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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What is Success?

One of my daily devotional sources comes from a blog called Inward/Outward. This was today's reading:
Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and “one body,” will we begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another…. Therefore the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time. It is seen, above all, in my own integration in Christ. (Thomas Merton)
First of all, Thomas Merton is one of "my" writers. I gobble up so much of what he's written, and know that I'm really only understanding about 33% of what he's saying. But I pray the for the Holy Spirit to keep shedding light to me.

I grew up in a world were my value was measured, at least from the way it felt to me, by my accomplishments. I was asked about how many A's I got, how many tennis matches I won, how many awards I received, how much money I earned, how much weight I'd lost. At the end of the day, it's what I achieved that seemed to matter most. Others were openly disappointed when I told them I was jumping off the career track I entered after college graduation and jumping onto the train to vocational ministry. Later someone told me that I had been living under my potential for quite awhile. As a result, I have spent nearly all of my adult life continuing to seek after success in ministry to somehow "prove them wrong."

I regret these deeply misguided efforts. But God has brought a lot of healing to me in this, and I am trying to live, more and more each day, in light of the truth of Merton's words here. Both my "achievements" and "failures" add up to something far larger than what I understand. I am being shaped for eternity. My actions have impact beyond what I will ever see -- which is a good thing. And what I perceive as success and failure are supremely limited in scope.

I am part of God's people, and I have benefited from the saints who have gone before me. My actions will bear fruit primarily in those who come after me. As I was reminded today in scripture, "I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive;  yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me."  (Galatians 2:20) What matters is how he is becoming greater in my life, and I am becoming less. (John 3:30).

May we each learn how to live truly "successful" lives, counter to the materialistic, foolish, short-sighted world around us, fixing our eyes on Christ.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Funky and Fabulous Fritters

Thumbing through my latest issue of Vegetarian Times, I came upon a recipe for which I had a few, but not all ingredients. I felt brave enough to do some substitutions because of what I had on hand, and the results were quite tasty. The original recipe is not online yet, but here's what I did.

Zucchini and Sweet Potato Fritters
serves 2

1/4 lb. zucchini, shredded (substitute for okra from the original recipe)
1/2 sweet potato, shredded (about 1/2 c total)
1/4 sweet onion, diced (substitute for shallot)
2 tsp agave (substitute for honey)
2 tsp tamari
1/4 c egg white (you can use a whole egg if you want)
1/4 c masa flour (substitute for yellow cornmeal)
1/4 c toasted walnuts, minced
2 tb coconut oil, divided


  1. Combine zucchini, sweet potato, onion, agave, tamari, egg, walnuts and masa flour in large bowl. Refrigerate for 15-30 mins.
  2. Heat 1 tb oil in pan over medium-high heat.
  3. Scoop mixture into large golf-ball size spheres and flatten slightly in pan. Cook for 8 minutes, flipping once.
  4. Repeat with remaining oil and fritters. 
  5. Serve with a bit of tamari sauce, if desired.
I ate this with some scrambled eggs for additional protein. It would be a nice side dish too. Yum it up!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Graduation-Goer

Chalk up another year. On May 2nd and 3rd I attended the Baccalaureate and Graduation Ceremonies, respectively, of Westmont College. If I tried to add up the amount of graduation and promotion events that I have attended for all the jr highers, high schoolers and college students I have known and loved since 1984.... let's just say it would be a large number.

Truth be told, I am not usually excited as I leave the house for one of these things. I make sure I've loaded up enough on sunscreen, water and snacks to get me through it. Thankfully, I have also learned that I can ask a family to save me a seat rather than head out early in order to save one for myself. I try to arrive right as the graduates are heading in, so I can give a quick hug, a big smile, and a whoop whoop to as many of them as I can. Then I scramble up to my saved seat, and settle in for an utterly predictable program.

Why do I put myself through it? I mean, really, I cannot recall a memorable speech by a famous dignitary, or a mind-blowing piece of advice that has been given. There are usually some stumbles in the program -- microphones don't work, someone trips, or music doesn't work out... So it is clear that we do not attend these things because of the quality of the performance.

Nevertheless, it's a significant marker.  They have accomplished something, and that feels good. I enjoy seeing the giddiness of the graduates. They really have no idea what awaits them, but I don't worry about that. I think they should enjoy the fact that they are finished, and get to celebrate it publicly.

I come to you humbly though, in needing to admit that despite my long history of attending these sorts of things, I actually came away with a revelation this time. I realized that graduation is as much for me as it is for them. Huh?

Many years I had a student who was in a search for the meaning of life. He had grown up in a Christian home, with parents who were robust faith followers, actively involved both in their church and interestingly, in national conversations about faith. This student was already rather cynical. He did not want to come to youth group, but we had a pleasant friendship and he was fine with meeting every other week or so for lunch and conversation. At one point, he had to read The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. He told me that the book's plot centered about an existential search in some ways similar to his own, so I told him I would read the book so that we could talk about it.

As it says in the Wikipedia description of the novel, "He [main character, Binx Bolling] day-dreams constantly, has trouble engaging in lasting relationships and finds more meaning and immediacy in movies and books than in his own routine life.... The loose plot of the novel follows The Moviegoer himself, Binx Bolling, in desperate need of spiritual redemption." 

I find a key quote from the book so compelling: "What is the nature of the search? you ask. Really it is very simple; at least for a fellow like me. So simple that it is easily overlooked. The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life."

Indeed. Aren't we all sunk in the "everydayness" of life? I want to pretend I live life every day to the fullest, and seek after purity and meaning in all that I do. But if I'm honest, I struggle as I string together day chock full of work and errands and house-cleaning and bills and a deep need to sleep. Somewhere in there I try to earnestly pursue a life of spiritual discipline. But with only limited success.

Before I sound too existential and bleak, I want to get to my point: I discovered last weekend that yet another graduation ceremony was a good wake-up call for me personally. It forced me to stop, reflect, and be reminded of what I am about. Like the Moviegoer, I am on a search. I heard some heartfelt speeches that expressed real hopes and dreams, and I chose to use this opportunity to hear all the sentiments shared in the context of how my own life has unfolded. I stopped to recall how I felt at 22, and what I feel and experience now at 53.

I also paused to consider how I have been spending my life, having poured into many students, some of whom were graduating that day. Some of them I had known literally since birth, and others I had met with weekly in Bible study and substantive conversation for years. Was it worth it? Had I used my time well? Yes. I shuffled through mental pictures of memories and conversations and how much these young adults had grown up. Which prompted me to rejoice and be grateful for the privilege of walking with them for awhile.

Years ago I discerned that funerals are actually for those who are left behind, not the one being memorialized. Funerals provide closure, a time to remember, a time to weep in order to start putting the pieces of life back together without that person, for better or worse. I came to see this past weekend that graduations function in much the same way. True, these events are certainly for those being celebrated, unlike a funeral, since the graduates are still very much alive. But these ceremonies are also for those watching: the parents and relatives who are blinking away the tears, stunned at the realization that it all happened way. too. fast. For the professors who toil away, year after year, wondering if what they are doing is worth it and getting a brief blast of joy in getting to share this beautiful moment with their students, shedding the binary relationship of instructor and student, instead getting to be united with them in celebration. And for the mentors, who invested and encouraged and prayed and laughed and pushed. At graduation we get a chance to say, "There, I've done all that I could. I may be done, or not. But I will stop and look backwards, recalling God's faithful and guiding hand and direction." Importantly, this keeps me going.

So I am a Graduation-Goer, who benefits from being reminded that we are all searching, and that periodically, we need to stop and see how that search is going.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

What Am I Reading?

One of my favorite questions to ask someone, if there is a longer time to talk, is this: What are you reading right now?

The first time I was asked this question I felt like I was being tested. And maybe I was! But when I headed out on my latest vacation, my beloved bible study of five young women about ready to graduate and launch into the big world asked me what books I was taking with me. And that question prompted me to blog during my vacation out of what I ended up reading during the trip. Thus the six posts preceding this one... Thanks for asking, ladies!

But now I'm home. And while it is PURE DELIGHT for me to have nothing but time to read my little heart out on vacation, I find it so much more difficult to discipline myself to stick with substantive reading in the midst of "real life." My days tend to fill up with a bunch of things that are demanding my attention: appointments, errands, a never-ending email inbox... plus fundamental needs like sleep, exercise and prayer.

Nevertheless, I vowed on this vacation that I would not let my deeper reading slip up when I returned home. So here I am. What am I reading?

Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today by Joan Chittister. By and large, I have really enjoyed this book. I can't deny that at times it gets a little too touchy/feely/mushy for me, but overall, it has been a lovely read. For example, these sentences kicked me in the teeth this week:

“Our time gets totally out of balance. We spend it all on friends, or we spend none of it there. We spend it all on work, or we spend it all on our compulsions… we go from one personal prison to the next.

Balance, the Rule says. Balance. And harmony. And awareness… Benedict says that we must bring a sense of order and awe and proportion and perspective." (pp 75-76)

"Benedictine spirituality requires that we live life to the full." (p. 79)

How MUCH do I want to live out those challenges on a deep and sustainable level?! Reading them here were powerful reminders of where I desire to put my priorities.

Travels in Alaska by John Muir. If you have a Kindle, search for all the free books you can download. Pile about 10 of them onto your Kindle, in case you actually have some extra time to dive into something just for fun. That's what happened on my vacation, and is continuing as I finish up this book. Ponder the photo I've included in this post: it says it all. This book is a GEM. Unexpectedly, I have found it to be spiritually moving too. Though I would not want to split hairs over Muir's theology, in this particular book he references God frequently. In fact, one of the people who was with him in much of his travels was a Presbyterian missionary named Mr. Young, whom he referred to as "an adventurous evangelist." I love that! Frequently, Muir describes how he experienced God in his enjoyment of creation:

[Describing past visits to the Sierra Nevada mountains in California] ...they seemed to me the most telling of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. But here the mountains themselves were made divine, and declared His glory in terms still more impressive.

The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Sparks, Soerens and Friesen. I found this book through the Twitter recommendation of my friend Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, someone who is not prone to shameless promotion. If he recommends a book, he means it. So I grabbed it on my Kindle and started reading. I'm halfway through it, and am finding that it really captures much of what we are experiencing in our own first year trying to live "on mission" in Santa Barbara's Westside community. Here's something from the introduction that sums up my heart as well:

Our collective story doesn’t begin with a grand vision or contagious momentum. It begins with deep hope for the church in the twenty-first century and an honest need for one another.

Whether or not you leave a comment here, I challenge you to ask this question in a conversation this week: What are you reading these days? 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Holy Week Readings... An Addendum

I wasn't planning on writing one more post, but after yesterday, I just had to add this.

Over the years I have come to love attending a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. I'm away on vacation this week, so my friend and I just did a little googling and found one being held here (details will be withheld, for reasons that will become evident momentarily). If you're not familiar with Tenebrae, it's is a distinctive worship service that retells the story of the trial, suffering and crucifixion of Christ. It employs some level of drama by gradually extinguishing candles while a series of readings and hymns are recited and sung. (The word tenebrae is Latin for "shadows" or "darkness"). By the end of the service, the sanctuary is dark and all depart silently in order to ponder the meaning and power of what was just told.

I have participated in putting on many Tenebrae services, and I will be honest, it can be a little stressful. Coordinating the candle snuffers, bell ringers and various readers, providing some pertinent sound effects, and turning off lights on cue (all the while juggling an indiscreet flashlight so you can see what you're doing) is a situation fraught with the potential for disaster. For example, one year I was poised to swing a hammer three distinct times (done with maximum volume, if I do say so myself) when all of a sudden a man I did not know came up behind me and said in a stage whisper, "I MUST ask you to stop this IMMEDIATELY." He went on to tell me that he was a retired fire marshal and that he believed we were in major violation by turning off lights, which could prevent people from exiting safely in case of fire. (May I add at this point that the bright green EXIT lights were still on, ruining whatever ambience we were trying to create?)

Imagine my situation: I'm having to follow a complex script which was going to require me to pound the hammer at just the right moment so that 600 people could jump out of their seats because they weren't expecting it, which was the complete point of the moment... and this agitated gentleman is insisting that I have to stop! I did a quick mental calculation: should I listen to the retired fire marshal, or face the consequences I was sure to endure if I missed my all-important cue? In a nanosecond I concluded, "Hmm, well... I DO have a hammer in my hand, so he can't really make me stop..." I mumbled something about getting permission ahead of time, and proceeded accordingly. And there was no fire, so we were all good. Not my best moment, to be sure.

But I digress. Back to this year's out-of-town service. The service was scheduled to start at 7pm. Since we were visitors, we opted to arrive about 5 minutes before it started in order to not stand out, right? As we pulled in, I counted 4 cars in the parking lot. I tried not to get nervous. Soon after a couple other cars pulled up, so we mustered up the courage to go in. (Sad to say that, but I'm just being honest.) People were very friendly, and the pastor walked around greeting everyone individually. This was a nice touch.

Let's not forget that the goal of Tenebrae is darkness (despite the fire marshal's protestations.) Thus another distinct challenge of putting on a Tenebrae service is shutting out ambient light. Given that church buildings are usually created, intentionally, with lots of windows to allow for natural light, this can be a problem. So I chuckled knowingly to myself as I walked in to the sanctuary and saw that Hefty trashbags had been split open and pieced together with clear packing tape in order to cover up the very tall and large windows in the sanctuary that look out onto the surrounding mountains. "Classy" was definitely not the first word that came to mind.

We found a seat and the service soon began. One of the most enjoyable things about Tenebrae is that it follows a liturgy, where various prayers are recited, and the congregation responds, following a program that was handed to us. Fortunately, this part was intact. As I mentioned, a sort of drama is enacted as the story is told. Piece by piece, the altar is slowly stripped of all elements, so that just the cross is left in front. As the program stated, "This liturgy is designed so that worshipers spend most of this time with eyes looking at the cross, symbol of Christ's most compelling sacrifice."

What followed from there was very, very... earnest. The pastor had recruited four people to assist him: a boy whom I estimated to be about 11 years old, a teenage girl that looked to be about 17, and an older couple who alternated in doing various things up front. Items were clunked and nearly dropped at various times, and at one point the older man went to move the rustic wooden cross that they were using for the service in order to place it front and center, and as he turned it it around it looked like he was going to take the head off of the teenage girl. Thankfully, disaster was averted. We were then directed to sing a few hymns and friends, I have to be honest: it was truly the worst music I have ever heard, bar none. The piano was way out of tune, there was no one to really lead the singing, and the songs were purposely slow and almost dirge-like in order to communicate the heaviness of the events being told. It was seriously bad. All of our voices were hesitant, off-key and sort of strained and reedy; given that the congregation was very small, it was all the more noticeable. I flinch again just thinking about it.

Regardless of all these foibles, I tried my darnedest to focus on why I was there. And you know what? All the little goofy stuff didn't matter once we started reading through and hearing the scriptures. From the Psalms and Isaiah passages that foretold Messiah's suffering to the incredibly poignant words from the Gospels, the raw power and tragedy of the last earthly days of Jesus' life were captured. In fact, by having such a clumsy service, the truth and beauty came through all the more forcefully, because there was nothing to distract from the words.

When the final part of the crucifixion story is told, I was still deeply moved by Christ's suffering and utter degradation:

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. (Matthew 27:27-31)

At one point in the service we each signed our names to our own sheet of paper that confessed the bald ugliness of our selfish behavior. We were invited to come forward and lay that sheet down, enacting our own desire to be freed of our past sin and hurtful actions. After this stunning passage from Matthew 27 was read, the older gentleman gathered up the sheets of paper (this was noisy and awkward, but in a good way) and laid them at the foot of the cross. THAT was powerful. Then we recited this prayer together:

Lord Jesus, my sin in great! I sin daily in thought, word, and deed. I sin in things I have done and in things I have left undone. Thank you for taking my sin and nailing it to the cross.

It wasn't miserable, manipulative and guilt-inducing to say those things. It was just... honest. I mean, it's true. I do stuff every day that I regret. Or pass up chances to do kind things because I'm self-absorbed or distracted. It was freeing and right to confess my deep need for the work of the cross. It also turned the soil of my heart over and prepared it for the celebration on Sunday. Such good news awaits!

Let us look forward to the great good message of resurrection and second chances. I am so grateful that I get a do-over, again and again. Praise Him.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Holy Week Readings, Day Five

Throughout this week I have been able to ponder various aspects of kingdom living: resurrection and renewal, true community, persistence over time, and prayer. By no means comprehensive, nevertheless this list points to the lifelong process of faith in God, where we are being shaped into selfless people, loving God and others more than self. In other words, I'm being drawn into a community and a sensitivity where life is not built around simply being convenient for me.

Rather than being fiercely independent or conversely, hopelessly enmeshed and enslaved by a need for approval (or some tangled combination of both!), we are being built for something entirely different. As Chittister describes it in Wisdom Distilled from the Daily,

We have to learn to be for one another so that the love of God is a shining certainty, even now, even here... And it is a far cry from the rugged individualism, the narcissism, and the brutal independence that has become the insulation in our neighborhoods and the hallmark of our culture.

Later she whittles it all down to a simple sentence:

It is easy to talk about the love of God; it is another thing to practice it.

Today, this Good Friday, I am thus reminded that Christ is not only our Redeemer (though that is more than enough), he is also our model, our standard, our exemplar, of life well-lived. As I sing O Sacred Now Wounded in worship during a Good Friday service, I want to pay special attention to the lyrics, which remind me of what it means to live a sacrificial, selfless life. And where, amazingly, purpose and meaning are finally found. As Jesus said in Luke 9:24-25, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?"

O sacred Head, now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, Thine only crown
How pale thou art with anguish,
with sore abuse and scorn!
How doth Thy visage languish
which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered,
T'was all for sinners' gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever,
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love for Thee.

(Here's a lovely version of the hymn by Fernando Ortega)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Holy Week Readings, Day Four

Thought-provoking insights from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily regarding reflective prayer:

Prayer is the filter through which we view our worlds. Prayer provokes us to see the life around us in fresh, new ways... Prayer is designed to enable people to realize that God is in the world around them... prayer is meant to call us back to a consciousness of God here and now, not to make God some kind of private getaway from life. 

It is so easy to come to believe that what we do is so much more important that what we are. It is so easy to simply get too busy to grow. 

To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our terms... The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer. But when that attitude takes over, we have begun the last trip down a very short road because, without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down.

Benedictine prayer [rooted in the Psalms and the Scriptures] pries me out of myself and stretches me beyond myself so that I can come someday, perhaps, to be my best self... Benedictine prayer life, besides being scriptural and regular, is reflective. It is designed to make us take our own lives into account in the light of the gospel.

There is little for me to add to these remarkable words. For several years I was in a Tuesday morning prayer group where we learned and practiced the things described here. Rather than revolving our prayers reactively around our immediate circumstances, we learned to invite scripture and the Spirit to set the tone. In fits and starts, I have applied the wisdom gained from my experience in that group, and today's reading is a gut-punch reminder of those lessons.

So today I will reflect and read and pray through Psalm 86, the psalm that is assigned to my daily Bible reading. I will heed these discerning reflections from Wisdom as I pray through it:

Reflection on the Scriptures is basic to growth in prayer to growth as a person. Prayer is a process of coming to be something new. It is not simply a series of exercises.

Hear me, Lord, and answer me,
    for I am poor and needy.
Guard my life, for I am faithful to you;
    save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; have mercy on me, Lord,
    for I call to you all day long.
Bring joy to your servant, Lord,
    for I put my trust in you.
You, Lord, are forgiving and good,
    abounding in love to all who call to you.
Hear my prayer, Lord;
    listen to my cry for mercy.
When I am in distress, I call to you,
    because you answer me.
Among the gods there is none like you, Lord;
    no deeds can compare with yours.
All the nations you have made
    will come and worship before you, Lord;
    they will bring glory to your name.
10 For you are great and do marvelous deeds;
    you alone are God.
11 Teach me your way, Lord,
    that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
    that I may fear your name.
12 I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
    I will glorify your name forever.
13 For great is your love toward me;
    you have delivered me from the depths,
    from the realm of the dead.
14 Arrogant foes are attacking me, O God;
    ruthless people are trying to kill me—
    they have no regard for you.
15 But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God,
    slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
16 Turn to me and have mercy on me;
    show your strength in behalf of your servant;
save me, because I serve you
    just as my mother did.
17 Give me a sign of your goodness,
    that my enemies may see it and be put to shame,
    for you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.