Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Making Progress

I've been cleaning bookshelves. It's like calling on old friends.
The temptation is to stop, to flip through pages, re-reading something here and there, examining illustrations and photographs, lingering over some portion of text that touched me, or challenged me, or made me think of something differently.
That's not a good way to make progress, at least not the cleaning kind of progress.
But then, maybe that's the trouble with progress. So often it means charging ahead, ignoring what's right around us, ignoring old friends, ignoring the pleasures of here-and-now.
I like progress, and I especially like bookshelves with a certain amount of neat-and-tidy, where I can find what I'm looking for, although I'll admit to a fondness for overflowing bookshelves -- they are like an adventure waiting to happen.
But progress is a means to an end, and it's important to remember that the end result of progress, of neat-and-tidy, is nothing more or less than the ability to visit with those old friends, whenever I feel the need for company.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Winter Lessons

The news is full of dire reports and warnings about almost everything.
At the very same time the sun comes up a bit earlier each day, and sets a few minutes later. In between our golden lab flushes tiny birds out of the boxwood, there is an icy sheen on the creek, and the thermometer hovers in single digits. Winter goes on as winter does, steady in the midst of change.
Some things change -- from day to day snow falls or melts. Clouds come or go. Temperatures fall or rise.
Some things don't change -- under the snow, under the cold the tulips and crocus and daffodils are waiting for their time to bloom. No one can see them right now but they are there, and when the weather warms just a bit, and the days get longer, they'll show themselves.
Winter seems dire but spring is coming.
Is there a lesson there for us?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Snow. Again.

The grass -- such as it is -- has disappeared under a new blanket of snow. Tree limbs are wrapped in white, and the back yard has become a map of the movements of small animals -- squirrels, rabbits, perhaps a dog or possum.
You can tell it's the middle of January because after the initial quiet, people bundle up and get on with life. Even though local schools are closed today and many events have been cancelled, looking out the window I see cars moving slowly down the street, a few walkers, a few kids testing to see if the snow will pack.
It's too cold to be outside too long, so no one lingers, but snow and cold no longer shock us into immobility. We indulge in brisk walks and quick outdoor chores.
It's a good day for buttermilk cake and hot soup, a warm throw and a good book -- enduring pleasures for cold days.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Heavens Are Telling . . .

Light can be hard to come by this time of year.
Occasionally we have a bright sunny day, but more often the light is subtle under a grey sky.
A few nights ago the moon shone as if it thought it might compete with the sun, and it was lovely -- but still the birch in the backyard cast its long shadow through the night, and the sycamore was merely a silhouette in the half-light.
It is the darkness that makes the light stand out.
Scripture says the heavens are telling the glory of God, and it's easy to take that at face value, remembering all the times when the heavens and all creation are beautiful, breath-taking, reminding us of God's majesty and loveliness.
But I think the natural world is constantly calling us to remember God, to recognize Him at work in the world around us.
Light and darkness and shadow, for instance.
In the darkness, light stands out. As Henri Nouwen points out, God's divine love, in Jesus, is a light in the darkness.
The heavens are telling . . .

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

January Travel

Ice and snow; snow and ice.
Sunshine has become January's punctuation, a brief mark between winter's verbs and nouns: freezing rain. Icy drizzle. Blowing snow. Black ice.
I heard someone say she had to chisel her windshield, and I knew just what she meant. I'll have to remember that next spring when it's time to clean out the garage!
Meanwhile, for the second year in a row, I'm spending January in England.
Last year, I spent January not feeling well, and reading the Miss Read books by Dora Saint about village life in England, including the entertaining Mrs. Pringle of Fairacre. Nothing much seems to happen in Miss Read's books, but when you finish one you realize it was life unfolding one day at a time. You can really only see what was happening when you look back on it.
Miss Read's books made me feel as if I'd been to England on a slow, gentle trip, and it was a perfectly delightful (and restful) way to spend January.
This year, my daughter Julie gave me Patrick Taylor's book An Irish Country Christmas. I'd been looking at it in the bookstores for several months, and managed not to buy it (promising myself I'd get it from the library after Christmas.) What a lovely surprise to receive it as a gift!
It didn't disappoint, and once again I found myself “traveling” in County Antrim and North Down, Ireland, meeting such interesting people as Dr. Barry Laverty, Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly, and Arthur Guinness, “a vast black Labrador” so named because “he's Irish, black, and has a great head on him . . . just like the stout.”
I've enjoyed it so much I found the two books that preceded it, An Irish Country Doctor and An Irish Country Village, and I'm enjoying them one or two chapters at a time -- I'm in no hurry to finish. These are books to savor and take one's time with, not because they are so deep, but because they are so rich in the details of everyday life in a time and place that have changed a great deal.
Snow and ice may limit where I'm able to go in my neighborhood, but these good books have taken me on a lovely winter vacation.

Two other books I've been enjoying are Founding Faith by Steven Waldman, and Tell It Slant, by Eugene Peterson.
If you're interested in politics but tired of tawdriness, Founding Faith may just remind you that politics has always been a curious mix of the practical and the ideal, the best and the worst of us.
I first heard of this book in an interview on National Public Radio, and was intrigued. Waldman, the founder of BeliefNet, starts at the very beginning, looking at the religious underpinnings of the first explorers and settlers in the New World. There are surprising details, insight, and interesting connections I'd not been aware of before. Footnotes offer documentation and even more detail. How all this comes together in the discussions we still have about the role of religion in our public policy and decision making is fascinating.
This book has been a bit controversial -- Waldman doesn't quite toe the traditional evangelical line -- but like anything controversial, it's best to take a look at it for yourself and decide what you think.
Eugene Peterson continues his series on spiritual theology with Tell It Slant, a book focusing on how Jesus used language and story. I've just started this one, but it promises to be both filling and nourishing!
Even if you're not familiar with Eugene Peterson, you may have read some of his work if you've read anything from The Message, Peterson's popular, accessible paraphrase of Scripture. In fact, The Message is so popular that Bono uses it and has quoted it while on tour with U2.
Whatever the weather, it's a good time to read!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

When New Isn't, Any More

The thing about beginnings is that they move so quickly into something else.
New cars depreciate the moment you drive them off the car dealer's lot.
Honeymoons last a few days or months. Babies quickly grow up into toddlerhood. “New” just doesn't last all that long.
It's usually easy -- fun, even, to make a good beginning. It's not always so easy to make a good middle, or a strong finish.
We've had enough time now, this new year, for a bit of the new to smudge off, for one or two of our resolutions to have cracked a bit, to see the difficulties embedded in our opportunities.
We can see the middle; maybe it looks tedious, even disappointing.
No matter how excited we are to begin something new, eventually we get to a place where the “new” has rubbed off, and all we are left with is the work required to make the promise reality.
How do we keep on in the face of difficulty, disappointment, boredom?
If we've committed our plans and hopes to our heavenly Father, He is committed to working good out of whatever situation we find ourselves in -- whether it is difficult, tedious, or not quite what we'd hoped for or expected.
Our job, then, is to trust Him. We do that by doing the next right thing (whether or not we feel like it) and the next one, and the next one, until we have worked our way through the middle, all the way to the end of whatever we are working on.
By choosing whatever is right, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, we demonstrate our trust in the One who works to bring good in and around us.
It's not easy.
It is worthwhile.
And eventually, He makes all things new.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Clocks and Calendars

A few years ago the clock on the clock radio in our bedroom quit on Christmas evening.
The clock had been a gift from my husband the first year we were married.
It replaced a turquoise clock radio I'd had as a teen-ager at home. The turquoise clock worked fine, except for the lever you used to set the time or turn on the radio. It had broken somehow, and if you wanted to turn the radio on or change anything, you had to use a pair of pliers.
My new husband wanted me to have something that worked properly, so he gave me the clock radio that sat on our bedside table for almost 35 years.
That radio was sleek, with digital numbers that glowed red in the dark, instead of a round clock face. We kept track of all kinds of time with that clock -- time to go to bed, time to get up, labor contractions, time to take medicine.
What is it about time and keeping track of it that fascinates us so?
We measure time, not just with clocks but with calendars. By the calendar, today is the second day of a new year, a new year still shiny with possibility. Our fascination with time extends itself to a great interest in first things: a first tooth, a first date, a first house; we remember those events as milestones in our lives.
In the Old Testament we read, “In the beginning, God . . . “
The story starts by setting the time, noting that it is “the beginning,” and then introducing us to the main character.
In the beginning, God . . .
For each of us, there is a point of beginning with God, a first time when we become aware of His work in our life. There is a time when we turn toward Him, or when we turn away from Him.
This New Year, which will it be for you?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Resolutions, and Three Opportunities

It's a new year -- whatever shall we do with it?
Traditionally this is a day to resolve to do better -- to exercise more and eat less, to learn something new, to treat someone more kindly.
This year I'm trying something different.
I want to identify new opportunities, and make the most of them.
This year I have the opportunity to love more. I want to grow in my willingness to love others -- my family, my friends, but also those who are harder to love: people who disagree with me. People who don't act the way I want them to, or the way I think they should. People who do things I don't like.
This year I have the opportunity to learn new things. I want to practice old skills and learn new ones, and then I want to put those things I've learned to good use.
This year I have the opportunity to be present for the good stuff: I want to keep my eyes and ears and mind and heart open to whatever is lovely and pure and true and honorable. I want to be there when good things happen; I want to look for God in the bad things that happen.
This year, I don't want to waste all the opportunities I have to live, and to live well.
Join me?