Catalpa Musings

In my backyard stands an old catalpa tree. I’m not an arborist, so I have no idea how old she is…but she is definitely old. Her trunk is hollow now, and yet she stands firm. At least one of her lower branches has a hollow place in it, too. There’s another hollow where her trunk divides into two main branches. Lots of space in that old tree.

Despite the local utility company regularly hacking off her branches that grow too near the electric wire (I nearly weep each time they attack her with their saws), she continues to spread her branches, providing perches for all sorts of winged creatures–raucous bluejays, tiny finches, fat robins, cooing morning doves, brilliant red cardinals, and even the occasional black buzzard who stays way up in the top and never for long, thank God!

For many years the squirrels nested in the hollow at the split, and then they mysteriously moved out. It didn’t take long to figure out why–honeybees had moved in! But this spring a brave little squirrel has made her nest in the hollow of a branch. I sat mesmerized one morning watching her carry up twigs and leaves and all sorts of makings for a cozy nest, laughing as she would scamper along the branch only to suddenly disappear into the hollow.

DSC02090Chipmunks play around the base of the trunk, scurrying in and out of the hollow’s big opening. A few years ago a raccoon checked out that big hollow, perhaps considering it as a new home? He didn’t stay long–another opportunity for giving thanks to God!–and the chipmunks resumed their scurrying.

The leaves of this old catalpa are wide and deeply green, providing luscious shade for the back of our house. Even on the hottest of summer days, I can find cool shelter from the sun under her broad canopy.

She sort of reminds me of a wise old woman… In late spring she produces beautiful white, sweet-20160607_065239smelling blossoms en masse, like a full head of white hair. Her bark reminds me of an old face, wrinkled with age. Her hollows are like an empty bosom, ready to receive whoever needs the nurture of a safe and protected space. Her branches welcome all sorts of creatures who bring delightful music and bright flecks of color to the vibrant green of her leafy canopy.

God is so very present in the most ordinary things of life, always with something to teach or share. That old catalpa tree inspires me. I want to be like her as I grow old. I want to be a warm and welcoming soul for those who need nurturing. I want my life to be decorated by the comings and goings of all sorts of people. I want to be wise, not despising my gray hair or my wrinkles, but rather considering them evidence of a life well-lived…by God’s grace, a life lived for his glory.

Amen and amen.

 

 

Suitable for the Old

We…have to stop comparing ourselves with the young. The characteristics of the young are perfect for the young but unsuitable for the old.  -Barbara Stanford, Gift of a Lifetime

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, you would think our cultural stereotypes regarding youth and aging would flip. There are so many of us Boomers–it seems we should easily extol aging as something worthwhile, something beautiful, something to be treasured. But that’s not quite happened (at least, not yet), perhaps because the majority of Boomers are so busy trying to hang on to youth by engaging in youthful pursuits.

I am ready to admit that I am no longer young. What’s more, I’m glad. Being young was wonderful…well, mostly…okay, sometimes. It was hard a good bit of the time, though I didn’t always know it. I sometimes look back on my life and wonder, How did I ever manage all that? I don’t think I could do that today. And I’m absolutely right, I couldn’t. Nor do I want to.

That’s the point. I don’t want to. I don’t long for the days when my children were little; I now enjoy them as adults. I don’t miss the days when I believed multi-tasking was essential to a life well-lived. There’s something to be said for giving one thing my undivided attention. I see now that I’ve spent way too many years rushing from one moment to the next, often without really experiencing much of it.

As I let the dog out thisdsc_0561-2 morning, I spied in the faint pre-dawn light our resident cardinal sitting in his winter-woody bush. He was facing the east, awaiting the sunrise. Just waiting. As I settled on the sofa with my cup of hot coffee, I gazed out the window and pondered that cardinal. Had he been sitting there all night, just watching and waiting for the sun to rise and a new day to begin? I contemplated how God keeps watch all hours of the night, how I can sleep peacefully because I know beyond any doubt that God never sleeps, and the deep joy that comes with that sure and certain knowledge rose in my heart. I consciously welcomed it, just as we welcomed the sunrise, Mr. Cardinal and I.

I am grateful for the time I have now to sit quietly and reflect.

In my younger years, I had little time for watching the sun rise or to just sit and ponder in the early pre-dawn light. I was too busy serving breakfast, packing lunchboxes, getting kids out the door to school, a husband off to work and–as the kids got older and the economy got tighter–myself, too. And it is only with the passage of time and the experience gained in a lifetime that I have certain assurances about God, including that he is always watching over me and all his creation.

As I navigate this aging process, I am trying to be attentive to the cultural stereotypes I consciously hold, and even more attentive to those I might be holding subconsciously. (For example, why do I prefer to think of myself as “aging” rather than “old?” Perhaps because aging indicates movement and old sounds final/done? ) I want to embrace this inevitable process with grace, even to welcome it with joy and delight. A slower pace, more time to give, finding and savoring joy in the present moment–these beautiful treasures are definitely suitable for the old!

 

The Battle on Two Fronts

My husband and I went out for breakfast this morning to celebrate his birthday. As our slow_down_sign_reed_college_portland_oregon_2013conversation drifted to his recent retirement and the changes we are experiencing, he commented on how nice it is to be able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on a weekday morning, having nothing he has to rush to do. As I thought about his comment, I became increasingly aware of my own state of being. I was revving up. We had finished our meal, and I was physically preparing to rush on to the next thing. Except, there wasn’t a “next thing.”

It seems to me that my body is hard-wired to rush. It’s not that I have a lot of nervous energy…I’m not a leg-jiggler or a foot-tapper. I don’t drum my fingers. I’m not even particularly energetic. But my body is always poised to move on to whatever is next on the to-do list.

As a wife and mother,  a homemaker, a businesswoman-turned-pastor, I have been busy the majority of my life. I learned early on that time management was essential to successfully juggling my varied roles and responsibilities. My days were for the most part carefully planned to maximize every minute so as to accomplish not only what I needed to get done, but also have time for what I wanted to do. It was not uncommon for me to pack more into a day than was feasible to do. I’ve conditioned myself to be productive, and to be productive requires being on the move.

My life has changed significantly in the last six months. I quit my marketplace job to spend more time in ministry. After two years of providing care for my mother, she suffered a stroke and died. Subsequent weeks were spent tying up the loose ends of her affairs. Then my husband retired, and the holidays were upon us. With the whirlwind of activity behind us, we are settling into a new routine, a slower pace. Time to relax over a leisurely meal, or go to a movie in the middle of the day. The problem is that my body doesn’t know how to do that. I feel as though I’m fighting a battle to make myself slow down. That’s the battle on the physical front.

But the battle is also being fought on another front, a spiritual front. All this busyness I’ve prided myself on over the years has also conditioned my spiritual self to stay on the move. I devoured books, yet couldn’t really tell you what I’d read. I would have a revelation from scripture, but wouldn’t remember it days later. Rather than take the time to process what I read and perceived, I was rushing ahead to the next spiritual thought or epiphany. Now I am learning how to sit quietly and listen–really listen–for the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Solitude is becoming something I desire regularly.

Equally important, I am learning to be still and truly listen to others. Just as I rushed physically from one thing to the next, I also rushed conversations. The temptation to think about how I wanted to respond or simply being impatient to move on to another topic meant that I often didn’t give attention to the other person’s words, much less to what might be hiding behind them.

I’m learning that it’s impossible to be attentive to the present moment when the body and the spirit are persistently rushing on to the next thing on the to-do list or on to the next thought. This business of slowing down is hard though! The battle against pushing forward, refusing to idolize both physical and spiritual busyness, is intense.

The lesson that needs to settle deep in my spirit is this: What’s next is not guaranteed. Only this moment is real. To rush past it is to lose the battle and forfeit the opportunity to experience God in the here and now. And so each evening I thank God for all the blessings of the day, the ones I caught and the ones I missed, asking him to reveal those overlooked blessings so that I may be consciously grateful for them, too. My prayer is that this tool–this examen at the end of the day–will help me win the battle of being fully present on both fronts, physically and spiritually. Amen and amen.

 

Clarification

Yesterday I posted an update here. A good friend and trusted colleague contacted me after reading that update to share a concern that my thoughts as expressed there might be misconstrued as heresy–Pelagianism, specifically. Knowing that I am not a heretic, it was gently suggested that I take the post down. Because I didn’t have time yesterday to address the misunderstanding, I agreed that this was the appropriate action to take. That call, however, came a few hours after the update posted and, therefore, was read by some. Consequently, I want to clear up any misunderstanding as to my meaning.

Particularly in American culture, it is common to begin the new year with a focus on self-discipline, especially when it comes to limiting food intake and sedentary inclinations. With that in mind, I began that post by repeating a comment made by someone else that suggested God limited himself by giving us free will, and how that concept of self-limitation had been rattling around in my mind.

First potential misunderstanding: By “limit” I was not suggesting that God compromised his purpose or his divinity in any way. What I meant was that God chose to create humans with the capacity to decide whether or not we would love him. He could have hard-wired humans to love him, but that would negate the very concept of love. So God limited–restrained, controlled–himself in that he made a choice about what qualities he would give to his creation. And one of those qualities had the potential to grieve the heart of God.

I went on to reflect on my own experience of being parented and parenting…

I grew up in a well-controlled environment. That control was often exercised through manipulation, so that’s what I learned to do. “Limiting myself” was not an option I considered when it came to my will! I was well into adulthood and my children were mostly grown before I came to understand my own manipulative behavior in trying to get them to do what I wanted them to do. It was certainly easier in some ways to employ manipulation, bending their will to what I thought was best for them, rather than watch them make poor decisions. But once I understood the lack of love in that kind of manipulation, I had to learn to limit myself. And more than once since then I’ve felt my heart would break as I watched one of my kids live out the negative consequences of their willful choices.

Giving us free will was risky. God was taking the chance that his beloved humans would choose not to love him. And that’s exactly what we did. What’s more, God knew that we would. It seems to me that it would have been so much easier on God to just create us subject to his will, rather than allowing us to choose whether or not we would be. But making someone love him was not truly love, as there is no sacrifice in it. Perfect love always requires sacrificing manipulation in favor of freedom.

My point here is that my instinct is to satisfy my own will, regardless of the means. But God offers me a better way. God invites me to love by limiting myself, those natural tendencies and instincts that do not reflect his perfect love. Again, God doesn’t make me do that. I get to choose: God’s way or my way?

Now, to deal with the second potential misunderstanding: Pelagianism. As I understand it (I am not a theologian), at the heart of the Pelagian heresy is the belief that humans can exercise their gift of free will by initially choosing God. So if you read my post and thought that I was suggesting that, I apologize for my lack of clarity. Scripture says–and I believe–that no one comes to God apart from Jesus (John 14:6), and no one comes to Jesus unless God calls them (John 6:44). Furthermore, Paul says quite clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

So, let me be clear…I believe that I could not have come to the knowledge of Christ nor attained salvation through His atoning death on the cross apart from the grace of God. It is by the grace and calling of God that I considered Christ, not through any initiative of my own. God in his grace and mercy sought me out, but it was up to me to respond, to accept and receive the gift of salvation offered in Christ. God didn’t make me do that. I was given a free will to choose to believe in Christ or to reject God’s gift. That is the story of every single Christian I know. Christ was not forced upon us. Christ was revealed to us by the grace of God. And we are able to decide whether or not to accept Christ because when God created human beings, he lovingly gave us free will. God didn’t have to do that. He did not have to exercise his creative power in that way. But he did. Thanks be to God!

So, how do we respond to such an extravagant gift? When I consider THE GOD of all that is, seen and unseen, choosing to give me this precious gift of free will, offered with perfect love, I am overwhelmed. And so I choose to exercise that beautiful gift by bowing daily before God in prayer, asking for the strength to limit myself…to discipline myself…to submit my will to his. Amen and amen.

decide

 

 

 

Rituals and Christmas Lists

Black Friday…Cyber Monday… Our Biggest Sale of the Season… on and on it goes, this gift-giving frenzy that characterizes an American Christmas.

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those anti-gift-giving rants that invariably pop up every year. I happen to love gift-giving! OK, yes, and gift-getting, too!

However, reading Isaiah 1:10-20 this morning has reminded me how we can get so caught up in the ritual that we completely lose sight of its purpose.

For at least the past decade, my family has employed Christmas lists. They used to be written on paper, then copied and shared. When email came along, we began sending them electronically. This made life simpler because we could also share what we were giving each individual (except the gift recipient, of course) to eliminate wasted time standing in long post-Christmas gift return lines. Then Amazon developed Wish Lists, making it even easier to create our magnificent gift registries, share them with each other, let Amazon keep track of purchases by simply taking the item off the list once it wasamazon-gift-list purchased, and–the ultimate convenience!–now Amazon even allows us to add items to our list that are not found in Amazon’s vast warehouse! Perfect, right?

 

It was really fun for a while, but I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with it the past couple of years. I have become so caught up in this path to gift-giving…so enamored with the tool for facilitating gift-giving…that the method has supplanted the underlying reason for the action itself. The giving of a Christmas gift is meant to represent my love for the person I’m giving it to, and the gift should be a result of thoughtful consideration.

Back to Isaiah… The prophet exhorts us to hear the Lord’s rebuke to the Israelites, who have become so enamored of the rituals of worship that they have completely forgotten what the rituals  are intended to do: remind us of the One we worship, why we worship Him, and what He most desires from us and for us.

I worship in the Anglican tradition, which has plenty of rituals. I’m grateful that we are encouraged to make use of those which are helpful in our worship rather than become a slave to any of them. When we process in for worship, the lead person lifts up a cross. As I follow behind it, I’m reminded that I follow the risen Christ. When I make the sign of the cross, I do it because at that particular moment in the worship service I’m reminded of Christ’s sacrifice for me, or of the mystery of our triune God. After the offering is collected, the priest lifts the basket heavenward as we sing, and I am reminded that all things do come from God and with grateful hearts we give back a portion of what’s been given to us. All of these rituals are designed to help me remember and reflect on God’s goodness, to foster a humble purity of heart for worship and obedience. This is God’s desire for me and from me, so that I will be fitted and ready for the day when the rituals will no longer be needed because the Kingdom has come in its fullness and worship is the continual reality.

Whatever rituals you may use in worship or in celebrating Christmas (I’ll leave you to ponder which might need attention!), take a little time this week to consider whether they are achieving their intended purpose or whether they have become more prominent than they were ever meant to be. If the latter is true, don’t resort to drastic measures. Rather, allow that awareness to guide you gently back to a proper perspective.

I think I’ll take a little break from Amazon Wish Lists and shop locally for one or two gifts that will be a total surprise!

 

Forgiving God

Forgiving God may well be the first step in trusting him.

Does God need my forgiveness? Absolutely not! That would imply that God has done something wrong. He is God–incapable of doing anything wrong.

Do I need to forgive God? Probably. We all experience disappointment in life, and sometimes we blame God for it. Of course the blame is not his, but he is generous and so full of grace that he allows the blame to rest on him. For a while, anyway.

At some point, however, I am blessed if I realize that it’s not God’s fault that I am disappointed. It is mine. I most likely decided that I knew better than God, and so I did what I wanted to do–what I thought was best–rather than what God says is best. That means those consequences I was so mad about were absolutely my fault, not God’s, and it’s really me that needs forgiveness.

If I can see that God was right and I was wrong…

If I realize that he is so full of grace to allow me to blame him for my stubborn decision to have it my way in spite of his warnings…

If I repent of ever thinking that God needed my forgiveness…

If I ask God to forgive me…

If I accept God’s forgiveness…

I just might learn to trust him more fully.

Interestingly, this process repeats itself throughout the life of any Christ-follower. It’s how our faith grows.

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Sunday Commute

The Sunday morning commute has become one of the best prayer times of my week.

At the beginning of this year, our church moved from our suburban location–which was a two-minute drive from my home–to a soup kitchen downtown. Now it takes me 15-20 minutes to get to church, with several traffic lights between home and my destination. My husband will tell you that I will drive miles out of my way any day of the week to avoid sitting at traffic lights. But not on Sundays…not anymore. driving_praying

A few months ago I began thinking of the Sunday morning commute as a prime time for prayer.

I’m the associate pastor at my church, so you may think that it’s a given that I would be prayerful on Sunday mornings as I prepare for our worship service. Not necessarily! (If you are a pastor, perhaps you are smiling in agreement!) It’s far too easy for my mind to drift to whatever I need to do when I get to church, who I need to speak with, or anticipate where I might have to fill in for an absent volunteer minister. If I’m preaching, my tendency is to review and critique my sermon for the umpteenth time. When engaged in that line of thinking, I arrive at church wired and ready to get busy with work…not worship.

I spent ten years on staff at a church where I went to work on Sunday mornings. When I left, I was on the verge of burnout. I did not practice self-care. I allowed the demands of ministry to take precedence over my need to worship, to give God the honor and glory that is due him, and in turn to experience the satisfaction of doing what I was created to do: worship God.

Sundays are for worship, not work. Yes, I have responsibilities on Sunday mornings, but my first priority is to worship God. Praying through the drive to church makes all the difference in my ability to prioritize worship over work. Rather than focus on the to-do list, I…

  • acknowledge God’s faithfulness, thanking him for a new day, and for the privilege of living in a country where I can worship him freely
  • thank Jesus for enduring the cross so that I can live free
  • thank God for those he will bring through our church door who are searching
  • lift up all those who are preparing to come to church, asking God to remove any obstacles, and to pour out a spirit of cooperation on spouses and children
  • pray for those who are struggling with the temptation to stay home, to skip church this week, asking God to stir up a holy desire for worship and fellowship with their church family
  • ask the Holy Spirit to annoint the preaching pastor as he opens God’s word, and to stir our minds and hearts to belief and obedience
  • ask God to bless the volunteer ministers as they bless those whom they serve
  • and I pray that God will be blessed by the worship we bring.

What I’m amazed to find is that when the worship service begins, when the first note of the first song sounds, my heart and my mind sync with the Holy Spirit and worship overflows!

So, what do you do on your Sunday commute?