Blue Skies and Gentle Breezes

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Blue skies and gentle breezes. That’s Macon most of the time. Oh, and you have to factor in the gnats, the annoying gnats that we have because we live on the gnat line.

And there really is a such thing. Look it up. (http://southofthegnatline.blogspot.com/p/gnat-line-101_28.html) 

You will find that not only is the gnat line a real thing, but that it also sits directly on top of Macon, Georgia. No one told me that before I moved here.

Still, there are blue skies and gentle breezes this morning. For a few seconds, I am fully in the moment, fully aware of the blue skies over me and the warm breeze that points my mind to all that is good, to all the things about nature that we can count on.

Gnats notwithstanding.

In some ways, it’s a picture of life —the beauty of blue skies and gentle breezes, right along with the persistent aggravation of gnats buzzing your face. Certainly, life is like that for me. There are every day graces accompanied with aggravations, challenges and sometimes troubles. Life brings days of deep mourning sometimes and times for gladness at other times. 

Most thoughts these days take me to the very real possibility that I will receive a new kidney. The thought of it is both exhilarating and terrifying. I would not be me if I did not have the troubling thought that I might die in the middle of surgery. Or that I might contract a lethal infection and die of that. Or maybe I’ll be be compromised from the procedure and not recover.

On the other hand, maybe I’ll thrive with a new kidney. Maybe I will feel better than I have felt in five years. Maybe it’s true that I’ll live longer. Maybe life will begin again, fresh and new and full of possibilities. I love this message from the writer of Ecclesiastes.

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (New International Version (NIV)

What a good and gracious thought! The promise that as we are enjoying life, joy will be in us through whatever “toil” we face. Struggle, trouble, travail — we experience all of these in life, right along with the joy.

So as I contemplate a kidney transplant, I might just think of it as one of life’s “toils” that, by God’s grace, will be accompanied by joy. 

I think I can do this. After all, “the joy of the Lord is my strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Blue skies and gentle breezes all the way!

Pesky gnats notwithstanding!

 

 

The Cross in the Garden

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Although I have a very small yard, I do have a tiny garden beside my tiny front porch. This morning the jasmine in the garden is in full bloom filling the air with sweet jasmine perfume. The tiny water feature is making gentle water sounds that relax and heal, as rippling water tends to do. A bird is splashing around in the birdbath, the flowers are blooming, and the ferns are swaying in Macon’s gentle breeze. A large iron Celtic cross leans on the tallow tree, always reminding me where my faith comes from.

Now there is an issue with the iron cross in the garden. It falls over all the time. No matter how deep I place it in the soil, it falls over. Being an ardent tree lover, I refuse to nail the cross to the tallow tree. So it continues to fall over and I continue to prop it up.

Perhaps, as a symbol of faith, it’s appropriate that the cross falls over. My faith falls over all the time, and just as I continually prop up the cross in my garden, the Creator props my faith back up every time it falls.

I think of the Psalms where we read so many words of God’s help and protection as in Psalm 118.

I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.

The Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.

— Psalm 118:13-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 
Like the cross in the garden, I might fall over a time or two on my journey. That’s okay, because I know a God who props me up, holds me up, lifts me up, raises me up!

Thanks be to God.

Freedom on the Journey and Hope Along the Way

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To live without roads seemed one way not to get lost.
— Naomi Shihab Nye

It might be good advice — traveling a journey without roads. It would eliminate the decisions one must make when roads cross. It would eliminate the uncertainty when the path ahead seems unclear. We wouldn’t have to plot a course and explore all the possible routes. We might experience freedom on the journey that we have never before experienced.

I have to admit, though, I am a person who is all about road metaphors for life. I am a lover of walking labyrinths and walking the sacred path. I am constantly assessing my journey by the many kinds of roads I travel. I rejoice on smooth, friendly roads and despair on rough, ominous roads. I walk my path with trust, experience courage and wise discernment at the crossroads, and believe that I will end my journey in hope.

So the idea of “off road” living is a new, and somewhat disconcerting, prospect. And yet I am intrigued by the quote of Naomi Shihab Nye, “To live without roads seemed one way not to get lost.”

So I spent a few minutes pondering her words. With no roads, we might find ourselves discovering new places and making new paths, never fearing that we’re lost, but leaning into the exploration with anticipation. Without roads, we might wander aimlessly, passing beside astounding wonders we have not seen before. Without roads, we might find ourselves leaning into the beauty we find on our uncharted and circuitous path, beauty once hidden from us because we stayed on the road. Without roads, we might experience freedom on the journey.

The poet says that without roads, we don’t get lost. That may be a plus for us, since the fear of getting lost keeps us from the sheer, unbridled joy of exploration. Once we have dismissed that fear, we are free to roam, to discover and to observe all the beauty that lives off the path.

I think Naomi Shihab Nye’s thought about the lack of roads is an interesting parable. Its a parable about real life, and the best lesson from it may be that it is our fear keeps us from the full and fresh experiences we could embrace. When we stick too close to the roads we have always travelled, we will experience only what exists on the roads and directly beside them, nothing more. But when we have thrown off the fear that holds us hostage, courageously take leave from our familiar path, and venture into the wilderness to wander freely, we might see and experience more than we ever thought possible.

I’m not so sure this will work for me, but I plan to try some wandering that takes me far beyond my safe path. I plan to experience the emotion that comes from the fear of being lost. I plan to allow myself to be forced to place all my trust in where my heart takes me, and in God, who always gives grace to wanderers.

So the poet says I will not be lost, because there are no roads on my journey. I will not know what things I will see until they emerge before me. I may not know where I am, but I will not be lost.

Naomi Shihab Nye wrote another poem that seems to speak to this very unfamiliar concept of traveling life’s journey without familiar paths to count on. These are her words:

Where we live in the world is never one place.
Our hearts, those dogged mirrors,
keep flashing us moons before we are ready for them.

― Naomi Shihab Nye

What does it mean that our hearts “keep flashing us moons before we’re ready for them?” It sounds like a gift, that our hearts flash moons before us. It sounds like grace that, on our journey, we will see the wonder of God’s creation glowing above us in the night sky. We will be compelled to look up, gazing into a moon that changes constantly, reminding us of the waxing and waning of our lives and giving us hope to hold on to.

Thanks be to God for the freedom of the journey and the hope.

Life Can Lose Its Magic

 

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Photography  from Lize Bard’s blog, Haiku out of Africa at https://wandererhaiku.wordpress.com/2018/07/18/aura/

Life can lose its magic. 

It happens. 

It happens when labor eclipses the joy of leisure. 

It happens when busyness replaces moments of re-creation. 

It happens when meaningless prayers are more common than deep spiritual contemplation. 

It happens when relationships are taken for granted. 

It happens when entitlement replaces gratitude. 

It happens when despondency is more present that genuine laughter. 

It happens when nature becomes commonplace and we miss its breathtaking beauty. 

It happens when we hear the sounds of the birds as white noise instead of captivating birdsong. 

It happens when the dawn’s sunrise happens without our notice.

It happens when a serene, pink sunset that gently paints the sky loses its enchantment.

it happens when music becomes noise rather than the soul’s inspiration.

It happens when the shimmer of the moon is just a nightly expectation and the sparkle of the stars in the night sky becomes ordinary.

Life can lose its magic. 

How tragic.

 

 

 

Beauty. Serenity. And a Spark of the Divine

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Loon Park on Arkansas’ Lake Maumelle. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk. Entitled “Beauty. Serenity.”

In the middle of the natural beauty of Arkansas, my friend took a photograph and entitled it “Beauty. Serenity.” It prompted me to ponder that for a few moments.

Beauty. Serenity.

I wondered what in my life brings beauty and serenity to me and to those around me. The questions trickled through my mind slowly as I tried to place qualitative and quantitative strictures on beauty and serenity. (As if one could really quantify the whole of what beauty is or see pure serenity through a human lens.) My quest to try to interpret beauty and serenity went on into the night and into the rise of a new day. Still I could not nail it down. It is as elusive as a butterfly in flight, defying explanation.

As for beauty, it seems to be something I can see, something I can look at and see what lies beneath shapes and colors and texture and form. It is when something I see takes on life, and in it, I see a spark of the Divine.

To truly see beauty, I must intentionally expose myself to it and to its full potential. The blossom of a flower. The trees in a verdant forest. The ocean waves moving gently upon the shore. The sparkle of a flowing stream. The majesty of a range of mountains and the vibrant green of a valley.

In each of these visual images, I might very well see a spark of the Divine. But I must first look, and see, and linger before such beauty long enough to see its depth. I must look into a blossom and into the leaves of a forest. I must gaze upon the glory of a mountaintop and walk slowly through a valley of green. I must sit at the edge of the sea and watch the waves greet the shore.

And then there’s serenity, the state of being that always seems to escape me. Serenity is the peaceful sense of calm that envelops a person’s soul and spirit. But I must first allow it, embrace it, and welcome it. When I can do that — and I readily admit that I seldom can — the spark of the Divine I will see most clearly is the light of the spark within myself. I love the wonderfully positive affirmation written by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.

We have in us a divine spark that you can see. It’s a Light that shines in the human being. It’s our direct access to truth, our direct access to God. The purpose of all the spiritual practices that exist are to awaken that spark, to give it life, to give it energy, so that it can transform you. 

God, I would be transformed. Awaken that spark within me, so that its light will become a part of my very soul, Enliven in me the spark that brings transformation to every part of me that yearns for your Divine impulse.

The spark of the Divine is beauty and serenity all at once. It is in the moments that stop us in our tracks that we can truly see the beauty around us and within us.

It is in those unforgettable moments of life’s splendor, when we allow serenity to fully embrace us in gentle arms of peace, that we finally know deep rest.

It is when beauty and serenity link arms to surround us that we can truly know the spark of the Divine within. I recognize that spark, ever so often, in just a handful of my best moments. Even for that seldom-experienced grace, I am most thankful. 

So I wish for you the same kind of grace, that you might see beauty, know serenity, and visualize, within yourself, the spark of the Divine. The blessing I leave with you is best expressed by the 14th Century Persian poet, Hafiz.

I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in the darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.

 

 

 

 

 

Every Bird’s a Songbird

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Art: “Songbirds in Apple Blossoms” by James Hautman.

As I sit on my porch this morning in a light, refreshing rain, the most prominent sound I hear is joyous birdsong, different strains of music from a variety of birds that co-habit in our tiny bird sanctuary. A statue of St. Francis appropriately stands among the feeders and the suet. The hummingbird feeders are in a separate spot, providing a banquet of sweet nectar to these delightful birds, whose fast moving wings create their most unique song.

I love to listen to the songbirds, and we are graciously blessed to live in a neighborhood with very few sounds — no traffic, no motorcycles, no speeding cars, usually not even people voices. Just the birdsong, with an occasional tree frog and the wonderful southern gift of cicadas. 

In my opinion, every bird is a songbird. According to scientists at The Nature Conservancy, the term “songbirds” refers to a wide range of bird species. Songbirds typically include finches, sparrows and warblers, but most often when someone is defining “songbird” they refer to beautifully colored birds that we’ve never heard of. The Nature Conservancy website features three: the Dickcissel, the Blackburnian Warbler, and the Kirtland’s Warbler.

I have never seen any of those birds, but I have heard lots of glorious birdsong. So I stand by my opinion that every bird’s a songbird. And in my better moments, I hear their songs as an offering to God, their songs of praise to God who gave them voice. During those times, I am drawn to the many beautiful and lyrical Psalms. This is one that is particularly moving to me

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

You wrap yourself in light as with a garment;

You stretch out the heavens like a tent and lay the beams of your upper chambers on their waters.

You make the clouds your chariot and you ride on the wings of the wind.

You make the winds your messengers . . .

How many are your works, Lord!

In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number — living things both large and small.

When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,

You give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.

— Psalm 104: 1-3;10-12; 24-25, 30 (paraphrased)

Many of the Psalms urge us to sing, to praise God with our voices. 

Sing to the Lord a new song . . .

I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

As far as singing, well sometimes we are reluctant, holding back an imperfect voice that does not always make pleasant songs. Sometimes we are convinced that our singing would not be such a worthy offering of praise. So we should probably remember that every bird’s a songbird. And as for us humans, it might help to remember that every person has a voice, every heart has a song, every soul has a melody.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee. How great thou art! How great thou art!*

Amen.

 

* From the hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” a Swedish traditional melody and a poem written by Carl Boberg (1859–1940) in Mönsterås, Sweden in 1885. It was translated into German and then into Russian and became a hymn. It was translated into English from the Russian by English missionary Stuart K. Hine, who also added two original verses of his own.

 

 

 

 

Beside Still Waters

 

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Still waters near Pulaski County, Arkansas. Photo by Steve Nawojczyk.

I long each day to live beside still waters, to dwell in serenity, to find peace in the depths of my soul. Not such a simple task, that. 

The problem is that life is not that much about still waters. It’s more often about churning waters and swelling currents. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of waves crashing in the ocean and then coming to the shoreline with a special kind of energy. I love the rolling of a mighty river, the trickling sounds of creeks, and the splashing sounds that streams make as  they ripple over stones.

But the sheer silence of still waters . . . That’s when you can skip a rock across the top of the water and watch its antics. In still waters, you can hear the sounds of fish flying up to the surface and turtles paddling almost silently acreoss the waters with only their heads visible in search for a morsel of food. In still waters, a family of ducklings can move through the waters with just a hint of a sound and the graceful swan can glide by with hardly any sound at all while its webbed feet move swiftly to push the waters aside.

Those still waters! Their silence and their calm show us how to be.

The truth is that rushing waters do describe our lives at times. That is our reality. Life brings what feels like raging storms. Life assails us with a power that reminds us of the breaking waves of the ocean. In this life, we come upon rivers too deep and too wide and too turbulent to cross. We will feel a force against us that may come because of serious illness or the loss of a loved one. It may come with the pain of broken relationships or with devastating financial hardship.

Life brings brokenheartedness, but it brings brokenheartedness in the midst of grace. For on this journey we call life, we travel with a divine guide, One who does lead us beside still waters. And it is there that our soul is restored and comforted in the midst of green pastures of sacred serenity and holy calm.

I am thinking, of course, of the words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

       he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;

        your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

— Psalm 23:1-4 (New Revised Standard Version)

I also think of my friend, Steven Nawojczyk, who is finding his much-needed peace in the forests, mountains and valleys of Arkansas. His stunning photograph illustrates today’s blog post. With his beautiful dog and companion, Feebi, he follows a path of serenity and healing, hiking through nature’s beauty most every day.

His life has not been an easy one. As a public servant — many years as Pulaski County Coroner — he has seen far too much anguish for one person. He was integrally involved, literally in the trenches, with ending and preventing Little Rock gang violence, and has been a staunch champion for young people.

He faces serious illness and harsh treatment in his retirement. but he knows that life really does have a pathway that goes around the dangers, toils and snares. He knows that he and Feebi will find lightheartedness in exploring a forest or watching a flowing stream. He knows that the simple joy of a mountain view can bring transformation. He knows about peace, and he has chosen to follow the life path that passes beside still waters. I admire him. I have always admired him, but even more so now as I witness his unwavering commitment to serenity.

That’s what it’s all about in the end — a commitment to serenity, a firm resolve to walk beside the still waters of life, and in that intentional journey, to find our souls.

May the grace and peace of God fill your soul, and may your journey, wherever it leads, bring you serenity.

 

 

 

Uncommon Commoners

 

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Terlingua, Texas. Astrophotography of the Milky Way over a field of Chisos bluebonnets.

As I write today, I think of all the ways we are ordinary extraordinary folk. We are complex at times, immersed in thoughts deep and weighty. In the next moment, we may well find ourselves acting like common, ordinary people that avoid deep thoughts at all costs.

We are divergent. We are a kind of paradox, common and uncommon all at once.

I recently saw the stunning photograph featured in today’s blog post. I was intrigued that a photographer was gifted enough to capture the juxtaposition of common flowering bluebonnets and the ethereal brilliance of the Milky Way. It is the kind of breathtaking image that makes me stop in my tracks, suspend time for a moment, and lose myself in the idea of earth and sky.

I studied the common bluebonnets and the uncommon Milky Way above them. And I wondered, “Is there something extraordinary in my ordinary life? Am I just a simple, common person? Or is there something uncommon that lives with the common in me? Inside me, in that place that even I do not fully understand, does common and uncommon grow together, entwined and twisted into one?”

As I pondered these questions that made little sense to me at the time, I read a piece written by my friend, Ken Sehested. I knew instantly that I would borrow one of his intriguing thoughts.

Uncommon commoner.

It worked for me. It defined me, the common part of me and the not-so-common part of me. You see, like most people, there is more to me than anyone can see. All of us can claim that. We are a people that can gaze skyward at the Milky Way while we sit on the ground in a patch of bluebonnets. We are a people of inner strength and resilience, the kind of resilience that makes it possible for us to endure whatever life throws at us and live to tell the story. We are a people with the kind of resilience that makes us uncommon commoners.

I know this because I have seen it time and time again up close and personal. I know this because I have stood at the bedside of a dying woman who was singing hymns of praise to God. I know this because I have kept vigil with a mother who witnessed her son being removed from life support after an accident, and as it was happening, she began to pray through her heavy sobs of grief. I know this because I walked out of the emergency room with her while she shared cherished, happy memories of the son she had just lost.

Uncommon commoners.

Ken Sehested made this so clear with these words.

What makes all of us commoners uncommon is when we experience the pain of trauma up close and personal, find the resilience to endure, take a hammer of righteous rage to that trauma and pound it on the forge of conviction that another world is possible, another way will open if we hold out, hold on, hold up, and hold over . . .

— Ken Sehested

Ah yes. We have seen, and we will see again, the pain of trauma. We will find within ourselves the resilience to endure. We will “hold out, hold on, hold up, hold over” because God has graced us with hope, enduring and abiding hope.

Life will always give us — uncommon commoners that we are — vivid fields of bluebonnets growing in the dirt and a sparkling Milky Way in the sky above. Thanks be to God.

For the Love of Trees

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Image by Diane Walker@Contemplative Photography

I have had a lifelong love affair with trees. Trees have inspired and strengthened me in many ways. The huge magnolia tree from my troubled childhood was a place of safety, giving me a place to hide from danger, offering to me a place to feel protected.

Miss Martha’s sprawling fig tree on the edge of our back yard bore wonderfully unusual fruit, soft and sweet and delectable. Her plum trees were loaded with plums, sweet and sour and delicious both ways. The fond memory I have of Miss Martha’s trees is punctuated with an angry Miss Martha catching us stealing figs and plums, yelling at us with an ominous voice, and chasing us from her yard.

The African plains graced my life with the gift of watching giraffes feeding on flat-topped thorn trees and elephants pushing their weight against misshaped baobab trees. The colorful swaying of ten foot tall bougainvillea trees was a mesmerizing sight. And in Africa, poinsettia plants are trees, trees like I had never before seen.

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Beyond this crash course on botany, and dendrology, I share a heart-and-soul love of trees. It is almost a spiritual connection for me, one that keeps me fully grounded, one that represents life, growth, rootedness, protection and sheer enjoyment.

My friend, Elaine, writes a beautiful blog entitled The Edge. In today’s blog post, Elaine shares a quote about what we learn from trees written by Diane Walker. (https://theedgeishere.wordpress.com/2017/08/10/contemplative2017-rooted/)

It’s possible, you know — we learn it from the trees —
to be full of grace and humor, dancing in the light
while remaining fully grounded,
rooted in the gravitas of being . . .

– Diane Walker

God is pleased, I think, when we dance in the light full of grace and humor. We learn it from the trees, Diane Walker says. I believe she’s right. So today, I will be spending a few moments sitting in the shade of our Chinese Tallow tree and swinging underneath a towering Pin Oak. Perhaps in the leaves that rustle gently in the breeze, I will hear God’s  whispers.

 

 

Welcome, Spring!

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Welcome, Spring! We greet you joyfully on your first day and, as always, we’re glad to see you in the tiny buds on the trees and in the almost opened blossoms on the bushes. You remind us of new beginnings and fresh starts. You bring us new hope for resurrection. You call out to us to run barefoot in the greening meadows. You show us nature waking up.

You are our proof that we survived another winter. Now we can feel the sun’s warmth instead of frigid winds. We can sing our songs in soft spring rains instead of in winter storms.

I love the following narrative that is such a lovely description of Spring.

Meanwhile, spring came, and with it the outpourings of Nature. The hills were soon splashed with wild flowers; the grass became an altogether new and richer shade of green; and the air became scented with fresh and surprising smells — of jasmine, honeysuckle, and lavender.

― Dalai Lama XIV, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

So we are waiting with great anticipation for all the special things you bring us — brilliant cherry blossoms, a fresh crop of spring grass, verdant fronds of fern, blooming azaleas, tulips and daffodils, blossoms of yellow, pink and purple. And bugs, lots of bugs, more bugs than we really want.

Even so, we really do welcome you. Thanks for leading us gently into summer’s heat. We need that.