Spiritual Hospitality

Recently, a friend wrote an online piece about her personal decision to stop watching a popular television show. The response to her essay was swift and defensive: while a few folks actually engaged with her piece, most of them were so offended that they wrote derogatory responses in the comment section, telling her to "lighten up" and "suck it up, princess."

When a few of our friends talked with her about it afterwards, the discussion turned to listening. I made the remark that many of those commenters weren't actually hearing what she said but were reacting defensively, as if my friend had poked them and they were swatting her hand away.

Our wise theologian friend Kelley noted that part of mindfulness is learning the practice of waiting a few moments before we react to what someone has said. True listening means opening ourselves to others instead of biting back, hearing their stories instead of nurturing our own hurts and aches.

As I sat down to read Henri Nouwen's daily devotional book Bread for the Journey, I was delighted that his message flowed right into the midst of our conversation. I love it when that happens. Nouwen says that listening is so important that is it a Spiritual Hospitality.

"To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept."

I had to reread this passage to let it seep in. When we truly listen to others, we aren't eager to justify ourselves, our existence or our opinions. Instead, we are "free," yes, liberated to welcome what others have to say or express.

I don't know about you but that seems nearly impossible to do. Many times, when I react defensively to a comment or critique someone has made to me, it's because I have already felt the truth of it in my own heart. Hearing another express concerns, thoughts, and feelings, especially when they seem to contradict what I feel and believe is so difficult.

I didn't get the whole picture until I read the next day's passage in Nouwen's book. It turns out that this "interior stability" which we draw from is not our own inner strength. Instead, Nouwen says, it is not ourselves but the Spirit which "creates in us a sacred space where the other can be received and listened to."

When I read Nouwen's words, I don't solely think of this as a message for those negative commenters to hear. The truth is, this is a message for me, a daily, even hourly, reminder that all the people in my life need to be listened to.

Not long after my friend's piece went online, I decided to write a comment of my own. I wanted to defend her, to scream at those rude commenters and bite back. I wonder now if I shouldn't have said anything at all. Because the truth is, those commenters have stories too that need to be heard. I wonder that many of them are writing from a place of loneliness, searching for a connection, even if it is online. Many of them are reacting out of their own pain and grief. Is my small comment, meant to defend my friend, only another way to dismiss others as unheard?

As with many lessons, the learning starts in the smallest, most intimate ways. Many days, amidst the bustle of morning school routines, my children leave for the day, rushed and unheard.

As my son crawls into my lap while I type, I feel the urge to stop, to hold and rock him. I am starting at home, showing this kind of hearing hospitality to my children.

 

YA Blog series: On Rites of Passage by C.F. LAPINEL

I have known C.F. Lapinel for many years. We made it through grad school together, huddled in pubs and coffee shops during winter, hunkering down to write from our imaginations about odd children who lived in worlds of make-believe and fantasy. I've always appreciated not only his "childlike mind," his boundless imagination, and his ability to craft a complex and beautiful sentence, but also his kindness and compassion. One day, I hope to see his YA novel of three sisters sitting on a bookstore shelf. 

You can read more of his writing at bluestonescribe.com and follow him on twitter at @BluestoneScribe

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“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

A distant acquaintance reminded me recently: “Some minds work overtime to make sense of their world...” He was telling me, I think, that I have something of a childlike mind, something I've always been glad to see not only in myself but in others. It’s true that some minds do work overtime. And this is just what young-adult fiction helps us do: make sense of our world. Iʼd even argue that the more skeptical the mind, the more relevant young-adult literature becomes, for we need just such tools to learn to navigate the often bewildering world in which we live.

In ancient times, people practiced rites-of-passage more commonly than we do now; at least in the formal, recognizable sense. When the village elders split these young-adults-to-be into groups and readied them, this activity engaged the whole community. Parents participated as well as non-parents, particularly if the non-parents were extended family; and most everybody in a tribal community would have been extended family.

These rites had relevance to everyone, young and old alike.

For the adults, Iʼd hazard a guess that something psychologically complex occurred. To periodically prepare (and observe) a new generation facing the same rite they too experienced in youth would be an opportunity to revisit old emotions and compare them with present thoughts and emotions. Memories of the focused fear and excitement upon entering the mysterious rite would have become diffused with age, distilled into a more settled, perhaps jaded, understanding of what life in the village truly required, in relationship with the raw, majestic power of the natural world. I would assume that the inevitable evaluation, or re-evaluation, of the village mythology would result in reaffirming or else challenging faith in the community.*

There is no great leap of logic required to see young-adult literature as the modern descendant of these ancient rites. The painful and humiliating experience of those rites endured by our once youthful ancestors is now communicated to youth in literature, tasking them to imagine themselves as archetypal protagonists. When we were young, what were our brains doing as we consumed books like The Hobbit,The Wind in the Willows,Grimm's Fairy Tales, and The Outsiders? What do our brains do now as we revisit them?

Aren't we just as much Huckleberry Finn, each of us, as a Harry Potter, or a Nancy Drew as we ever were? And weren't these characters once known as Anansi, Odysseus, or Ishtar?

Every time we reread these stories we learn something altogether new. These stories recount our ancestral fear and ignorance; remind us of our thirst for discovery, identity, and power; and describe the responsibility we must take for what Voltaire called "our little garden".

If however we don't know the old stories or even the newest ones, like Percy Jackson & the Olympians, we have a responsibility to learn them. By actively participating in and encouraging young-adult literature, we are behaving like responsible gatekeepers for our community, encountering ourselves and others in relationships. We are choosing to reaffirm faith in the community or challenge it, based on whether we wish our children to share the experience we had or not.

In so doing, we are testing the cycle of identity, the cycle of the self, of who we have become, both as individuals and as a wider community. Do we break the cycle, as it exists, or do we recommit and affirm the values of the community? Are we truly behaving in a responsible way? Are we facing our fears, surmounting our obstacles, embracing life? Or has something gone wrong?

Hal Borland, a well-known American columnist also wrote the young-adult novel When the Legends Die about a native-American hero named Tom who rediscovers his roots. I love Hal Borland. His writing is spare and ethereal. He was perhaps best known for his nature column in the The New York Times, which he maintained until his death in 1978. The dominant theme of When the Legends Die is self-discovery in the midst of social decay. Tom Blackbull is a young Ute tribesman in early 20th century America. Told with with grim grace, Borland's tale follows Tom from early childhood in the wilderness, where he loses his parents George and Bessie, into adulthood as he struggles to come to terms with modern life, a life that does not offer him a welcoming place. Tom’s conflicted attitude toward his ethnic heritage reflects in both his self-esteem and the choices he'll make throughout. Should he accept the fractured, defeated identity that awaits him on the reservation? Or should he embrace the life his mother taught him in the wilderness?

Once more he slept, and dreamed, and he was alone, walking over the earth in the night. He came to a mountain and he said, “I have forgotten who I am.” There was no answer. He said, “I was the boy who went with Blue Elk and did what he said I must do.” Again there was no answer. “I went with Red Dillon and did what he said I must do.” Still there was no answer. “I killed as they taught me to kill!” he cried.And at last the mountain's voice asked, “Why?” -Hal Borland, When the Legends Die

There is an elegiac tone to the work. This stems from the omnipresent feeling that the cultural identity that Tom must choose is ultimately futile. His is a culture in decline, rapidly decaying and taking it's few remaining people with it. Whoever he becomes cannot be passed. Who he is will end with him. In Tom’s world, when legends die so too finally dies all of his ancestors, their souls lost to oblivion. And through Tom's inimitable struggle, some alienated young-adults and a few of us old scrappers may also feel that oblivion rising over us. How did we handle the crisis? Will we be more or less successful next time? In a classic book like this one, you might 'find' yourself.

*For more on these rites and descriptions of different types practiced around the world in various ages, including our own, please read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Sir James Frazier's classic The Golden Bough. These are two excellent and illuminating works in this regard.

Gorgeous violence

DSC_0019 There is a gorgeous violence to farm life.

Imagine a five-year-old witnessing with enthusiasm the full-scale butchering of three dozen geese in one day. It's enough to make PETA hunt us down with truckloads of paint.

You would think a child fascinated by such gruesomeness would become a serial killer one day.

But that's the strange beauty of farm life. This same child raises ducklings, chicks, and geese as if they were her darling babies. She sings to her new ducklings, telling her father that these are not to be butchered. They are hers.

She will spend hours in the basement with them, teaching the yellow tufts to follow her.

Though seemingly incongruent, perhaps it's these things she experiences in farm life that teach her that we must cycle through the dirty, muddy, mucky, painful, violent parts of life along with the joys, nurturing, and love. It's an introduction more profound and approachable than a violent movie or video game. It's something she can handle.

I recently read an interview with Joel Salatin at motherearthnews.com, a celebrity in the organic farming world (don't laugh, we do have celebrities) who describes himself as "a third generation-Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist lunatic." Salatin's version of farm life, where he raises, butchers, and sells pork, beef, and chicken in a manner that he calls "beyond organic" is actually therapeutic: "In a word, this is all about healing: healing our bodies, healing our economies, healing our communities, healing our families, healing the landscape, healing the earthworms. If it’s not healing, it’s not appropriate."

Salatin doesn't mince words. He believes that children can handle this kind of gorgeous violence better than adults:

"This is why we enjoy having our patrons come out and see the animals slaughtered. Actually, the 7- to 12-year old children have no problem slitting throats while their parents cower inside their Prius listening to “All Things Considered.” Who is really facing life here? The chickens don’t talk or sign petitions. We honor them in life, which is the only way we earn the right to ask them to feed us — like the mutual respect that occurs between the cape buffalo and the lion."

Maybe one day when creation is made new, the lion will make friends with the lamb and the farmer will no longer need to slaughter her animals. But wouldn't it be amazing (and perhaps ironic) if this new kingdom came just a little bit more by the healing farming practices of those who respect death just as much as they respect life.

How can I keep from singing

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I'm not going to lie.

It's been a rough winter.

From dog bites to anxiety attacks to the harshest winter anyone can remember (seriously, the farmers whose ancestors immigrated here from the northern parts of Scandinavia are sick of this winter), I have found myself wallowing in the darkness, wandering in cold places, lost in the wilderness.

My husband did a sermon recently on the temptation of Jesus. He noted that Jesus didn't choose to go into the wilderness, he was lead there (I would venture to guess he might've been dragged). For some reason, the knowledge of Jesus' unchosen time in the wilderness was a comfort. That he didn't desire any of this death or pain and that he understood my own little version of wilderness because he'd been through it, big time.

When my five-year-old came inside today from playing in the melting snow (more like mud, really), she was gloriously happy, red-cheeked and dirty, making her mother breathless by talking a mile a minute about how she'd collected rotten vegetables to feed the bugs in her ant house, how she'd helped Daddy fix the tractor.

After she ran back outside, she left some of her spring behind.

For months, I've been begging for life, crying out for spring, searching for one bright spot of green poking through the wintered earth.

My daughter brought life right to me. Her hands were filthy with it, her eyes sparkling with it, her voice a song to life anew.

I felt so grateful. And I began to sing and cry because I couldn't help it:

"No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I'm clinging; since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?"

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, tho' far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Thro' all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What tho' my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Saviour liveth;
What tho' the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?*
*I used to think this was an Enya song. But then I discovered that it's actually an old Quaker hymn. And Love is Christ the Lord. Beautiful!

Texas and Oil Paintings: I Am From

My grandmother's painting I am from Nana’s oil paintings imitating the Impressionist masters from Russian matryoshka nested dolls and Great Aunt Laverne’s tea cup collection

I am from a house atop Cat Mountain with the best sunsets and the sound of cars on the highway below lulling me to sleep at night

I am from the Hill Country and roads cut through limestone populated with cedar trees whose bark peels off like an old skin

I’m from eccentric introverts and too many gifts at Christmas from Heatherly and Elena who made me the middle sister from dad traveling overseas too much doing lots of good things for other people.

I’m from “this too shall pass” and “we have not earned any of the things we have” and "if the Lord wills and you see me again" before every parting From “Where are you going my little one” sung every night by Mama before bed til I cried from the grief of leaving her one day.

I’m from every song, even commercial jingles, sung together in tight harmonies

I’m from Connecticut and Scotland but not really because I’m from Texas Texas Texas down to great and greater grandparents  who gave birth in one room houses in Cleburne and made sweet potato biscuits and black eyed peas at New Years.

From Anna Christie’s drowned husband and Otis from Sweden whom she raised as her own when his mother died in childbirth From Papa who left home at fourteen, spent three years as a POW in Java and went back to Japan after the war to be a missionary

From diaries written with pre-teen tears about how I'm too fat, fears of death, glass miniature bric-a-brac, rock and shell collections displayed in wooden cubby shelves on my bedroom wall, from the only time I ignore Mama’s call for dinner or food on any kind is when I’m reading in bed

Now I am from uncaulked baseboards, grimy from years of bringing the outside in from the smell of fertilizer and fish immulsion mixed with cooking tomatoes Now I am from the maple trees tapped every year for syrup and boiled down in a black cauldron in the white winter woods from poems written at the narrow creek that bends round from here to the wider streams

Now I am from a tanned farmer whose tender loving hands are often cracked and running with dirt, blood and rain from a fairy who feeds the chickens in her princess dress and muck boots from a cuddly Tom Sawyer who waves at Daddy driving by in the tractor while holding his dinosaur to his chest

Now I am from a community of idealists, hippies, peace-loving Mennonites And I am not one of them but I am because I am also from Jesus. And he has been there from the beginning.

I am synchroblogging with SheLoves Magazine today with their series on "I am From." You can read more or link up here.

Unstoppable joy: the tension of ashes and piano keys

DSC_0053 Ash Wednesday services are usually solemn times when we reflect on our own mortality, the death of Jesus and our need for repentance.

But at our Wednesday gathering, we experienced a different aspect of the service: young children running across the linoleum floors, totally oblivious to the solemnity of the occasion.  While the rest of us were receiving the ashes on our foreheads, my son ran to the piano and plunked at the keys before anyone could stop him.  The black ribbons we tied together as a symbol of our unity in brokenness, my daughter was attempting to use as a jump rope.

As a mother, I was just a little bit horrified and all I wanted them to be was quiet and well-behaved.

But then someone stopped me.  A friend with older children (who usually knows just what to say) approached me after the service.

She loved that our children were oblivious to the soberness of the service.  She loved that nothing would stop their joy.  She loved that we are supposed to have faith and hearts like theirs...full and lively.

So here is this tension of Lent and our lives in Christ. Our faith does and should include the darker things.  We will mourn and grieve and be penitent.  But we should also share in the joy of celebration, just like our children.  Just as we celebrate death on Ash Wednesday, joyful that death will take us to new life, we can acknowledge that death is very very sad.  That though Jesus has overcome it, we still feel death's sting.

I'd like to live in this tension of death-grieving and mortality celebration.  I'd like to be joyful in sorrow and patient in solemnity.

And I'd like to be a little more observant of the way my children approach worship and prayer, with unstoppable joy.

Advent traditions and resources

Celebrating Advent is fairly new to me as I grew up in a tradition that was decidedly un-liturgical.  While I love my lay-led tradition, both the Church of Christ and the Mennonite denominations, there is a richness and mystery to this time of waiting. We're creating our own traditions in our family and congregation and the root of both seems to be a tree.  Ann Voscamp has an excellent (and free) Jesse Tree resource.  You can download and print ornaments for every day of Advent, each with an accompanying scripture and meditation.  That's what we'll do in our worship services this year.

In our home, I've sewn a simple Advent calendar with twenty-five pockets, each holding a tiny bell inside.

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I've ordered a few kid-oriented Advent books and I plan to read a story and let the kids put a bell on the tree that day.

Patience is the spiritual discipline of the season.  My habit of starting a Christmas playlist on Thanksgiving Day is being challenged because most of the songs we sing during this time aren't actually Advent songs, but Christmas Day songs, celebrating the end to waiting.

Amy Grant's Breath Of Heaven (Mary's Song) and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (this version by Enya) are notable exceptions.

Do you wonder as you watch my face, If a wiser one should have had my place, But i offer all i am For the mercy of your plan. Help me be strong. Help me be. Help me.

When I listen to this song, I can see this girl Mary, burdened by the physical and spiritual weight of an unborn baby, weary on a donkey on a dusty road, only half-knowing that she carries a King.

The child coming

Ang and I are conspiring to wait.

We are gathering the symbols of life,

sewing pockets for the pictures and language of truth,

lighting candles, measuring words,

grasping onto any sparks from the vibrancy of incarnation.

We need color.

We need fire and flame.

We need new time and ancient in this mystic practice.

We need the song of children and infants, praising the baby King.

We are Adventing.

*This is the Advent wreath we're trying to create for our worship service.  The picture is from http://www.southernliving.com/home-garden/holidays-occasions/christmas-decorating-ideas-00400000059442/page15.html

'Tis the season for entitlement

In the past few years, I've approached gift-giving season with a bit of anxiety.  While I enjoy both giving and receiving, motherhood has added new perspective and unanswered questions to birthdays and holidays.

On Tuesday, gift season commences in our household when Dandelion turns four.  Blessed be the day when my first baby was born!

As I sit on the floor of our basement assembling her play kitchen, even as I connect the nuts and bolts and screws of her shiny new toy, I worry about how to keep her and her brother from a sense of entitlement.

I love giving gifts to them, material and otherwise.  I delight in my daughter's squeals of joy, her shouts of 'woo-hoo' when she thinks about her special day and the presents she'll receive and cupcakes she'll eat. I hope she always gets so excited to receive, and that this overflowing feeling is just a glimpse of the glory that will fill her when she truly takes hold of those life-affirming gifts called grace and love.

Perhaps the grime of the "gimmes" hasn't muddied her little spirit yet. But I worry about her future spirit because my own sense of entitlement has proven rather difficult to extricate from my heart.

As a mother, I wonder how to help her see that gifts and blessings aren't the trinkets underneath the puffs and mounds of tissue paper that will litter the floor of our large family gathering at Christmas?

How do I help her weave those non-material moments of joy more intricately into the knots of her spirit: dancing at sunset under a double rainbow, spending a week with Nana and Papa, crunching through the leaves of Autumn, sharing a meal with others in our home, inviting a friend over, learning to crack an egg perfectly into a bowl, playing with other kids at community meals?

And how do I wrestle with the Christ-amnesia of Christmas that winks at her in books, movies, and music, where Santa and presents are favored over the waiting and longing of Advent, and the great fulfilment and gift of a barn baby who would be king?*

I believe the answers lie in love, in service and in giving.  Those are vague words that I try to put into practice.

What are your gift and holiday practices or words of wisdom that might tackle this sense of entitlement?

*I don't think the tradition of incorporating Santa into Christmastime is bad in itself but the Santa suit and toy bag is a lot more glamorous than the dust and hay of a manger born Jesus, even when we emphasize the true "reason for the season." **

**I hate that phrase...

An open letter to small town America

Please don't be offended rural/small town America.  You see, I have fallen in love with you and I don't know if I ever want to go back.

Having been weaned on big city life, I had no idea of your charms.  And I want to share them.

Do you remember the first time I went to your bank to deposit a check and take out cash and no one asked to see my ID?  Yes, that was unexpected and a bit wonderful.

What about the time when your librarian called me at home to tell me my books were overdue and did I want her to renew them?  That was truly awesome.

Didn't we laugh together when I first said I was "going to town" and that meant the place where Walmart had spread out its talons, where the population is 7,000?

I can still recall the first time I went to a children's tractor pull on the weekend, not because it was the only thing to do but because it was an exciting thing thing to do.

And oh, what about your children's rodeos?  Where everyone from every small town in the county congregates to thumb their noses at PETA, to watch little kids chase greased pigs, unsuspecting chickens, calfs with ribbons tied to their tails and ride muttons.  Yes, the mutton rides, where heavily armored 6-8 year olds attach their bodies to terrified sheep that are let out of the gate at breakneck speed until said and sad child can no longer hold on.  Didn't we watch with joviality as the child ran crying from the mutton to her parents?

I feel the rhythm of the seasons in your life, where everyone knows the weather because their livelihood or their neighbor's livelihood depends upon it.   Your people gather together with gusto at festivals year-round.  And some would say it's because there's nothing to do in a small town.  But really, it's because your people know how to have fun without all of that big-city hullabaloo. They know how to fight isolation and commit to community.

Small town, I love you.  Farm life, I don't ever want to leave.

My children love you too.  Right now, they're watching their Daddy load hay into the barn.

Who needs television?

The force of thankfulness

I have two reactions when I look at this picture of my children, both with black eyes.

First, I wonder what to say when I accept the trophy for Mother of the Year.

But in all seriousness, I think of the tiny moments that could change our lives but that don't. And I think of what gratitude really means.

I had two moments this week.  The first involved Dandelion, a spiral slide and a stick she was holding.  When I heard her scream and flew across the gravel to her, I didn't realize how potent in my mind was a television show I'd seen recently (a very fictional bit of silliness) where the cops were tracking a biological disease in which the victims died with blood in their eyes.

Guess what was coming out of my three year old's eye when I got to her? And guess what my first thought was?  Death by biological disease.

In fact, she had cut her eyelid and it healed very quickly.  But the long stick was found and thoughts of what could've been haunted me for a few days.

Two days later, while cleaning up a broken glass, I heard the sound of furniture falling to the ground.

Which was actually my son falling down a small (thankfully carpeted) flight of stairs.  He was lying face down, his sippy cup of milk close beside him.  And a massive knot already forming under his eye (I believe the cup was the culprit).  Maybe it's the things we associate with falling down the stairs, but this one shook me up too.

He was back to his rascaly self in no time. I knew when he started pulling his sister's hair that he was going to be alright.

These are moments for me when I wonder what thankfulness really is.  Do we allow ourselves to imagine what could've been so that we can be thankful that it wasn't?  How much imagination do we give to the almost future?

I've heard prayers that set us against other people's pain while concluding, "thank God that's not me." Is it right to feel 'blessed' that we don't have the pain that other people have?

That doesn't sit well with me.

There is so much pain in the world and I've limited my news reading because it can become overwhelming.  But I wonder about the balance.  Because I think we aren't supposed to separate ourselves from the pain of others but instead, to take it on as best we can.  While there might be less I can personally do about the violence across the world, I can do something about the pain in my own community.

I don't think I can alleviate another person's pain most of the time.  But maybe I can help her live with it: by a cup of tea, by babysitting her child, by writing a poem or a song, by sharing music or giving money or making a meal.  Maybe it's only a start or maybe it's the best I have to offer.

Maybe compassion is part of gratitude.

Could it be that empathy can only flow out of a life that is lived in thankfulness?