaw is just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.  But, alas, that’s not a good reason to like a poet. This, however, is:

The Simple Dark

by Luci Shaw

Black birds slice their evening patterns—
long curves in the sky. Everything
is drawing down into shade.
But the dark, which is at first so simple
is not simple. Away from the farmhouse
with is slits of yellow, the monochrome
develops like a print in the chemical bath.

The unbroken velvet swims
with complications so subtle that
seeing and hearing must take their time
to know. The shadow purples,
the dusk intricate with crickets. The sky
infested with pricks of light.
My whole body an ear, an eye.

What the Light Was Like,  © 2006 by Luci Shaw, WordFarm

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Dishes and Litany and all that Beauty

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I live in the litany of the putting away. The clean dishes go onto shelves, forks and knives and cups and bowls. And the boys are waiting for their food, always waiting for food. I move from fridge to stove to sink to table, little circles.

Sometimes it’s morning. I listen to the news in my pajamas. Oatmeal for one child. Cereal for another. I’m slicing an apple. I’m pouring a cup of milk. I’m cleaning up a spill. I’m reminding Brooksie that “our food does not go on the floor, little babes.” I’m sipping coffee as I move around that room. I’m not frantic. But I know what needs to get done and my gut is begging me to feed it as well. Take bites. My mom always stood during breakfast too.

Sometimes it’s lunch and the quesadilla has two sides: one swiped with spinach puree for the baby who doesn’t notice green things yet. One plain for the boy who notices everything. “What vegetable would you like today?” I’m saying. He’d like to just once get away with no vegetable. Not in my kitchen! My head sings. And, it’s true: I own this room.

Later, during naptime, there are dishes to wash and floors to sweep and counters to wipe or, possibly, to be left till later. Because, seriously, I need to get on Twitter.

And dinner, and after dinner: All those dishes. All those pans. When we were first married and living on my tiny fellowship in grad school, freezing in Syracuse winter with our heat set to 62, Chris and I stood together in the kitchen washing pans and drying them, washing plates and drying them. That next apartment in Philly had a dishwasher. It was a slice of glory. We filled it with wonder in our eyes. How easily I can forget that.

The other day, I was putting away a glass bowl: the kind that has held salad and cookie dough, a baking soda volcano and playdough mix and I thought: This is it. This is my life.

Granted, sometimes I can have that thought in the kind of way that leads me to cry in my pillow and take a long bath and rewatch the saddest scene in Little Women (you guys know what I’m talking about). But, sometimes, I have that thought and the light shines in through the window and the bowl sparkles and I think: Thank you, bowl, for the volcano and the endless supply of salads. Thank you for the chocolate pudding August and I made in our second apartment in San Francisco and the way he couldn’t quite pronounce “choquate” then. Thank you for the endless circles I’ve scrubbed around you in every home Chris and I have shared for almost eight years. Thank you for the putting away and the getting out and the hope that I can always clean you.

And in those moments when the bowl is good and the litany is good, I realize that my life is this in its most simplest form: these circles I’m moving in around the kitchen and around my day–from breakfast to play time to errands to the kitchen to nap time and writing time and play time and the sun shining down on us outside and back to the kitchen and food and my husband being home and the boys wrestling in the living room and bathing the boys and clean shiny skin and combing their wet hair down and pajamas and teeth brushed and stories read and bodies tucked in and moments with my husband on the couch and our own books and bedtime. And we do it over and over and over. And this is the shocker: That circle is good.

Because this is what I’m realizing: every night as I lay my baby down in his crib and sing the words, “I know that moons rise and time flies and sweet little boys get older…” I see him changing. Some moments I can stop the circling long enough to notice: the way he’s smiling today, the joke he’s trying to play on me, the love he’s inheriting for books. And when I notice, that’s when I remember to pray.

It’s always about paying attention, I was thinking yesterday afternoon, stacking plates on top of one another, hoping not to wake the light-sleeping baby whose room shares a wall with the dishes. And that makes the circle more of a spiral, doesn’t it? We’re always circling, yes. But it turns out in all this doing and putting away and creating and consuming, we’ve been spiraling toward something all along.

And that spiral leads toward a glorious center, the place where God is making all the plain things beautiful and all the sad things untrue.

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{Practicing Benedict} Compassion and Sober Judgment

“The abbot or abbess, once established in office, must often think about the demands made on them by the burden they have undertaken and consider also to whom they will have to give an account of their stewardship. They must understand the call of their office is not to exercise power over those who are their subjects but to serve and help them in their needs. They must be well-grounded in the law of God so that they may have the resources to bring forth what is new and what is old in their teaching. They must be chaste, sober and compassionate and should always let mercy triumph over judgment in the hope of themselves receiving like treatment from the Lord. While they must hate all vice, they must love their brothers or sisters. In correcting faults they must act with prudence being conscious of the danger of breaking the vessel itself by attacking the rust too vigorously. They should always bear their own frailty in mind and remember not to crush the bruised reed.” (The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 64, emphasis mine)

There are a few things the past ten years have taught me about myself:

  1. Left to my own devices, my brain wants to devour itself and then complain about how bad it tastes.
  2. We are all weak. We are all capable inflicting great pain upon each other.
  3. I really believe that the Spirit of God brings healing. But healing doesn’t come easy; it requires self-honesty. And, usually, the self is the most difficult person with whom to have an honest conversation.

This past weekend I heard another story in the long tale of the broken Church. A friend explained how, during her divorce, she was no longer allowed to take communion in her church. It was a terrible time for her and instead of the church being a supportive place, it was a place of judgment and exclusion. It just so happens that while she was removed from the table, a founder of the church took communion weekly, all while secretly involved in a six-year extramarital affair. We are poor judges of each other.

“They should always bear their own frailty in mind…” What would happen if we actually recognized our own frailties and treated others’ weaknesses with a sober understanding of our own?

Correction in the church is rightfully a scary topic. We’ve all seen that process fail. We’ve all seen people in positions of authority dishing out rebukes while they’re the ones hiding the darkest secrets. Who is worthy to judge?

I keep thinking about this in terms of parenthood. (Shocker!) I’m asking myself how I know when I’m making the right call in terms of correcting my kids. I’m also asking myself when I most believe in the need for justice in the world. You know when? When the kid at the park is purposefully throwing sand in my kid’s eye, that’s when. You want to see someone claiming authority and judgment? See a mama protecting her baby.

Protecting. We are all weak, but we are called to protect each other, protect the body of Christ. And there’s nothing more important to protect than the most vulnerable among us. There are places and moments where we have to take a moral stand, especially when it comes to people in a position of leadership whose choices are harming another.

Judgment is a tricky business, but it is necessary because people deserve protection.

Disciplining your kid is tricky business too, isn’t it? There is a line for behavior that is tolerable. There is a line for behavior that is intolerable. But where is it? And how come no one can seem to agree on it?

I have friends who spank. I have friends who time-out. I have friends who despise time-outs and only believe in time-ins. I have friends whose hairs stand on their necks to even consider that I might have friends who spank. And I have friends who roll their eyes at all of it. We’re all trying to raise kids to live well in this world. How do we make those judgment calls? How do we choose well, respond well, love well, protect well?

I’m starting to believe that it begins in a simple place, whether we’re talking about “discipline in the church” (doesn’t that phrase just make your insides cringe?), discipline for people in positions of authority, or discipline in the home. How do we draw lines, hold out consequences, love well?

I’m convinced that St. Benedict’s words are of utmost value to us right now in this generation of the Church, in this culture of Mommy-wars.

We must be “chaste, sober and compassionate.”

We must “let mercy triumph over judgment.” (That, by the way, is much more complicated than taking the easy way out and not confronting the problem. Think Jesus and the woman caught in adultery—John 7-8.)

We must always “bear [our] own frailty.”

I’m thinking that maybe before I spit out discipline for my kids, I’d better examine my heart. Maybe parenting a stubborn child who deliberately drops his pasta on the floor with a look of rebellion in his eyes should remind me my own rebellion toward God. Parenting should always be changing my view of God and my understanding of mercy. When I’m willing to see it, my children’s sin inevitably points back to my own.

And when I consider such an idea on the grand scale of the Church, I sigh. How beautiful would it be for pastors to be the most vulnerable of all of us? How powerful if every time a pastor was confronted with the sin in her congregation, she were forced to examine her own heart, to find her own faithless wanderings there, to find her own deep need for mercy?

The power of repentance is that God did not create it to be an individual task. He created us to need each other, to draw repentance out of each other, and to walk humbly with each other, always recognizing our own deep needs.

So, let us parent and minister and serve with chaste, sober, compassionate judgment. And let us always see, at the forefront of our lives, our own frailty. Then we can dream to be the Church that loves in the fullest expression, the Church that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes … never fails” (1 Corinthians 13).

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Quoting Thankful

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Today for Thankful Tuesday, I want to give you some words I heard over the weekend at the Festival of Faith and Writing, thoughts that have filled me up. I hope they speak something important to you too.

(Note: these are from my notes and they may not be exact…though I did my best–my very best!–at the note-taking.)

“Repetition…locates us, keeps us where we are, keeps us the way a mother keeps her baby.” –Jeanne Murray Walker

“It’s not an accident that Laments [in the Psalms] start individually and then turn into community. The circle widens with the Lament the more love and safety is there. We, the artists, are called to be the ones who bring [the community] into honesty.” –Gregg DeMey

“If I’m complaining to God it feels more healthy than if I’m complaining about God behind his back.” –Susan Isaacs

“Artists are called to be the most observing humans around, which involves a lot of listening.” -Gregg DeMey

“A testimonial is about answers. Good art is about polishing questions.”  -Greg DeMey

Quoting her friend: “Every church has a prase band. When are we going to bring out the Lament band?” –Caryn Rivadeneira

“In all of our rushing, we’re like bulls in china shops. We’re breaking our lives.” –Ann Voskamp

“[Our work is to speak] the language of amazement into a culture that thinks they’ve been abandoned.” -Ann Voskamp

“How did God make every woman to be a maker? He made an empty space inside her… Something always comes to the empty space. And it can be God.” -Ann Voskamp

“You either have to bury your fear in faith or bury your talents in fear. Which is it going to be?” -Ann Voskamp

“Story is in the suffering.” -Ann Voskamp

“When love and theology conflict, love should always be our priority.” -Dr. Vincent Harding paraphrased in Kristin Vander Giessen-Reitsma’s reading of her essay “Choice Cuisine” from the collection, The Spirit of Food

“People are gracious toward religious expression that is gracious to them.” –Marilyn Robinson

“God has never told us we would leave this world alive.” -Marilyn Robinson

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Walk slow and notice

The plane lands and you have a connection to make in a city you’ve never see the ground of. Two or three times your body has hovered close here: once in a suburb, twice at this airport where you taxi now toward the bulding. A bell chimes and all at once, as if a symphony, you all unclick seat belts, reach forward for purses and backpacks, stand to feet with heads bents, eyes facing down under short ceilings, waiting.

How strange it is for you to be alone. Always those boys are attached to you. Always you are the one gathering misplaced playmobile pieces, always cars in the row behind you. Always a baby in a carrier, a child holding onto your hand. Always three bags and plans for the next destination: how to move forward. Always someone is hungry, thirsty, always dirty hands, diapers or quick hustles to the potty.

And here you are. The emptiness around your arms is softer than you have words for. You think, What did I do, once, when my arms were free and I stood alone among strangers? You think: Music. And there on that plane, you pull the wires through fingers, place buds in the your ears. The music shocks you. You’ve heard it before, but lately, so diluted. Watered by voices and calendars and doings. And here, the older woman in her hand-knitted purple shawl looks into your eyes, as if she knows: Oh, her face says, you are alone. Beautifully alone. You smile back. Yes, your eyes answer. Yes.

There are signs of who you’ve become. Perhaps if strangers looked close enough, they’d recognize the extra skin that folds your belly, the tired eyes, the good ache that comes from giving yourself to children. But here, as one by one the people lift their heads, set eyes toward their destination, walk the open path, you know you don’t know what they carry. They don’t know what you are lightened by.

Then, your turn to move. You step into an aisle. How many asles have you walked in your life, sweet Baptist girl? Always walking aisles toward a calling. Always coming forward pulled by grace. And here, you step into this space, arms empty, one bag, a book, this music. You turn it up louder than comfortable. You want it to burn a little.

You move off the plane into the long tunnel and the warm air rushes at you, past you, light skimming your surface on every side. And you are alone in that tunnel, illuminated.

You walk into the maze of spaces and people, all of it moving toward you.

Walk slow, the Voice whispers.

Walk slow and notice.

And every place you step is shimmering, every face is the image of God.

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Poem-a-Day Friday: Marie Howe

This week, I listened to a rebroadcast of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air interview with poet Marie Howe back in October. Listening to her voice brought back memories of a summer class I took in July of 2000. That was the summer before my senior year of college. That class, “Contemporary American Women Poets” with my favorite all-time professor Bob Fink, was pivotal in shaping what I understand and love about poetry. That summer shimmers under those poems I read, even though I have memories of crying about my ex-boyfriend into my pillow, even though that summer was actually pretty boring and I wished I were doing more important things with myself. There’s the sacred memory and smell of where I was when I was reading Jane Kenyon and Cathy Song and Marie Howe. I’m sitting in the shade on campus soaking their words. Or I’m on a first date with an older boy (he was so tall and strong and mysterious!) downtown eating chocolate covered strawberries and looking at art. It’s all connected for me.

All that to say, on Monday when I listened to Marie Howe read aloud on Fresh Air one of those first poems I ever loved, I stood mesmerized over the kitchen sink, the water overflowing into and out of the dirty pan, my boys waiting (impatiently) for their lunches at the table. Such words.

I haven’t read any of her recent work, but in the interview she mentioned a new series she’s been working on about Mary Magdelene. So, when I had the chance this week, I looked those poems up and found this little gem.

I’m really taken by this poem. And I’m going to keep thinking about it. Want to join me?


MAGDALENE–THE SEVEN DEVILS

by Marie Howe

“Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven devils had been cast out” —Luke 8:2.

The first was that I was very busy.
The second — I was different from you: whatever happened to you could not happen to me, not like that.

The third — I worried.
The fourth – envy, disguised as compassion.
The fifth was that I refused to consider the quality of life of the aphid,
The aphid disgusted me. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The mosquito too – its face. And the ant – its bifurcated body.

Ok the first was that I was so busy.
The second that I might make the wrong choice,
because I had decided to take that plane that day,
that flight, before noon, so as to arrive early
and, I shouldn’t have wanted that.
The third was that if I walked past the certain place on the street
the house would blow up.
The fourth was that I was made of guts and blood with a thin layer of skin
lightly thrown over the whole thing.

The fifth was that the dead seemed more alive to me than the living

The sixth — if I touched my right arm I had to touch my left arm, and if I touched the left arm a little harder than I’d first touched the right then I had to retouch the left and then touch the right again so it would be even.

The seventh — I knew I was breathing the expelled breath of everything that was alive and I couldn’t stand it,

I wanted a sieve, a mask, a, I hate this word – cheesecloth —
to breath through that would trap it — whatever was inside everyone else that
entered me when I breathed in

No. That was the first one.

The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this happened? How had our lives gotten like this?

The third was that I couldn’t eat food if I really saw it – distinct, separate from me in a bowl or on a plate.

Ok. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list.

The second was that the laundry was never finally done.

The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did.
And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then what was
love?

Someone using you as a co-ordinate to situate himself on earth.

The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone. I wouldn’t allow myself to belong
to anyone.

Historians would assume my sin was sexual.

The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.

The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling.

The seventh was the way my mother looked when she was dying.
The sound she made — the gurgling sound — so loud we had to speak louder to hear each other over it.

And that I couldn’t stop hearing it–years later —
grocery shopping, crossing the street —

No, not the sound – it was her body’s hunger
finally evident.–what our mother had hidden all her life.

For months I dreamt of knucklebones and roots,
the slabs of sidewalk pushed up like crooked teeth by what grew underneath.

The underneath —that was the first devil. It was always with me.
And that I didn’t think you— if I told you – would understand any of this –

* Published in the July/August 2011 issue of the American Poetry Review (Vol. 40 Issue 4, p48)

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