Brother Lawrence’s Guide to the First Day of School

Last night, after the kids were in bed, their first-day-of-school outfits spread on the floor, complete with necklaces and socks, I started to feel stressed.

Summers are often hard for working parents because of childcare issues, but the fall brings a whole ‘nother level of stress: for us this year, it’s three kids, two schools, piano lessons, Girl Scouts, a new activity for the girls (community choir), and a renewed commitment to fitness on the part of the parents (Robert is now on the Couch to 5K bandwagon too).

Oh, and let’s not forget the little matter of paid work for the grownups.

And writing a book.

And a commitment to Sabbath time each week.

The hectic-ness of the school year came back to me as I set the table for breakfast, put the morning lists next to each place, along with hairbrushes and toothbrushes, and put the vitamins in a little cup next to my plate. This is really anal retentive, and not an evening task I love, but I’m always grateful the next morning to have everything laid out—it means less time spent setting the table while ravenous kids run by in various stages of undress, less yelling on my part to put your shoes on!!!!! The morning starts peacefully with this preparation, even if it doesn’t always end that way.

But ugh, what a pain, to always be on top of things.

After setting the table I dug the lunchboxes out of the cabinet. They’re new, and differently shaped than before, and the containers I use for sandwiches and chips aren’t going to fit quite as well now. Then I began to think about making two lunches instead of one, and pictured myself doing that Every Single Day. I thought about the convenience and prevalence (and non-eco-friendliness) of juice boxes and Doritos in individual serving bags, and wondered whether a trip to CostCo is in my future.

So I was grateful for the spirit of Brother Lawrence in my inbox this morning, before the kids were even up:

Gerald May described this process of awakening to God’s presence through five steps: pausing, noticing, opening, yielding and stretching, and responding. In the spirit of Brother Lawrence, who saw every encounter as an opportunity to experience God’s blessings and praise our Creator, this process of awakening can be utilized both as a momentary call to awareness or as a regular practice of self-examination.

Ah, yes. I love those five steps, woven together. This morning we all woke up a little early so we could pause over breakfast and relish this milestone of a new school year. I noticed how Margaret got on the bus without even a sideways glance toward us, and I didn’t worry too much about the camera. When the power went off at home ten minutes later, I remained open to my own irritation about it, was curious about it, acknowledged it and moved on, rather than “shoulding” on myself about not letting little things bother me.

This allowed me to yield to the day looking a little different than I’d planned: because we were without power, our neighbor who provides childcare was also without power, so after taking James to meet his preschool teacher, I took him to lunch so our neighbor would have one less kid to wrangle and feed in the dark. At the Panera, I watched James squeeze the yogurt into his mouth with nary a drop on his shirt—that’s a new skill. And I beheld the way he bit right into the middle of the PB&J triangle for maximum cheek stickiness. And the delighted way he reacted when he saw his teacher there: “She’s following us!” he declared. And the sound of his guffaws as we dodged raindrops to the car. And I responded to all of this the only faithful way one can: with wonder.

So thank you, Brother Lawrence, for turning your little omelette in the pan for the love of God.

I will do the same.

I will spread peanut butter and slice apples and roll turkey into tortillas and dole out chips and write notes for the love of God.

Because I Will Reflect on Anything… Even a Facebook Kerfuffle.

Why yes, don't mind if I do.

Quite the kerfuffle on Facebook yesterday over this devotional about the “spiritual but not religious.” People felt very strongly about it, and I even got defriended over the discussion. And because I will ponder anything, even a FB kerfuffle:

If you want commentary on the piece itself, I recommend this and this, and my friend Martha offered her own meditation on “SBNRs” (written several years ago) here. This blog isn’t really about the post itself, except I wanna say this: I’m kinda over the word “spiritual.” I think the shift is toward something different that doesn’t have a name yet: embodied? incarnational? grounded? integrated?

Anyway, today I’m thinking more about writing, how we communicate and how we reflect on that communication.

Many clergy friends gave virtual high fives that the writer finally said what needed to be said about the shallowness that often emanates from some who call themselves spiritual but not religious. Others admitted the tone was snarky and smug, too focused on the speck in the SBNR’s eye and completely ignoring the log in the church’s, and not a great thing to have out there if we claim to be an evangelistic people. But, they argue, the germ of an idea was sound. (My husband, a product manager, offered, “Sounds like a classic venting-about-the-customers thing. Everybody does it, but not to the customers.”)

My personal view is that voice cannot be separated from message. Tone is not a dropcloth that can be removed with a flourish and stowed away, revealing the true work of art underneath. It’s baked right in. “Set aside X and Y and her point is valid,” some folks said in defense of the piece. But I don’t think you can set those things aside.

My writing group deals with this problem often after several years together. I’ve been told more times than I can count, “I know what you’re trying to say because I know you and the experience you’re describing, but it’s not at all clear from the words on this page.” or “I get your point, but you come off really sarcastic here—was that what you were going for?”

That’s what the kerfuffle was about. Words on a page. (OK, screen.) People who know the writer personally consider her a lovely person. I have no reason to doubt that. But that’s beside the point when it comes to this piece of writing, which should be evaluated on its own merits. Does it work? Does it work in this genre? Does it communicate what she wants to communicate?

This completely freaks me out, by the way. Come fall 2012, it will be my words that are evaluated. Maybe even critiqued. Maybe even critiqued harshly and pointedly. There may be readers who cross the line and make it personal. But not all sharp critique is personal. Remind me of this next year, Gentle Readers, when some doofus on the Internet makes me cry. Help me sift through what’s helpful but hard to hear. Help me find a safe place to put that. And help me take everything else, tie it to the tail of a kite, fly it into a strong wind, and cut the string.

But the stuff I write doesn’t get a pass just because I’m a nice person.

That’s the work of community. That’s what the piece tried to emphasize—and failed, in my opinion, because of what was used to leaven it.

One final thing. On the Internet, there is no place for the church to talk to itself internally without the general public listening in. That includes, sadly, a lecture given by the speaker to a room full of pastors, which is readily available too. That’s neither good nor bad, it just is. We live in Terry Benedict’s casino in Ocean’s 11: “In my hotels, there’s always someone watching.”

All right then… what’s next?

Friday Link Love and a Book

Just a few today—I’m not exactly doing a lot of outside reading this week…

We Are Just Not Digging the Whole Anymore

We just don’t do whole things anymore. We don’t read complete books — just excerpts. We don’t listen to whole CDs — just samplings. We don’t sit through whole baseball games — just a few innings. Don’t even write whole sentences. Or read whole stories like this one.

We care more about the parts and less about the entire. We are into snippets and smidgens and clips and tweets. We are not only a fragmented society, but a fragment society.

Do you agree?

I quibble with a thing or two. For example, the author cites the example of, which gives quick and precise summaries of business books. I don’t know. I’ve read a lot of books about business, leadership and administration, and many of them contain a few good ideas with 300 pages of padding. I just can’t see summaries of those books as a bad thing.


The Medium Chill

This really resonates with me… and has been good discussion fodder for Robert and me this week:

“Medium chill” has become something of a slogan for my wife and me…

We now have a smallish house in a nondescript working class Seattle neighborhood with no sidewalks. We have one car, a battered old minivan with a large dent on one side where you have to bang it with your hip to make the door shut. Our boys go to public schools. Our jobs pay enough to support our lifestyle, mostly anyway. If we wanted, we could both do the “next thing” on our respective career paths. She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to write for a bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer in to town. Maybe get the kids in private schools. All that stuff people with more money than us do.

But … meh. It’s not that we don’t think about those things. The water pressure thing drives me batty. Fact is, we just don’t want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working. We enjoy having time to lay around in the living room with the kids, reading. We like to watch a little TV after the kids are in bed. We like going to the park and visits with friends and low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room with the kids.

So why do it? There will always be a More and Better just beyond our reach, no matter how high we climb. We could always have a little more money and a few more choices. But as we see it, we don’t need to work harder to get more money to have more choices because we already made our choice. We chose our family and our friends and our place. Like any life ours comes with trade-offs, but on balance it’s a good life, we’ve already got it, and we’re damn well going to enjoy it.

That’s the best thing about the medium chill: unlike the big chill, you already have it. It’s available today, at affordable prices!

Related to this: I started reading a book called The Great Disruption about our current economic and environmental crisis. The author argues that both are related and stem from a myth of infinite growth, more, better, faster. That’s going to collapse soon, and we will be moved to adjust our ways in a manner that fosters simplicity and community. I hope he’s right—and it’s the first book I’ve read that’s fundamentally hopeful about our ability to respond to climate change and the disruption that will come with it.


And a video that’s related to the ‘medium chill’ article…

Dan Gilbert asks, “Why Are We Happy?” (TED)

Shorter Dan Gilbert: we suck at being able to assess what makes us happy.


L. Gregory Jones: Executing with Urgency (Faith and Leadership)

“We are looking for Christians who understand and practice leadership as an entrepreneur would,” the philanthropist told me. We had already talked about some key aspects of such leadership, such as developing vision, taking risks, being willing to fail and learn from failure, and tolerating ambiguity. But then he said that the heart of the issue was what another friend described as lacking among Christian leaders: people who could “execute with urgency.”

I heard those three simple words as a judgment, recalling too many Christian meetings I had sat through, and even convened, where we had confused having a meeting with taking action. We had acted as if we had all the time in the world, as if nothing really was very urgent. Indeed, we had often met as if we were a group gathered primarily for social purposes.

SO spot on about the way church committees often work. My current ministry obsession is thinking about agile software development as it relates to church work. One of the many great things about small churches is the ability to get to execution relatively quickly.


And finally, a book:

I’ve had Kathleen Norris’s Dakota: A Spiritual Geography on my shelves for many years but had never finished it. Norris is one of those folks I’m proud to claim as Presbyterian, along with Anne Lamott and the Rev. Mister Rogers. Her meditation on life in the Dakotas is gorgeous, funny and wise. She really captures the feel of the place and its people.

The book got me thinking, too, about the terrain in which I’ve been placed—what I ruefully call “suburban sheol.” Yet every place has its beauty. And every place is its own wilderness. One of the women who’s here this week wrote a book about life in the South Bronx as a bit of a response to Norris’s book and others like it, that lift up rural locations as particularly spiritually rich. What an interesting challenge it would be to think about the suburbs of the nation’s capital in a similar way.

Friday Link Love

A few odds and ends from around the Intertubes:

7 Principles of Comedy/ Design/ Creating Anything

Discussion of the HBO special “Talking Funny” with Ricky Gervais, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Louis CK. Interesting connections between their process and other creative processes. Plus there’s a link to the special, available in four parts on YouTube.

The Myth of Self Control

From Andrew Sullivan’s blog. “Dan Ariely sees the psychology of self control at work in the tale of Ulysses and the sirens.”

Mom Gets the Right Things Done with the Natural Planning Model

I first read this as “natural family planning,” for which the jokes write themselves. But this is a Getting Things Done post about how to apply the principles of GTD to one’s home/family life, not just work life. The more I get into GTD the more I realize it is really a process of discernment at its core.

Beware the Metaphor

We’ve always known language is powerful, now we have a study that demonstrates one aspect of this:

Researchers asked students to read one of two crime reports. In the first report, crime was described as a “wild beast preying on the city” and “lurking in neighborhoods.”

Guess which group suggested more jails and getting “tougher on crime,” and which suggested more social reforms such as improving education?

This study is not surprising, but it does solidify my intense dislike for cable news and its swooshes and logos and Super Scary Music.

Fidelia’s Sisters: How Do You Do It?

A nice column from a minister-mom that provides an honest look at what it’s really like to engage on those two vocations.

A Benedictine Paradigm for Congregational Life

In all our talk about being missional and the church not existing for its own sake, we can get out of whack as we fail to nurture our own spiritual lives. The Benedictine Rule can show us how to find balance and faithfulness between inward journey and outward service.

Herd Immunity and Community on Facebook

Sometimes I think I’d like to write a book about the impact of technology on our spiritual lives. We have books about the psychological effects, but no book (that I know of—please correct me, for the sake of my workload) that looks at technology from the spiritual perspective and considers the negative AND the positive in a very deep and significant way.

Earlier today a friend sent a message on Facebook, expressing sympathy over the death of our Fat Kitty. I appreciate her being in touch, and I know she went through the same experience last year, so her message has special resonance. She’s a good friend, not just on FB but in my physical world. At the same time, there were so many kind messages last week that I wasn’t “keeping track” of who had and hadn’t commented. I was cared for in the immediate aftermath of losing our cat, just not by her specifically in that moment.

Same with birthdays—I received dozens of Happy Birthday messages on my birthday. I read each and every one of them and they made me smile. Together they became a significant source of happiness on that day. But I would not have been able to tell you who did and did not wish me a happy birthday.

I think we all kinda get this. Unless I am moved to write something really creative for someone’s birthday—and maybe even then—my greetings just blend into the happy din of well-wishes. And if I blow off the birthday thing altogether, few people would notice my specific absence. But what if everyone blew it off? There’s a sense of social compact there. I’m thinking about herd immunity—the idea that vulnerable folks are protected from infectious diseases by virtue of the vaccinated people around them. Herd immunity depends on people “following the rules” and participating in the system. But there’s a sense in which each person’s small act adds up to something that’s good for the whole.

I see two sides of this. On the one hand, I’m certainly not arguing that Facebook is better than, or a substitute for, physical relationship. (When I say physical I don’t mean sexual—I mean physical in the sense of involving our bodies: ears and voices in conversation, eyes and faces in our reactions, our taste buds in sharing a meal together, our hands as we touch and hug one another.) For birthdays I’m a big fan of greeting cards and try to send them to my nearest and dearest—Facebook is no substitute for that, nor for a phone call, a gift, or time with the person. So the Facebook greetings become problematic when we think that’s somehow sufficient to create really deep bonds of caring.

(There’s also the matter of the freeloaders! These folks never comment on people’s birthdays, yet they get to bask in the love as people express appreciation for their Facebook tribe. 🙂 )

On the other hand, the birthday greeting I leave on Facebook comes with no ulterior motive, because I don’t get anything out of it. I just get to be one tiny part of the love bomb—not its instigator, nor its leading lady. For the martyrs and the showoffs among us, this is a good practice of humility. It’s not a self-aggrandizing act that announces to the world Look what a good friend I am! (I mean geez, the site reminds you.) It’s just a small act of kindness that, when combined with everyone else’s act of kindness, makes a person happy. And there’s something lovely about that from the perspective of creating community in humble ways.

I’m still working on this, but what do you think?

Lent: You’re Probably Doing It Wrong

I’ve been reading some discussion regarding this article by G. Jeffrey McDonald. McDonald laments the way that Lent is frequently observed within American Christianity and says:

We’re remaking [Lent] as a type of spiritual self-help whose effectiveness is measured by how well it entertains us and affirms what we already believe. Since Americans love parties and hate to do without, Christianity is evolving to deliver. The diminution of Lenten practices illustrates the trend and highlights what’s lost when religion becomes a consumer commodity.

I don’t deny elements of truth in what McDonald is saying. In fact the article strikes me as a very satisfying read for us church leaders, what with its hand-wringing, self-righteous tut-tuts and in-crowd high-fives.

It bugs me to tears, actually.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Consumerist Christianity is a big issue. And certainly the church has a prophetic duty to call people to deeper authenticity and radical discipleship. But this article smacks of caricature. McDonald characterizes Lent as a “joke” based on one comment from a friend. And “sumptuous” fish dinners on Fridays? This is the normative American Christian experience?

This kind of “you’re doing it wrong” carping is not productive. All of this reminds me of the discussion we had on this blog back in December about singing Christmas carols in the church during (gasp!) the season of Advent. I argued back then that maybe, just maybe, some people feel drawn to the music of Christmas during December not because they are worshiping the gods of Best Buy and Wal*Mart, but because they desperately need to immerse themselves in a message of Joy Right Now, to soak it up, because the world is a pretty dark place. Can we treat people like grownups and say that perhaps they have a good sense of what their hearts and spirits need without us telling them?

Why don’t we spend our time helping people connect their Lenten practices, whatever they might be, to the presence of the living God, rather than diagnosing those practices as inadequate? I know a woman who committed to run each day during Lent. I guess I can chide her for disrespecting Lent as a season for “spiritual self-help”… or I can help her make the connection between that practice and stewardship of the body, which Paul calls the temple of God. Heck, daily physical exercise sounds like a struggle to beat the sin of sloth, which last I checked was one of the seven deadlies! What could be more Lenten than that?

(BTW, this is part of the tension within the Sabbath stuff. Lots of people take time off for R&R and don’t call it Sabbath. Good for them. So my job isn’t to say “Well unless it’s got the Sabbath imprimatur, it’s only second best.” Instead, maybe I help them see ways that their practice of rest and play doesn’t just recharge the batteries, but connects them to a deep wellspring of joy and grace that [I believe] is a gift of the Holy.)

I appreciate these two posts on the Christian Century blog, both of which bring some much-needed nuance to the topic. I found the latter especially on point:

Is “true deprivation” really the point of fasting, or is true fasting measured by the extent to which it turns us toward God? Deprivation for deprivation’s sake could easily become competitive or self-aggrandizing. Biblical writers frequently make the point that God isn’t interested in displays of piety but in justice and love.


The Wisdom of Stability: A Review

I was recently sent a copy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture. I think I’m supposed to disclose that fact, although his book has been on my wish list for some time now. I’m glad the book found its way to me. Christian spirituality is a crowded field and this one is well worth picking up.

The title gives you a good sense as to where he’s going. Wilson-Hartgrove takes on the grass-is-greener mentality that so many of us have—the tendency toward upward mobility (or just mobility). He critiques the idea of a spiritual journey, which is such a central metaphor in the Christian faith, and wonders whether we’ve taken this metaphor too much to heart:

The trouble for most of us isn’t so much that we cannot afford stability as it is that we don’t value it. We idealize and aspire to a life on the move, spending what resources we have on acquiring skills that make us more marketable (that is, more mobile*). We want to “move up in the world,” which almost always means closer to a highway, an airport, or a shopping mall. I cannot deny that this is why I left the rural farming community where I grew up. But neither can I ignore the fact that this is what has been unraveling the neighborhood where I now live since the late 1960s.

(*Regarding this point, I wonder how technology will change this. Could we not soon reach the point, as people gain more and more skills and value to a company or industry, that they are given the freedom to work from home and/or telecommute, thereby allowing them to stay rooted to a particular community?)

Wilson-Hartgrove tackles biblical texts, the desert fathers and mothers, and monastic tradition and blends it all together with some deft cultural analysis. I loved his discussion of the man called “Legion” whom Jesus heals—and then tells to stay put. Fascinating take on that text.

Each chapter ends with a section called “front porch” in which Wilson-Hartgrove tells a story or vignette from his own life of rootedness in a particular community, a community with its own unique quirks, needs and stories. These beautifully written segments were my favorite part of the book.

The book seems providentially timed. There are so many people who simply can’t move right now, even if they’d like to. Their home is underwater and/or they are limited by jobs or lack thereof. Wilson-Hartgrove helps us see these geographical constraints as an unexpected gift.

This business of stability is something that my husband and I have struggled with. The story of how we came to live in our particular house is not all that interesting, but the upshot is that we made a very quick decision by necessity. I had never even set foot in our house until after we already put a contract on it. We like a lot of things about our house and our neighborhood, but also feel out of step with our community’s values in certain ways. We’d like to live closer to the city, though we’re fortunate to be very convenient to a Metro stop where we are. On the other hand, it feels like a grasp towards simplicity just to decide to stay… to give up trying to manage and optimize the situation and just be content where we are.

I also think about this stability business in terms of my vocation. I’m in a group of clergy that meets yearly, and many of us have accepted new calls since we started meeting. We even experienced the uncomfortable situation of having two people in our group apply for the same position. After that experience, we met with a member of another clergy group that’s been meeting for more than 25 years. Since his group has experienced similar situations, he gave us some advice for navigating the “competition thing” and assured us that it will happen again.

I don’t doubt that, but as I looked around the room, I saw a great many folks who are embodying stability, whether by choice or not. One person is geographically limited because he is gay and very few presbyteries will receive him into membership. Another person has told me that she expects to spend the rest of her life in the small southern city where she lives, thanks to her spouse’s job and a large extended family there. Speaking for myself, it would take a burning bush to move me from the Washington DC area. I’m not sure how many of us are willing to pack it all up and move wherever the biggest and best job is—maybe there won’t be as much of the “competition thing” as we fear. Whether that’s the wisdom of stability or not, I can’t say. There’s probably some Gen-X stuff in there about working to live, as opposed to living to work—quality of life matters a lot to folks in my generation.

As you can see, I enjoyed the book and it also sparked some very specific thinking about my own life and values.

By the way, if you’re interested in this sort of book, the Englewood Review of Books is a great source for reviews, commentary and excerpts. Check them out in print or online.