>A "reflective" moment

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(Pablo Picasso, “Girl Before a Mirror“, 1932)

Psalm 18:26:

“With the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse.”

It all started this morning when I was brushing my teeth. I was looking in the bathroom mirror and had the sudden realization that when you look in a mirror, you don’t see yourself–you see yourself, backwards. You see everything behind you, but nothing in front of you. Mirrors are not all that useful when we think about what lies ahead. Great for reflecting on what is behind us, though.

Then as I sat down with my morning habit of “The Daily Office” and my systematic, monastic run-through of the Psalms, what should be part of my reading but this tidbit in Psalm 18? (That’s the trouble about the habit of regular Bible reading…it leads to thinking. Imagine that.)

As I sat with that thought, what bubbled up was a realization that we DO tend to reflect what surrounds us. If we surround ourselves with abundance and generosity, we tend to reflect those values. If we surround ourselves with the tools of self-absorption, we tend to reflect a self-absorbing nature.

Yet, things bigger than ourselves tend to influence what others see and reflect, themselves. I sat with my coffee, and pondered backwards. Although I could not tell you at what point this shift occurred, somewhere in that process of my becoming a physician, there was a day that I somehow stopped worrying about who I was to become–to “be”– and thought more about “What do I want to reflect to others?”–and in that process I began to become that person. My best guess is it started to happen at some point when I realized medical students are apt mimics of their residents and attendings–for better or worse. But I remember thinking way back when, somewhere back there, I became cognizant of the fact I wanted them to mimic the good parts of me. It might have even happened when I caught one mimicking something I’d rather they not mimic in me.

I imagine many parents go through the same thing. A day comes when many parents realize that it’s important for their children to see parents who reflect the values they want their children to embody. It’s a day when they stop reacting and start consulting with their spouse about how to project that image. As that happens, parents mature, and relationships mature.

So it is with the “holy habits” we take on as we recognize regular spiritual disciplines are a part of being in relationship with God–things like regular prayer or meditation time, Bible reading, keeping a prayer list, etc. In the beginning, we take them on because we think we are going to “become something” as a result of the habit–that this somehow will make us more in tune with God. But over time, we come to realize God was in relationship with us all along, and it’s no longer to “please” God, catch God’s attention, etc. It is more to create a milieu that others can see when THEY are needing to see God’s kingdom.

My EfM mentor often has described her experience of having survived a scary time on the ventilator as a result of surviving an often fatal pulmonary disorder called Bronchiolitis Obliterans–Organizing Pneumonia (BOOP.) She knew many people were praying for her, and in her mind, she could see a “net.” Part of the process she trusted in her own ability to trust God, no matter what the outcome was to be, was to “lean into that net.” She has described how she came to understand she was to lean into this net, that it was not about the net having particular power to control whether she lived or died, but simply that she was to learn to trust its power.

When I think back to this recent article I read, where Fr. Ron Rolheiser describes what he believes to be the ten major faith struggles of our age, it makes me realize that conventional notions of evangelism are like us looking in the mirror–us, backwards. To me, evangelism has far less to do with me personally, or my efforts, as it does to be a part that maintains that “net.”

Yes, our holy habits shape what we reflect to others to some degree, and that reflection can be part of what others see as they search for what Rolheiser describes as the four great spiritual yearnings people most seek–a personal morality, social justice, mellowness of heart and spirit, and community as a constituent element of true worship. More importantly, our holy habits shape and maintain the net–it’s not so much about “us” as we might think.

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>"…Star differs from star in glory…"

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(Vincent Van Gogh, “Starry Night over the Rhone,” 1888)

I Corinthians 15:40-44:

“There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”

I had a magnificent set of evenings over Memorial Day weekend sitting out among the moon and the stars–even sleeping out all night in my yard one night, it was so glorious–and seeing the lightning bugs begin their summer debut for the season. It was simply a magnificent weekend to be a speck in God’s Universe. The sheer size and awesome timelessness of the “big” things in nature–the sky, the stars, the ocean, just to name a few–have always been the major spiritual grounding rods for me, my entire life. People just don’t do it for me the way nature does.

I looked at the stars these last few nights and pondered the paradoxical dance that “people” seem to occupy in my existence, thinking how each star, in its own way, is its own “person.” How like the stars in the sky, we are called to community, and how each of us in our own way feels called to individuals in that community. Yet for me, the paradox has always been nothing gets my goat like people sometimes. I can only handle people for so long, and then that secular monastic in me takes over and I retreat to my safe hermitage of my country life. There is my daily retreat from work, as well as “add on” forms like my occasional “silent Saturday morning,” and my “stay-cation retreats where I never leave home.” Yet I never feel “un-called” to be a part of a community. When I am home alone, after a certain amount of time enjoying my alone-ness, I think of what it is I am supposed to “do next” when I enter back into community. When I am in that community, after a while I start daydreaming of what I want to do next in my “alone time.” Each needs the other, and truthfully, each feeds the other.

On one of those nights, I sat out and thought about different people with each star–what they were experiencing in their lives, and how it is that I am supposed to combine with them to light up the sky, yet maintain my own individual “star-ness.” Each one of us with the incarnational light of God within us, but manifested in so many unique ways.

There seem to be at least three kinds of stars in my life experience. Most valued are the “stars I can always see”–for instance, in the winter, I can always find the constellation Orion, and in the summer I can always fix my gaze on Scorpio. They are like the people in my life who have now been my friends for three decades or more. How we relate to each other has changed drastically over the years–sometimes not even close to the roles in which our relationships started out–but we somehow can always adjust. Sometimes their light is very intense and intimate in my life, and vice versa; other times, the light is dimmer. But they are constants. They are appreciated for both their longevity and their versatility.

Then there are the stars that once were a major focus, but I now no longer pay much attention to. I really don’t pay much attention to the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, or the North Star itself, per se. But there was a time I always looked for them. They are like the people who were once very involved and intimate in my life–old lovers, intense best friends, etc.–and somehow no longer figure much into the tapestry other than to be a thread once cherished, but no longer. Some of these fizzled out in a supernova of conflict, whereas others just sort of atrophied and slowly burned to extinction. Sometimes their light returns–but it is almost never of the same intensity that it once was, nor does my need to tend to that light return with the same intensity. I appreciate those stars for the history they have given me, even if it includes hard lessons.

Finally, there are the stars I just got around to noticing, like the time I first recognized all of Ursa Major, rather than just its “dipper.” The first time I realized the dipper could be converted to a bear, it was an exciting time. It made the sky seem a little bigger than it used to be. I think about the gifts and talents in people I just now got around to appreciating in people who have been around me all along, or about the new people that come into my life over the years, and something about them challenge me to tend their light and let them tend mine. I appreciate those stars because they represent hope and promise.

Even the stars are perishable–which enhances my knowledge that people are perishable. It makes me understand the urgency of the Gospel of Mark, and in Paul’s letters. If even stars are perishable, then people definitely are. Yet timelessness and infinity rides within all of them. What a beautiful, but messy, dance it all is!

>A hedge-y endeavor

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Ecclesiastes 10:10:

“If the iron is blunt, and one does not whet the edge, then more strength must be exerted; but wisdom helps one to succeed.”

Well, that is pretty much the sum total of what the Bible has to say about splitting logs.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the fence builders out here, totally rebuilding my pasture fences. My long-eared equines (mostly my mule) have taken a toll on my woven wire fence. I opted for a taller fence, and seven strands of barbed wire. The other flaw in the previous fence was that the previous builder put the staples and clips on the OUTSIDE. Equines simply lean against the fence and pop the staples and the clips bend open. It doesn’t take much for determined long-eared equines and their belief that the grass really IS greener on the other side of the fence, to wreck one.

One of the decisions I made was to put hedge posts in for my corner posts. Hedge is one of the densest, sturdiest, most resistant to rot and decay woods available in this part of the world. It’s even better than many of the treated posts available. The sidelight has been there are little “leftovers” of the posts given to me so I can burn them in my chiminea later on. Seeing as how hedge is also one of the highest BTU delivering woods out there, this is a bonus.

There’s only one problem–some of them are too big for my chiminea. I had to break out my axe, my splitting maul, and my wedge, and revisit something that used to be a real pain in my life–but this time, as a tourist, as a pastime.

Let me share a little history. I grew up with a wood stove being the major source of heat in the house where I lived the bulk of my junior high/high school years. I grew to hate the wood stove and everything associated with it. I hated being dragged along to cut and split wood. I hated stacking wood, hauling wood in the house, and lugging out the ashes. I hated how the house was cold in the early mornings, I hated how I often had to get dressed in front of the wood stove in order not to freeze, and I hated how it seemed the entire set of activities of daily living revolved around feeding and maintaining that wood stove every winter. I hated how wood heat dried my nose out, I hated how all my clothes seemed to have a smoky smell to them, and I hated how we had a propane furnace and never used it, being told we couldn’t afford it.

I vowed never to have wood heat in the house, and I have kept that promise.

Yet I love sitting outside by my chiminea fire. Go figure.

Most of the wood I use in my chiminea has been cut by someone else. But I kept all my woodcutting tools because once in a while I still have to deal with an oversized log.

As I looked at the little pile of hedge logs that was growing by my driveway, I made a radical decision–I would use splitting them as a form of meditation. I would simply split them and see what popped in my head as a result.

I pondered the first log. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was 30+ years older than when I used to do this all the time. I used to have well-tuned muscles for this task. I was younger, slenderer, better muscled, and more flexible. What am I doing? I could throw out my back or miss and cut the end of my foot off. Out of all the types of wood I could have taken on, I took on the densest, hardest wood in NE Missouri. Am I NUTS?

Just the same, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, opened my eyes, reared back and let fly with the axe. It landed pretty much where I intended it to go, scoring the log. I took a few more whacks with the axe, then grabbed the splitting maul and started in with it. Pretty soon, after a few swings, a big chunk of that log came flying off with a pop, and I felt the rush of feeling the maul peel right through 18 inches of solid wood.

I wish I could have seen my own grin.

Over the next half hour, things came back to me I did not even realize were buried in my memory banks. Layers of clothing started to peel off as I felt myself sweat. My hands found the right spots on the handle. I automatically used already split pieces to prop up the piece I was working on. Before you know it, I had a little pile of split logs, just the right size. Realizing one little pile was enough, I quit, and got a soda and sat down to think about what had just happened. I was tired, but not sore. I wasn’t sore the next morning, either–I’d done it about right.

But as I sat and drank my soda outside in my “post-splitting” phase of the exercise, I realized just how GOOD it all felt. Something I used to hate to do became pleasurable. I felt very physically and spiritually “connected”. I felt empowered. I found myself saying, “God, I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but I’m glad I had learned how to do that, all those many years ago.”

I’m sure God laughed.

It brought me to some other interesting spiritual awakenings. Nothing that happens in our lives is for naught. It made me realize that things we hated, things that hurt us, things we discarded as “no use to us,” can eventually come to good. Mistakes aren’t mistakes, and things we came to regret only remain regrets if we choose to leave them there. Left the size they are, they are useless–but if we dare to take them apart, no matter how hard they are, they can come apart through the power of things we forgot we have or never knew we possessed–in other words, with God’s help. Most importantly, we can turn loathing into gratitude. We can take what seemed inert, dead, and useless, and turn it into heat, light, and warmth.

That in itself, is a form of resurrection, isn’t it?

>A season of curvy roads

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Make sure you watch the video before you read on. This was the object of our Theological Reflection in EFM last night.

Many things struck me about this video, but the big thing was all the “curvy roads,” especially the one at the end. The last frames show a curving road through a rocky, barren desert, with a road sign showing curves ahead and a 20 mph speed limit.

This is going to sound strange, but to me, Advent seems “linear” and Lent seems “curvy.” Maybe it is because the act of examining ourselves to prepare for a resurrection takes us down a lot of side streets, uncovers a lot of debris, and reveals rough spots in our finish in a different way, because the outcome of “resurrection” is less well defined. At the end of Advent, we’re going to welcome a baby–and most folks are captivated by babies. We don’t always know what lies ahead in resurrection, and resurrection can be a tad fearful.

Think about the stories in the Gospels of the resurrection of Jesus. He appears first to the “cultural nobodies of the day”–women. Thomas can’t really buy it until he reaches in Christ’s wounded side. Everyone has to look at the nail holes. Even then, they are not sure what they have–everyone’s going, “What does this mean?” (Although I have this visual image of St. Peter, looking at the rest of the disciples, going, “See! I TOLD you he was the Christ and you all gave me funny looks! DUH!”)

At Lent, we aren’t even able to ask “What does this mean?” We’re asking “What’s this GONNA mean? What’s the price I have to pay for this? I am not even sure what lies ahead.”

But back to that final image in the video.

We see barren-ness…yet we see a road leading through it. We see blind curves ahead, yet we sense the road goes through it. In a place where our temptation would be to speed through it, putting it behind us as quickly as possible, the sign says, “Go slowly.” To travel quickly, in fact, invites danger on those blind curves–we’d run the risk of smacking head on into another person on a similar journey–a journey to the place we know already and left behind us. What we leave behind could well be what someone else is looking FOR.

But, if we heed the speed limit, we might take the time to look around and see that shiny raw gemstone glinting among the barren rock, a flower blooming in the desert, a map that leads us to hidden treasure. Things to see, time to do it. Go slowly.