Lifesavers

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Photo by Nina Uhlu00edkovu00e1 on Pexels.com

                                                 

My husband and I are spending the winter months in Arizona this year. Our residence is in the midst of several mountain ranges but because we are surrounded by houses on three sides, there is only one range readily visible — the Goldfield Mountains. Every morning since we have arrived, I have jumped out of bed and run to the kitchen to raise the white-painted, wooden slat blinds on the window, and in good weather or bad, with the sun blazing or gray, overcast skies, the magnificent mountains are there and they immediately raise my spirits. Why it is so marvelous to see the mountains each and every morning I cannot say, but it is truly uplifting.

Clouds are often in the panorama of the Goldfield range also. They glide by, hover over, or nestle into the caps and valleys of the mountains and soften the rugged peaks and promontories that are silhouetted on the horizon. From this distance, about ten miles away, the mountains appear calm, imperturbable. They seem to offer pleasant assurances and graceful dependability. But I know from trips up dusty mountain trails that they are truly rugged, steep, irregular, stony, and challenging. Does this make them less majestic? Not at all. But it does make me very aware of the potential hardships they can cause.

We are getting some distance from the year 2020 now, but when I take time to consider it, 2020 was like a trip into the mountains; it was rugged, steep, irregular, stony, and demanding. It seems that giant, boulder-like challenges appeared on our life-paths continually. Many days were filled with difficulty. Some days were devastating. Apostle Paul tells us that when the way gets tough, it helps to turn our thoughts toward good things.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things…. And the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8

Why? Why turn our thoughts toward the good and beautiful and true things around us? Isn’t that simply sticking our head in the sand? No. This practice, through the grace of God, turns chaos into peace. It turns the possibility of enduring endless dark days into the promise of experiencing light and life instead. Written from a jail cell, Paul’s “list of things to think about” is a life-giving exercise for rugged climbs and hard times.

Author and podcaster Anne Bogel has taken Paul’s life-giving list and turned it into a question: *Once a year, Anne asks her listeners and readers, “What is saving your life right now?” What seemingly insignificant activity or item — a fragrant candle, a beautiful tablecloth, reading a favorite nonsense poem –  brings joy to your day, and provides some much-needed distance from the stony landscape of your daily difficulties? (You can read Anne’s 2021 list here: https://modernmrsdarcy.com/domestic-tasks-saving-my-life/).                                                 

   I think this is a powerful question that opens up an escape route out of a rocky situation. A lifesaver does not have to be expensive or complicated, it simply must bring you joy. When was the last time you sang a favorite song at the top of your voice? Or blew bubbles on your front porch?

The activity that is saving my life right now is the daily, morning view of the mountains from our kitchen window in Arizona. If you can think of something that is a lifesaver for you, take a moment to treat yourself to it, then call someone and share it with them. It just might save their life right now, too.

*In her blog, Modern Mrs. Darcy, Anne Bogel credits Barbara Brown Taylor with initiating the lifesaver practice: “The idea comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s wonderful memoir Leaving Church. In it, Taylor tells the story of when she was invited to speak at a gathering, and her host assigned the topic: “Tell us what is saving your life right now.”

The Gift of Purple

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In our fellowship, the kids in Children in Worship learn about the church calendar through the use of a color wheel. Purple is the color of the seasons of Advent and Lent. Both are times of waiting and holy expectancy. The teacher of Children In Worship explained that whenever the kids see the color purple, a good question to ask is, “What is God up to now?”

A youngster from that class helped his dad take their garbage cans out to the road for the next day’s garbage pick-up. It was sunset. The youngster noticed the color of the sky and said, “Dad! Look! The sky is purple. I wonder what God is up to now?” *

What a great application of the color wheel lesson from Children in Worship. I hope I can incorporate that same exercise into my own life, and remember the meaning of the gift of purple.

*The story of the little boy who saw the purple sky was related by a Children in Worship leader at a training session in Princeton, MN, at Bethel Christian Reformed Church in 2014/2015.

A Place in the Choir

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I attended Mass last year at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Before Mass started I noticed a young woman had walked into the church with a service dog. The two sat in the front of the church – I sat in the back and a lot of people sat between us as the church was full that morning.

At the conclusion of the Mass, while we congregants sang the recessional, I heard a strangled cry, a sort of moaning, echoing from somewhere in the church. Having worked in health care for thirty years, my emergency response adrenaline kicked in and I searched the church for who might be in distress and may need help immediately. “Call 911” ran through my mind as I stood up in the last pew with my phone in hand, ready to go to someone’s aid. Then I caught sight of the service dog at the front of the church and realized it was this dear canine servant who was singing along with the rest of us, howling away, happily joining in. As the dog yowled merrily, I recalled the lines of a folk tune written by folk musician and singer-songwriter, Bill Staines:

“All God’s critters got a place in the choir

Some sing low, some sing higher

Some sing out loud on the telephone wires

And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got, now.”

And some merrily howl along during the recessional at church. True story.

“The Mass is ended. Go in peace.”

Paul-A Biography by N.T. Wright

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Paul: A Biography

by N.T. Wright

The title says, Paul: A Biography, which is simple and straightforward. But if you surmise from the title that N.T. Wright’s latest book is a dry and dusty retelling of Apostle Paul’s life, you would be completely mistaken. Written in 2018 and published by Harper One, Wright’s newest book might best be described as a probing exploration of the dangerous activities of a world-class, mission-minded Torah teacher. It is, indeed, the breathtaking story of the perilous calling of Paul of Tarsus, the brilliant Jewish thinker and preacher who faced beatings, stoning, imprisonment and death for proclaiming Jesus Christ as Messiah. Thorough, gripping, fast moving, eye-opening? Yes. Dry and dusty? Nope.

In Paul, Wright wants to upset our entrenched notions concerning the Apostle by asking numerous personal questions about him: What was Paul’s life like as he was growing up? Why was he so dead-set against the early Jesus followers? Did he understand what was happening to him on the Damascus Road? After the Damascus encounter, what did Paul think he was doing when he set off on his travels and why was he so successful at achieving his ends? These and many other questions about Paul are presented and investigated throughout the book, but first Wright sets the historical/cultural stage so that the reader can interpret the circumstances of the events knowledgeably. The author writes: “[When] we try to understand Paul, we must do the hard work of understanding his context — or rather, we should say, his contexts, plural. His Jewish world and the multifaceted Greco-Roman world of politics, ‘religion,’ philosophy, and all the rest that affected in a thousand ways the Jewish world that lived within it are much, much more than simply a ‘frame’ within which we can display a Pauline portrait.” (10 Kindle)

In the early chapters of Paul, Wright snags the reader with this biographical hook:

“Paul’s letters give us a few tantalizing glimpses of his life, and this is one of the strangest:

   ‘When God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, was pleased to unveil his son in me, so that I might announce the good news about him among the nations–immediately I did not confer with flesh and blood. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me. No, I went away to Arabia, and afterward returned to Damascus.’ ” (Gal. 1:15-17)KNT[1] (61 Kindle)

Wright looks at this somewhat odd statement from Paul and instead of giving the standard “Arabia was Paul’s first missionary journey” explanation, he opens a conversation about Paul and the prophet Elijah. Wright compares Paul’s zeal for his ancestral traditions to Elijah’s zeal to defeat the worshippers of Baal. He reminds us that it is Mt. Sinai in Arabia where the covenant between Israel and God was sworn and it is also the place where Elijah fled when Queen Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life after the defeat of the Baal worshippers. Mt Sinai in Arabia is the very location where the once zealous, now hobbled, prophet Elijah, receives his assignment from the Lord to go to Damascus, anoint new kings and appoint the prophet Elisha to take his place. Wright explains that in Galatians, “Paul says that ‘he went away to Arabia’ — just as Elijah did– and ‘afterward returned to Damascus’ — again just like Elijah….”

“The parallel with Elijah — the verbal echoes are so close, and the reflection on “zeal” so exact, that Paul must have intended them — indicates that he, like Elijah, made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai in order to go back to the place where the covenant was ratified. He wanted to go and present himself to the One God, to explain that he had been “exceedingly zealous,” but that his vision, his entire world view had been turned on its head. And he received his instructions, “Go back and announce the new king.” (64 Kindle)

Have you ever thought of the Apostle Paul as a prophet? I had never once considered that possibility until reading Paul: A Biography. Wright’s book is filled with these kinds of “wake up and smell the incense” moments in Paul’s life.

 In Paul, Wright chisels away centuries of rock-solid, predominantly European-Protestant notions about Apostle Paul and offers us a fresh, bold look at the first-century, religiously zealous, faithfully Jewish person underneath. This inside look at Paul’s life and culture, and particularly his religious upbringing and early influences, adds a wealth of understanding to Paul’s astonishing meeting with Christ on the Damascus Road. Wright titles his book Paul: A Biography in order to make it clear that he is not writing another historical/theological study about Paul and his letters — Wright has written four books on those subjects — but a volume that is “searching for the man behind the texts.” I believe Wright has achieved his goal.

By following a timeline, an ancient map and reading Apostle Paul’s writings, most anyone can form an idea about Paul’s life and travels. But Wright provides the background for Paul’s letters, poems and prayers; fleshes out his friends and enemies; and offers a passionate account of Paul’s successes and failures, fears and triumphs. The result is that Paul, who, in his letters, consummately proclaims the Lord Jesus Christ as Messiah, is himself masterfully and marvelously made known by N.T. Wright.


[1] The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation by N. T. Wright. (Harper Collins, 2011)

Promises…

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It was Sunday morning before church when I saw it. It was resting in midair, between the rose bushes and our neighbors weathered garden shed. I thought it was an aberration of some kind – a mirage or a hologram or, God forbid, an hallucination. Perhaps it was a distortion of a lawn ornament — I was looking through the wire mesh screen of the sun porch, after all. But no, it was indeed a rainbow, a segment about 2 feet in length and 18 inches wide, floating in the spray of the neighbor’s lawn sprinkler.

What a breathtaking sight! I walked out of the sun porch, down the wooden steps, and across the dry grass toward the rainbow. It didn’t move or disappear as I feared it might. I took a short video of it, hardly daring to believe it would actually show up on my phone, but it did. I stared at the rainbow as it hovered. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I marveled and thought,  “Look how close God’s promises are to us. They are invisible most of the time but they are as real as this rainbow and as beautiful.”

Eventually, Ron, our neighbor, turned off the sprinkler and the rainbow disappeared. Still, I have the jewel-like image stored on a video clip, which you can see at the bottom of this page, and it is in my memory and in my heart, too.

A  dear friend, Tracey Finck, and I have been encouraging each other to look at life with a view to recognizing God’s “holy possibilities,” but the visit of the rainbow brought an additional way to look at our journey here: with the assurance of God’s holy actualities. God’s promises, which are as ancient as the sign of the rainbow, are not simply elegant theological statements, but they are also beautiful, dependable, and mysterious holy actualities.

And that’s a happy thought.

https://youtu.be/EChwmZfQszM

Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind by Mark Brouwer

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Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind:

Overcoming 7 Obstacles to the Important Work of Your Life

(Mission House Publishing, 2018)

by Mark Brouwer

Good answers always start with good questions. Here, from author Mark Brouwer, are some good questions that were the basis of his book Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind:

“When people are drawn to do important work to help others, what is it that:

  • causes them to quit?
  • diminishes their effectiveness?
  • prevents them from even starting in the first place?”

Drawing on years of personal experience in spiritual leadership, coaching and recovery group leadership, and insights from mentors in his field, Brouwer has responded to those questions with solid, valuable answers.

Early on, Brouwer presents this caveat: “Be prepared to read more about problems than solutions. This book is organized around seven roadblocks that prevent or interfere with our engagement with meaningful service. As you read, you’ll likely notice that I spend a lot more time describing each problem, and much less time suggesting remedies…. As Charles Kettering put it: ‘A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.'”

Brouwer does an excellent job of defining the roadblocks to meaningful service in these seven sections: Losing Touch With What You Really Care About; Getting Overwhelmed by the Needs You Encounter; Struggling With Not Having Enough Time; Living With Confusion; Stress Burn Out; Conflicts and Difficult People; and Discouragement. But he also includes plenty of helpful, immediately applicable suggestions for dismantling some barriers, even if you are not in leadership. In Section 6, Brouwer writes about the feelings of discouragement that can arise in a community from frequent conflicts with difficult people. His comments about how to approach conflict and what it means for a community to achieve harmony rather than unity are important, constructive words that can be used in many situations.

If you are navigating a rough patch in your calling as a leader right now, pick up a copy of Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind: Overcoming 7 Obstacles to the Important Work of Your Life by Mark Brouwer. You will find this book contains thoughtful advice for individuals, delivered with sensitivity and a sense of humor. It also presents help for teams of people in the private or public sector by examining how systems and organizations work – and don’t work. In addition, Leaving Your Mark offers guidance from one who lives the busy day-to-day patterns of life in the church and who maintains the assured viewpoint that, “True community is not efficient – time is the price we pay for authentic community.”

Mark Brouwer has asked good questions, and through research and collaboration, he has produced a book that has good answers. These answers are beneficial on a personal, team and community level. If you have been harboring questions about your calling, you may find your good questions answered here, in Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind.

Reading is more than what you think…

I am astonished by the number of people who are suspicious of and even offended by books containing imaginative fables, fantasies, and allegories. I am not sure how those folks made it through childhood without them.

Active imaginations and creative pursuits were an ever-present commodity in my home as I was growing up. My brothers and sisters and I almost always had a book or a pen and paper on our person. Music of some sort ran on a continuous soundtrack through the house – always in the background, but often the main event, too. We children admired and emulated the quick-witted and clever people around us, both those on the radio and TV and the gifted members of our family and community. For instance, Mom quoted long rhymes at the drop of a hat, and recited poems & silly songs to us during our bath times or in other mundane, potentially boring situations. Because Mom insisted, we listened to the opera every Saturday (“Texaco Presents… the Metropolitan Opera!”) as we youngsters cleaned our large, old, kid-filled home. During those live radio performances, we experienced great dramas and fantasies put to music.

And then there was the Mass — especially Sunday High Mass — a holy, ritual-filled hour that taught us the transcendence of God, the reality of miracles, and the glory of heaven. Truth, beauty, goodness, all around. Those wonder-filled hours of chanted prayer and fragrant incense stood in sharp contrast to the times in our home that featured alcohol abuse and tense, fearful situations Thankfully, the reading of an entertaining book or a trip to a movie theater could serve as a way to cope with the pain and confusion those events brought on. Good stories and music had the power to calm one’s fears and presented the possibility of a future happy ending. “Bookish tendencies” were good skills to have when it came to dealing with the harsh realities of life.

I think my childhood reading of myths and fables also helped to teach me to read between the lines in the real world, which is a great survival skill. I am thankful for the books of C.S. Lewis, Edward Eager, and J.R.R. Tolkien for the comfort their works provided and the resourcefulness their stories brought with them. My youthful reading experiences taught me that wonderful books of fantasy help to exercise one’s mind not to simply escape trying situations, but also to train one to learn to deal with unsolvable difficulties. It was in those early reading years that I learned to trust my imagination to lead me to a deeper, more inventive understanding of the world around me. And don’t despair! It’s never too late to read books of fantasy and fairytales and receive all the good they have to offer. Pick one up today. Your imagination will thank you.

Final day of “Fun With Flannery”

What?! It’s over! Fun With Flannery is finished?? NO! Rats! Dang. Phooey. Sadness… sigh.

 

Flannery

But what an amazing week of discovery it was, led by Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. A teacher I know frequently warns his students, “Don’t miss your moment!” This workshop was certainly the moment to experience an immersion into Flannery O’Connor –  her writing style, her art and her calling.

The larger context of the Fun With Flannery class is The Glen Workshop –  a marvelous week long art-and-faith event which seems to defy everyone’s attempts at describing it. I like the paragraph on the landing page of The Glen’s website:

“Situated in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains [in Santa Fe, New Mexico], the Glen Workshop is equal parts creative workshop, arts festival, and spiritual retreat. The Glen’s arresting natural environment is contrasted by its casual and inviting crowd of artists, writers, musicians, art appreciators, and spiritual wayfarers of all stripes.”

If as an artist you are dry as dust, this gathering of kindred souls in the High Desert location of St John’s College, where The Glen takes place, will drench you in beauty, friendship and inspiration. The Glen Worksop is sponsored by Image Journal which is out of Seattle Pacific University,

But back to Flannery O’Connor. All thirteen of us Glensters agreed that the most surprising discovery of the workshop was the power of reading O’Connor’s stories aloud.  As we listened to a story, often read in long sections, Flannery’s uncanny insight into the human heart became more illuminating, more comical, more touching,  more shocking.

In addition, each short story video Dr. Prior presented gave us a new picture of a Flannery story, illustrating how wondrously visual she is in her writing. Color, setting, sunlight, shadows, symbols — all play a part in an O’Connor short story. “Flannery has a purpose for everything she puts in her stories, ” said Dr. Prior, “Nothing is extra, nothing is wasted.”

What about the violence contained in O’Connor’s stories? It wasn’t long before the class could see the paradox that Dr. Prior suggested was in Flannery’s work:  Violence was a means of grace for her characters. Violence was O’Connor’s method to force her figures to shake-off the blinders of the skewed moral judgments and cliched thinking that plagued them. As we students progressed through nine short stories together, we found that the lens we used to study Flannery’s tales transfigured itself into a mirror which reflected back to us our own flawed judgments and prejudices.  One commentator in the documentary we watched on Flannery’s life, called Uncommon Grace (2015), said that O’Connor was “continuing Jesus’ work by telling parables to the modern world.”  After spending a week deep-diving into Flannery O’Connor’s life and art, I believe she was indeed a parable teller of extraordinary skill.

Flannery O’Connor died in 1964 at age thirty-nine from lupus, an autoimmune disease. At that time, according to Wikipedia, Flannery’s oeuvre included two novels, three short story collections, and five other works. An addition to her work, a prayer journal, was published in 2013. I am hopeful that more of Flannery’s work will be published in the future.

 

 

Flannery rules…

 

Can this be day three of Fun With Flannery? Again we had a deep and insightful discussion which included viewing a movie  based on O’Connor’s short story, “The River.” We will also watch a film version of her short story “The Comforts of Home” in a future class. The film interpretations of O’Connor’s stories have added significantly to our discussions and understanding of Flannery’s work. So grateful that Prof Prior has included them in the class. Paul Anderson, Director of Programs at the Glen Workshop, was gracious enough to take a class picture of the Flannery Glensters. Good country people, every one of them.😊

Fun With Flannery – class begins…

Prof Karen Swallow is an amazing teacher. Once I can get all of the class members together I will post a group picture. The gentlemen sitting with Karen in the cafeteria are attendees of the Glen Workshop who aren't in her class this year. At lunch they had some questions about Flannery – which she was happy to answer.