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Lately, I’ve been surprised to find myself feeling like Sarah Connor from the Terminator movies. Not because I’ve been visited by cyborgs from the future (still waiting on that front)…but because I have a looming sense that social crisis is coming, and I need to prepare my daughters to survive – and even help lead the resistance.  

But while Sarah taught her son John skills such as computer hacking, lock picking, weaponry, and carjacking, I believe my daughters will need a different skillset.

Compassion. Kindness. Forgiveness. Patience. Self-denial. Logic. Careful reasoning. Sense of call and purpose. Ability to see different viewpoints.

Love. Faith. Hope. Especially love.

It’s not easy to figure out how to teach these things to teenagers. Possibly the best way I’ve found so far, is hosting exchange students. For an entire school year, all of us, as a family and individually, practice letting someone we never knew before have a significant impact on our lives. We have to arrange furniture, schedules, food, and bathroom privileges to accommodate a stranger. We make room in our cozy (read “tiny”) house for a fifth person, her belongings, her attitudes, her conversation, her clutter, her opinions, her habits, her holidays, her flag, the sound of her language. We say the names of her natural family, find her home city on a map, learn things about her country that we never thought to ask. We discover our similarities, as well as our differences. We discover that some of those differences matter more than others. We live together anyway.

Is it easy? Nope. Is it easy for her? I doubt it. While we are learning to live with her, she is having to learn to live within our family, according to our rules (which may be quite different from what she’s accustomed to), eating our food (no matter whether it resembles anything familiar to her), communicating in our language (with all of its subtleties and subtexts), and all this while attending an unfamiliar school and missing her family and friends back home.

arrival day

Why go through all of this? It’s not just for a travel opportunity, to see the sights of another country. That can be done (and done better) in a tourist visit. But what happens is that we become family to each other. And that transforms all of us.

Our Moldovan daughter wrote this letter to our US Representative as a class assignment. With her permission, I post it here as witness. 

Dear Representative,

I am one of 3 exchange students you met in March. I was remembering you a lot during my government class and I am very thankful for your time and ability to meet with us and answer our questions.  I really like a lot of your polices and respect you as an individual.

There’s one question I would like to discuss: giving more money for exchange programs. I think you can agree with me in the fact that most of all problems in the world right now (different wars, intolerance) are because of misunderstandings, lack of information and ability to see things from different perspectives. There’s nothing better you can do to get rid of misunderstandings, than to do more exchange programs. We, youth, are future, and in order for all of us to step to the next level of tolerance and peace we need to provide understanding between different cultures. I came here with the thought that Americans are stupid and fat, Muslim are terrorists and Germans are Nazi.  I’m so sorry for these thoughts and after this year of making friends in America and in the whole world at the same time, of being at the conferences and hearing that I will always have a place to stay and to be loved in any country of the world, I will never go to war with any country. I will do whatever I can to prevent the wars and I will not allow any of my friends and relatives to joke around about any country, religion or culture.

Everything I learned is because of the exchange program.

The USA spends a huge amount of money on military. Why? Because you have to be the best? Or because you are afraid that somebody will attack you? If there would be more international exchange, you wouldn’t have to worry about it, because like I know, people wouldn’t want to attack the countries where they have friends. If the USA would spend 1% of the money they are spending for military on the exchange programs, it would change the situation tremendously and would eliminate the possibility of war. It would give the world the possibility to understand that we have different cultures and religions, but at the same time we are so similar, and there’s no need to kill our brothers.

Thank you for your time to read this letter. I really appreciate it.

Anastasia

Compassion. Kindness. Forgiveness. Patience. Self-denial. Logic. Careful reasoning. Sense of call and purpose. Ability to see different viewpoints.

Love. Faith. Hope. Especially love.

Becoming family.

This is the greatest survival skill. I urge us all to practice it.

Sometimes, beautiful things

mertensia virginica

have really ugly roots.

(technically, it's a rhizome.)
(It's still really ugly.)

 

I’m no one to give advice. I love me a good rummage sale as much as the next bargain hunter. I write this out of (and because of) my own weaknesses.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:9-10.)

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. (Deuteronomy 24:19)

We get some pretty sweet donations arriving at our church during rummage sale setup – and an awful lot of the best are long gone before the first shopper from the community ever hits the door on Thursday night. What if we were to intentionally observe the practice of gleaning? What if we pass some of it by, as we sort (and pre-shop)? If we don’t grab up all of the good deals we find. If we rejoice that some of the best is left for the stranger, the poor, the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner.

Surely, buy what you need – giving thanks not for the good price, but that your needs are provided for. But as you shop and buy, leave some behind so that others’ needs are provided for as well. I am grateful for the rummage sale because it allows our family to buy clothing and household items, sparing our budget for other things – kids’ activities, Driver’s Ed, music lessons. I must remember that there are many who struggle to pay for rent and food. Lord, help me to not put my pleasure above others’ survival.

As we work, unpack, organize, set prices, let us also pray: for those whose hands and hearts have given the items to sell, and also for those whose homes will receive them.

And let us look, and see the witness of the rummage: how much we spend for that which does not satisfy, that which we are soon willing to part with, even relieved to be rid of. As a community, how much of our money was spent to buy these items new? Did they serve the purpose we had hoped they would? Did they fill the God-shaped hole? Did our neighbors go without food, medical care, shelter while we were buying decorations for our homes, new clothes, kitchen gadgets? Was it worth it?

What we buy, and what we sell, bears witness to our choices and how we see our role as church in this community. What do we want that witness to be?

This year, this week, let us find satisfaction in what we do not buy. Let us be richly adorned in simplicity, as the lilies of the field. Let us be filled by what we give up.

lest my last post sounded sour or pessimistic…

I don’t see pruning, either in the garden or in covenant groups, to be a harsh matter of “getting rid of the dead wood”. Pruning is a matter of giving shape to future growth.

There is a common misconception that when we look at a plant in the garden, the leaves and blooms, we are seeing the plant. In fact, we are only seeing the “public face” of the plant. The real identity of the plant lies in the roots. And the future of the plant lies in the seeds.

If you have any doubts about this, try pulling out a dandilion. Or creeping charlie. Or a volunteer tree. Or lemon balm, milkweed, bellflower, or any of a thousand other semi-invasive varieties. You can toss as many leaves and flowers and stems in the compost pile as you like…and the roots will send up more. And that’s to say nothing of the seeds which may have been scattered – or which may be scattered through the very act of pulling out the plant. Roots, and seeds, contain the entirety of the plant. It’s almost as if the branches, the structure of the plant, is incidental.

When I look at what is happening with our covenant groups, I see a variety of patterns. A few individuals attend almost every scheduled weekly meeting of their group. That’s great; it provides consistency both for the participant and for the group. But truly, that’s the exception rather than the rule. For most of us, our lives offer up frequent barriers to a regular weekly commitment: Work schedules. Family responsibilities. Illness, whether our own or that of a family member. Commitments to other valuable ministries. And some individuals who made an initial commitment to a covenant group, who feel within themselves the call to grow in discipleship and faithful living, have had a change in personal circumstances (pregnancy, new job, moving) which make it virtually impossible to continue to attend a weekly meeting.

These patterns are the branches. Not the roots, the source of life and identity. Nor the seeds, which yield future growth. Not even the beautiful blooms and fruits which make a garden worth growing. Branches, only. External structure.

Form should follow function. Our shape should follow our purpose. Our purpose is to provide both support and accountability for each other as we love God and love our neighbor. Our purpose is not to meet weekly. If meeting weekly serves our purpose, that’s great. If it doesn’t, if it becomes a barrier or a stumbling block instead, then it needs pruning, to take on new shape.

There must be a hundred ways to provide that support and accountability to each other, to fulfil our purpose and continue to grow in grace. Weekly face-to-face gatherings are only one way. If we bind ourselves to that one structure alone, we will miss out on the tremendous grace that awaits us in unexpected places, growth which will burst out of swelling buds and send branches reaching out across the garden.

Covenant discipleship shouldn’t be about attracting people to join a particular method. It should be finding whatever it takes to support each other so we can be about our calling…just as in the larger church.

From my social work training, I know groups have life cycles. I’ve seen it, many times, in many types of groups. People come to a group (support group, education group, discussion group, book group) out of their own perceived need, out of curiosity, out of the desire for something new, out of interest for the subject matter, because of relationship with the one who invited them. Interest is high, commitment is high, openness is high.

As time goes on, curiosity is sated. The initial need which drove a person passes, the crisis resolves, the children grow out of that stage and into a new one, other interests emerge and beckon. Group participants begin to miss meetings.

I also know that our lives have multiple commitments, multiple responsibilities, schedules which we do not always have full control over. Band concerts are scheduled on meeting nights. Kids or spouses get sick. Relatives and friends come to visit. Schools have days off, or weeks off, or summers off; children get ready to go to school and those precious days with them suddenly seem so few. Spouses travel and take our childcare plans with them. Both leaders and participants experience this.

How much easier it would be, perhaps, to leave mother and brothers and follow Jesus alone! How simple, to disentangle our lives from such conflicts, regain pure control over our schedules, and walk away from all the distractions.

And how simple it would be to look at missed meetings and sparse attendance as a reflection of the life cycle of a group: the curiosity is sated, the relationships and conversations were helpful, yes, meaningful, how good it was back when we used to meet together! And now, how is the new job? How’s high school treating your kids, how’s the college search? What have you been up to since we stopped meeting? Ahh, those were some good times. Yes, I felt close to God then.

 

In the garden, it is time to prune the roses when the forsythia blooms. One plant tells you the season for another. Use sharp shears, so that the skin of the bark does not strip and peel and allow disease to enter the plant. Make the cut just above a swelling bud. Choose a bud which faces outward – this will determine the direction of future growth. Pruning above an inward-facing bud will cause the strongest new branch to grow back across the center of the bush, cutting off light and air circulation and causing branches to rub against each other, leading to raw spots and festering.

Failing to prune the rosebush will result in one single long stem, growing ever farther from the roots and other branches, becoming unwieldy and top-heavy. One long stem will bear a few blooms, but only at the very tip. Pruning at the right time, in the early spring when the forsythia bloom and before the buds burst into leaflets, will force the energy of the plant to extend side branches instead of that one continual stem leaning ever over. Branches which will make the bush fuller, more stable, and which can each bear their own cluster of blooms.

The rose grows best, fullest, healthiest when properly fed, watered – and pruned.

What sort of feeding and watering does a discipleship group need? Are the forsythia blooming for us?

Hark! I hear the harps eternal, ringing on the farther shore
as I near those swollen waters, with their deep and solemn roar.
Hallelujah, hallelujah! Hallelujah, praise the Lamb!
Hallelujah, hallelujah! Glory to the great I AM!

This post has been brewing for some time, and with Ash Wednesday coming around again in a few days, now is as good a time as any to send it out into the world.

Here’s the thing: I’m not afraid to die.

Is this a strange thing to talk about, at 43 years of age and in good health?
It shouldn’t be, I think.  We all face death at the end of our journey on earth. But it is never something we talk about, except in hushed and fearful tones, and never with ease. We seem to believe very firmly in certain myths: Young people don’t die. Old people shouldn’t die. And death is a tragedy; it means something has failed.

I don’t believe any of these myths.

Life is uncertain; our bodies are fragile and breakable things. Really, the miracle is that our souls fit into such structures at all, for any length of time.
If you had something so precious, would you keep it in a box made of soft flesh and thin-walled veins? Why do we think of ourselves as lasting, when we never can?

Jen, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I will die, at some point, and I don’t know when. It could be soon. I hope not; I’m enjoying every moment of this life and have no wish to miss out on the party. But I know that something could happen in an instant, inside of me or outside of me, which could break this body and send my soul flying.

When that happens, whenever it happens, please, my beloved friends and family, do NOT say things like “She was so young” or “Why did this have to happen to her” or “What a shame.” My life is not a shame, not any part of it, including my death, no matter when or how it occurs. My life has been a blessing to me, a complete gift, and hopefully it has been in some way a blessing to you as well.

When somebody dies, you should bring up their name
Tell some story, or sing one of their songs.

Here’s what I would like. When my time comes to die, come together in praise and worship. Mourn, surely, for that is what we do; but also worship in truth, praising God for the gift of life, and for the great joy that we shared some part of that life together! What a miracle, what a blessing, that we were here, together, and found each other, and loved each other! Give thanks to God for that, with no regret or wish for more than we had. It is all pure gift and grace. If you miss me, love each other all the more. And take care of my girls and each other. (Stop by the house and wipe down the kitchen counters once in a while for me, if you can. They might need it. Help yourself to a bit of yarn stash as thanks.)

And sing! Sing hymns of praise. Sing shapenote songs! (Altos, I’m looking straight at you, sisters.) Choir friends, I want “Order My Steps” sung at my funeral, and you better sing it LOUD, in full voice!

I want to walk worthy, my calling to fulfill
Please order my steps, Lord, and I’ll do your blessed will
The world is ever changing, but You are still the same
If you order my steps, I’ll praise your name 

I pray that while I walk this earth, that I am of service; that I notice my neighbor and love them; that I am of use in the places where I am, and willing to go where I am needed.

Death come a’riding by the Christian’s door,
He said O, Christian, are you ready to go?

Tell me, that Christian just smiled, and she said yes, yes, yes, I’m ready to ride,
I’ve done my duty and I’m satisfied, just let me get on board, I’m ready to go,
Because I just got on my traveling shoes. 

I know that when I am gone, as I will someday be, the world will go on turning, and changing, and that’s as it should be. As it has always been.
I am at peace with that.

Rise up yonder, Christian! Away up yonder!
O, yes, my Lord! And I don’t care to stay here long! 

Grace and peace be to you as well. We are all dust, and to dust we shall return. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

(with thanks to theologians Dick Smith, Leonard P. Breedlove, Glenn Burleigh, Alice Parker, and The Badgett Sisters.)

things I saw on retreat:

Cara, full of joy

forty-three women, hungry for fellowship and to share their stories

forty-three women, in shadow and backlit by streaming sunshine, watching me while I search for words about fasting. The darkness on their faces was both comforting and disorienting.

water in the snowy woods. On one side of the path, a pond, bounded and stagnant: frozen and still. On the other side, a running river; warmer and moving, because it comes from somewhere and is going somewhere. Me, standing in the middle and thinking about faith.

bright eyes…from a woman of another congregation, who came to the weekend praying for purpose, and caught fire from conversation about covenant groups.

bright eyes of women in our own community, newly drawn to the idea of a covenant group, a weekly mini-retreat – not only commiting to participate, but thinking of friends they want to invite along as well.

tears, in worship. Which I have come to regard as a sign of the Spirit’s presence, thanks be to God.

 

things I learned on retreat:

forty-three women can keep an hour of silence. They might be a little anxious about it ahead of time, but grateful for it when it happens.

fasting feels like an unfamiliar concept, but with a little exploration, we recognize how overstuffed our lives are, and how much we need to experience emptiness.

reading scripture feels like something we “should” do, but many people don’t have any idea how to even begin.

hearing scripture read aloud, opened many more ears and made it feel more alive.

planning a retreat can be as much of a means of grace as attending one.

 

Things I am learning from mandolin lessons:

It is both exciting and frustrating to take on something new.

It is humbling, when my fingers absolutely will not hit the right frets, or my pick hand can’t keep hold of the pick, or no matter how long I practice, there’s still a hitch between the fourth and fifth notes on the scale that I can’t seem to smooth out.

I want to be good at it. I want to be better at it than I am. I want to be getting better at it, faster than I am actually getting better at it.

I have a little panic that maybe I won’t ever be good at it. Maybe it’s just not my thing, and I should stick to what I already know. This panic tempts me to quit now, even though I’ve been taking lessons less than four months.

Sometimes practice makes a huge difference. If I practice every day, I can really tell a change in how I’m able to play. Practice is really fun at these times.

Sometimes practice doesn’t seem to make any difference at all. I get stuck at a plateau and keep making the same mistakes over and over. Practice is less fun at these times.

Sometimes I use a metronome to pace myself, and practice primarily for speed. This is fun.

Sometimes I stop using a metronome for a while, and realize that while I can play a song quickly, it sounds like crap.

One week, I practiced “Solider’s Joy” every day and could play it really quickly AND fairly well. When I went to my lesson that week, my teacher wanted to hear me play “Alabama Jubilee.”

I can play more evenly and with fewer (or at least less noticeable) mistakes when my teacher plays alongside me.

If I wait for the “perfect time” to practice, when I won’t be bothering anyone else, I don’t get much practicing done. My family has to put up with listening to that hitch in the scale and the hard parts of “Alabama Jubilee” over and over. Oddly, they don’t seem to mind it as much as I expect.

Sometimes, slowing a song down, and taking it section by section, helps my hands to learn the patterns. Then I can speed it up and hear it as it should be.

Sometimes, speeding a song up – and playing it regardless of mistakes – breaks through some barrier in my mind that says “I can’t play this” – because I’m playing it anyway. Then I can slow it down and hear it as it should be.

Sometimes I’d rather write about playing the mandolin, than actually pick up the instrument and practice it.

time to practice…

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