Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Goodbye to Chewelah UCC

This was what I wrote as a farewell hymn to Chewelah UCC where I served as Interim Pastor:

When I begin a story to tell of a kind place, a place where a heart can heal and open and dance, a place where you learn more than just your neighbor’s name or their political party to hold against them in secret conversation, a place where guards are let down and talk is easy, ideas are welcomed,
I shall write of you.

When I dig deep into relationships, friend being friend to the unlikeliest of intimates, caring about them, interested in them, desiring of their delight and well-being, grieving their failures, and gathering around them in their loneliness; when I watch the lives unfold on pages before me, the daily grind of work and play made so sweet by the tender ways of those who charm us, who move us, who inspire us, I shall write of you.

When I tell of the perfect day, of a sun that doesn’t scorch, snow that glistens, a valley of silk grass and golden grain, of mountains stretched up and across the horizon, a winding and clear and stony creek, a long and narrow river moving and moving to faraway oceans, the squeals of children jumping in, floating downstream; when I tell of brown paper bags of ripe cherries, donut peaches, and tall cups of hot coffee, the sharp whistle of the train slowing down to glide through a sleepy town, that perfect day we long for, I shall write of you.

And when I dare venture to speak of church, the true church, the beloved community, the gathering of those who know they come only by grace and who widen their hearts, make room on their pews to others who come by the same way, the family of the humble and the humbled, the lovely and the unloved, the broken and the healed, the wee ones who dance to hymns, their little knees bending and lifting and the old ones who sing new songs with vigor, those who weep recalling what has been lost and those who pray in hopes for that which will be found, when I tell that story, the one of faith-seekers, pilgrims pulling together, holding together, moving together, the story of us at our best and even our worst, but still a story of us stumbling forward together in grateful anticipation, in joyful unity, in peace, in God’s perfect immeasurable love, always and forever,
I shall write of you.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Life of Faith

Over and over we hear that living a life of faith is hard work. We’ve all heard the sermons that remind us that living in faith requires service, commitment, and sacrifice. We all know that living in faith requires the resolve to take the high road even when it may be easier and more popular to be petty or dishonest or reactionary. Faithful living requires discipline and devotion. We know that there is suffering involved, hard choices to make and that it is often tempting to abandon living and working in faith because sometimes it just feels too hard, too complicated, too costly.

We’re all heard that sentiment and I would agree that it is a truthful way of looking at living in faith. It does require a true commitment, discipline, and hard work. However, I also understand that living a life of faith is living a life that promises great happiness. It is my understanding that the life of faith is meant to be a life of peace and joy, real joy. It is joy that cannot come from possessions or fame or fortune. It is a joy that doesn’t even come from our relationships and certainly not our circumstances. Rather, the joy that comes in living a life of faith is a joy that comes from knowing there is meaning and purpose in life, joy that celebrates being free of worldly distractions and the “happiness traps” we can so easily fall into. It is a joy that comes from a peace in knowing that “all things shall be well,” and everything is as it needs to be. The life of faith is discussed as laying down one’s life for one’s friends, the ultimate sacrifice, but it is also discussed as a great wedding banquet, a great celebration of love.

I don’t always feel happy. I often find myself struggling to see the good in things, the hope for the future, the meaning in my work. But there have been times when I have known the sweetest moments of life. There have been times, perfect and lovely times, when I knew I was in the absolute center of true joy. I have experienced grace and love at such depths that I know I would choose this life of faith over and over and over again every time. There are days when I sense such a rightness with things, such love in a gathering of other faithful folks, such clear and perfect hope that it seems as if I have crossed over to the next world; and on those days I think I couldn’t handle any more goodness.

I read a story once about a young boy who loved the television shows, Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo. These two men were his heroes. One day he learned that Mister Rogers would be visiting the Captain Kangaroo show and the boy was too excited to stand the wait. Every day he would ask his mother how long before the show was to air, watching as she marked off the days on the calendar. Finally, the great event was to happen. The boy and his entire family gathered around the television and there it was, Mister Roger walked on the stage and joined Captain Kangaroo. The boy sat for a few minutes and then in a moment of great surprise to his parents, got up, and walked out of the room. His father followed him out into the hallway. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “I thought this was what you’ve been waiting for.” The boy shook his head. “It’s too good,” he replied softly, “it’s just too good.”

A life in faith is a life of hard work and sacrifice and dedication. It requires discipline and commitment. And yet, a life of faith is also a life when you find yourself knowing such joy, such contentment, you shake your head and may even have to leave the room because you can’t believe you could feel this happy. Like a boy seeing his heroes, you hear yourself saying, “this life, this wondrous and lovely life, it’s just too good.” And that’s living in faith.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Saturdays as Sabbath

I used to hate Saturdays. The day before Sunday, a pastor’s busiest and often most stressful day, it quickly became for me the day of dread, the day of hard mental and spiritual labor preparing for what was to come. Those difficult days have consisted of every emotional outburst from tears to anger. There have even been a few panic attacks. I anguished that I was not ready or worthy to preach or lead worship on Sunday mornings and I would weep and stress or just feel awful for the entire day. Throughout my eleven years of parish ministry I discovered Saturdays have exhausted me.

I finally decided I was either going to have to change how I spent my Saturdays or I was going to die from a heart attack with all the emotional upheaval. So, I prayed and I made changes. I became intentional with what I would do during that day before Sunday. I began to make sure that there were certain events built into every Saturday, events that raised my spirits, encouraged me, rested me, energized me. Now, as a parish minister still doing the same work on Sundays I have done for years, Saturdays have become my one day of the week that has been set aside as the designated “day of goodness.”

There is to be yoga or stretching of my body, breathing exercises, and some part of an hour spent outside. Some days I take a long walk. Other Saturdays I just sit in the back yard. Some days I ride my bike. I only allow myself to take in good things, both in my body and in my mind. This generally means no television, no trashy magazines or negative websites, and no junk food. I drink water and juice (a switch from my Monday through Friday usual diet sodas); I eat fruit and fresh vegetables; I talk to friends who have a positive effect on me and try to stay away from those who bring me down. I read passages that inspire me. I make sure the pace of the day is slow and easy. I allow for enough time to practice my sermon and go over the other events of worship so I don’t feel anxious or unprepared. I listen to or create my own music. I dance. I make sure that my Saturdays are restful and healthy and include taking notice of beauty.

After a year of my designated “Good Saturdays”, I am happy to report that this once-dreaded day has now become my favorite day of the week. I look forward to what has become a day of Sabbath instead a day of stress. I enjoy my easy Saturdays so much, the content, the activities, the beauty, that my Sundays are much lighter and more worshipful. I have even decided that I love my Saturdays so much that I choose to spend all my days in goodness. And with that decision, I have become intentional about filling all my days with good things, healthy things, beautiful things. And the result is that I feel better. I feel happier and more at peace and more balanced. And I now feel this way all week long. My cursed day has become my blessed day, my teaching day, and has led me to change everything about how I live my life.

“You must hate your job,” a person recently said when they found out I was a minister, “because you have to work every weekend.” I smiled, remembering how I used to think that way, how those two days were such a burden. “It’s not so bad,” I reply. “In fact, it’s not bad at all. My weekend work is actually the best work I do.”

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

An Unfulfilled Garden

Last year we had a garden growing in Albuquerque. Facing a number of difficulties in previous years when we lived about an hour north of there, I wasn’t expecting too much. After all, desert life isn’t known for its flourishing vegetable gardens. Last summer however, we lived in a section of the town known as the “North Valley,” an agricultural area situated near the Rio Grande. There are many horse farms, several fields of hay and lavender, a couple of wineries, and that summer, a garden growing in my back yard that far exceeded my expectations. There were tomato plants taller than I am and the leaves on the zucchini plants were as big as the tobacco leaves I remember from my grandfather’s farm in eastern North Carolina. Neither my husband nor I added any fertilizer. We didn’t do anything special other than turn the soil and build a little rabbit fence around the plants. We watered daily, pulled weeds as needed, but the plants went crazy and overran the plot, stretching across the fences. It should come as no surprise therefore, that every day in the month of August last summer I walked around our little garden expecting to find an amazing harvest. And here’s the thing, there never was much of one.

Those tall and full tomato plants only had a few tomatoes growing. Those oversized zucchini leaves with lots of blooms and thick stems actually bore only a few zucchini. And once I had gotten beyond my frustration and disappointment, I found myself saying something the folks in my profession like to say a lot. “That’ll preach.”

A church I heard about once wanted to raise three million dollars for a renovation project. They paid an architect to design their dream building which included an open and appealing narthex where visitors and members could relax and mingle before going into the newly furnished and technologically enhanced sanctuary. There would be new education facilities, a tiered music room, a larger and updated kitchen, roomy offices, and all kinds of architectural extras and landscaping possibilities to create a beautiful and modern church building and campus.

The only thing is that there is no way this church could raise three million dollars since a few years ago there was a split and half of the congregation left and they have never completely rebounded from the loss. Within the congregation there remain lots of unresolved issues, a good deal of tension, not a lot of support for the pastor, and no real mission outside of themselves. Still, several members think a newly renovated building, a good sound and light system, a big kitchen, and new furniture is the answer.

I don’t fault the church for wanting the change. At least members recognize there are problems to address. At least they are paying attention and making some attempt to improve their situation. At least they haven’t lost hope. And yet, I have to wonder, if they do manage to raise the money and build the “dream church” they are hoping for, will it ever really amount to anything? Will there ever be much of a “harvest” or any growth in the community to show or share if they fail to work on their deeper issues of identity and mission? Can they bear fruit if they aren’t healthy?

And yet, what do I know? Even after I had no harvest, I continued taking pictures of my beautiful tomato plants and sending them home to my family of farmers and gardeners in southeastern North Carolina. “Can you believe how big they’ve grown?” I wrote, always in hopes that no one wrote back asking to see a picture of an actual tomato.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The True Self

Recently, on a television talent show a young magician auditioned for a spot in the finals. He was nineteen, performed a very bizarre magic trick, and was favored by the crowd and selected to continue in the competition. After his performance, one of the judges asked him a couple of questions about his history and interest in magic and finally asked him who he aspired to be. The young man grinned and replied without hesitation, “me.”

I like the answer. It puts me in mind of the Jewish proverb that reads, “The Hasidic rabbi Zusia said, ‘When I shall face the celestial tribune, I shall not be asked why I was not Abraham, Jacob, or Moses. I shall be asked why I was not Zusia.’”

It seems that many of us spend a life time trying to be somebody we’re not. Especially for those of us who are second or third in the birth order, the comparisons with older siblings who may be talented or bright or popular may have set us up early with thoughts that we need to be more like somebody else. We learn somehow that who we are is not good enough, not interesting enough, and the only way we can succeed in school, in relationships, in life is to try and emulate someone we know who is or was successful. It is, of course, not a terrible thing to follow examples of those who model important qualities like kindness and loyalty, patience and civility. We could do with a few more dignified and respectful leaders. But in the end, we are who we are. And instead of trying to be somebody else, instead of trying to be who we think everybody wants us to be, wouldn’t it be more satisfying to know ourselves well and try to be the best at who we are?

All my life I have thought I was an extrovert because that’s the role I took on as a child. I knew it wasn’t completely comfortable for me to be in large gatherings or in front of others but I continued to be the extrovert because I thought that’s what I should do, what was expected of me, what was most rewarded and honored. It was only when I became middle-aged and began to really know myself, my tendencies, my passions, my weaknesses, that I figured out I didn’t really like being out front. I don’t like large groups. I’m actually an introvert who has learned how to be an extrovert. And now that I know who I really am, I can still use my extroverted skills; I can lead when I need to lead, speak in public when I need to speak in public, but I no longer need to try and be that great extrovert when that’s not really who I am. Knowing this and honoring this has become a source of great relief in living my life.

It is not easy to face our true selves. Sometimes we wish to be different, wish to have other talents or gifts than the ones we have. Sometimes we hide behind pretenses for a long time. And yet, peace comes when we know and honor ourselves. Even as we seek to improve our human nature, seek to be kind or patient or loving even though that may not feel natural, let us not be unhappy with ourselves; let us celebrate our uniqueness of our creation. There is delight in being true to who we really are. That is, after all, where the real magic lies.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Prayer for Graduates

“Though I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels and have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but have not love, I am nothing. And if I give away all that I have and even turn over my body so that I may boast, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

God of love, we thank you for these, your beloved. We thank you for their accomplishment of graduation, their achievement of finding their way to this milestone. We thank you, God, for all those who helped them make it this far. For mothers and fathers, for grandmothers and grandfathers, for teachers and coaches and counselors, for friends and parents of friends. We thank you that somewhere along the way, they have known love, been touched by love, and continue on the lifelong journey of learning how to love.

We ask for you to encamp your angels around your beloved. Protect them from evil. Keep them wise in their decision-making. Teach them to be kind to themselves and to others. Be near to them when they call.

As they say goodbye to what they have known for so long and move into new places or at least new circumstances, help them to care about the world and its creatures. Create within them the desire to care for the stranger across the street and the stranger across the border. Remind them to care for their family especially the old ones who will desire their tenderness and the very young ones who will need their friendship. Teach them to care about the things that matter and teach them NOT to care about those things of little consequence.

Give them courage to speak out against injustice, strength to make it through difficulties, wisdom to know what is required by and needed of them, and joy that sustains them through sorrow. But mostly, O God, keep them in love. Keep them in love with you and the world. Keep them in love with truth and seeking righteousness. Keep them in love with the earth and sky with their rainbows and full moons, flowering trees and running streams. Keep them in love with birds of the air and animals that creep and crawl upon our sacred lands and swim in our beloved waters. Keep them in love with the laughter of children and dancing and holding hands.

Open their hearts wider and deeper so that this will be the generation that teaches the rest of us what it means truly to love.

In the name of love, we pray, Amen.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Wishing for World Peace

There’s a wish list on the refrigerator at the church where I serve. People working in the kitchen write down the items that run out and that are needed for fellowship hour and potlucks. This list is written on a narrow pad of white paper and as the top page fills up, items get marked off, the page is torn away, and another one takes its place. No one told me about the list. No one has explained who takes care of handling the requests. I’m not sure exactly who is in charge of supplying the items; I just know that for my past seven months of service here what is asked for is received, what is empty gets filled, and what is missing is replaced.

One day, I walked into the kitchen and noticed a new item had been added to the list. Just beneath the requests for measuring cups, sugar, and a white tablecloth, someone had written, World Peace. I suppose it was just a joke. I must say it brought a smile to my face. How amusing that someone wants world peace AND a tablecloth. And yet, after thinking about it, maybe it wasn’t meant to be funny at all. Maybe someone had noticed that when trash bags and plastic spoons are listed on these pieces of paper attached to the refrigerator, the items suddenly appear and maybe that someone decided that if crackers and salt, tea and creamer can magically happen, peace can too.

Finding peace, creating peace, is of course, nothing like shopping for kitchen items. You don’t just order up peace for the universe in the same way we pick up grape juice and cookies. But as I’ve considered the listed item and decided it was probably a joke, it concerns me that people of faith don’t even hope for it any more. Maybe we have decided it is no longer a prayer worth praying. With our own young men and women fighting on two battlefields for over a decade, stories of civil strife and tensions rising across borders, with the history of the world numbered by wars, maybe we’ve decided it isn’t even worth our wishes, even isn’t worth a petition for grace.

“It’s just human nature,” I’ve heard folks say. “As long as there are people and greed, people and religious differences, there will be battles fought.” Maybe. But maybe not. At the very least it seems to me we ought to keep asking for peace. We ought to keep working for justice, finding solutions to poverty and hunger to help ease the tensions, create new ways to deal with the strife. It seems to me at least that people of faith should once again imagine that love is stronger than hatred and peace can overcome chaos. People of faith should at least pray for world peace.
But maybe that’s just a naive and silly request. Perhaps I should imagine only teaspoons and paper napkins, communion cups and Kool-aid will appear at church and in the world. Maybe we should keep our expectations low and our lists manageable. After all, when it comes to kitchen supplies, there is somebody making that happen. Somebody can handle those needs.

Still, I walk in the church kitchen, take a look at the refrigerator and notice the one item not marked off the list and I say a pastor can dream and there’s no danger in asking. There’s nothing wrong with claiming what we need and requesting a little help. Sugar and world peace, I’d say we could use a little of both.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Seeds We Plant

The Seeds We Plant

We moved into the church parsonage here in eastern Washington late October of last year. It’s about fifty years old but an adequate house situated only about three blocks from the church where I am serving as interim pastor. The front and back yards are small, with landscaped flower beds wrapping around the house and garage. No one told us what was planted in the beds. No one told us what to expect once winter ended. In the last few weeks at least a hundred bulbs have broken through the thawed ground and although there has been no bloom, I am confident that soon this house we call home for a few more months will be surrounded by color, bathed in the hues of spring. We live in a beauty imagined and created by the hearts and hands of others.
In this season of birth and new growth and in a place gardened by others, I am reminded of the power of planting seeds. I am reminded of the hope that emerges in the hearts of planters, how diligently farmers and gardeners rake and plow and dig and make way for life. Every year lovers of the earth go to nurseries and stores, purchase the seeds or bulbs that offer possibilities, and in faith, with care and hope, drop them into the earth in joyful anticipation. Most plant gardens for themselves but some folks, like the anonymous members of this church, hearty ones who love to landscape and care for church properties, plant their bulbs and seeds for others.
It is the same in spiritual gardens. We plant seeds of kindness, faith, hope, joy, love, peace, and patience in our own hearts, hoping to enjoy the bounty of our work and desire. We plant seeds within our souls, toiling with tools to grow spiritual gifts that we look forward to see come to fruition. We pray and study and meditate and practice for us to become patient, to become kind, to become people of peace and love. It is the harvest of our work for our own souls. But we also plant seeds in the hearts of others, in temporary places, in organizations, places of worship, in souls of those who may or may not ever know our names. We plant seeds without having to reap the bounty. We plant seeds without needing to watch the garden grow. We plant seeds letting the hope of what might come, the power of what may spring forth, the joy we expect for someone else, to be reason enough to keep planting.
I’m sure I could ask the church membership who planted these bulbs that grow in perfectly-spaced rows, filling the beds in the front and back yards of the parsonage and someone would give me names; but likely, I will not. Instead as they pop and bloom I will think of the people in my life who planted seeds within my soul and never saw what grew. I will think of grandmothers and teachers, the parents of my adolescent friends, the authors of books that shaped me, the countless words of wisdom from others that fell like seeds in my soul and have finally begun to bloom. I will think of planting my own seeds, being kind to strangers, writing words of hope, working for justice and peace, and learn how to be content with just the planting. It takes faith to grow a garden you don’t get to harvest. It takes faith to plant a seed. I know because I live this season in the center of someone else’s hopes for spring.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Finding What Was Lost

It is Easter and I have been thinking about resurrection and finding life where there has been death. I have been thinking about heaven and what it might be like when we pass from this world to the next.

I remember reading once that heaven was the place where things that are lost would be found. I like that thought because throughout my life I have lost a lot of things. Some of those things were able to be replaced, keys and books, for instance, articles of clothing, pieces of jewelry, poems or photographs. Others were not. I may have bought something new to take the place of the thing that is missing, but somehow it never fully satisfied me in the way the first thing, the lost thing, had done. Other things could never be replaced. Friends, for example, people I cared about who wandered in and then one day out of my life, leaving without a forwarding address. Moments of unfettered grace in which I can’t exactly call up the circumstances any more but I still know they happened. My innocence that fell away in pieces and my naïveté about the intentions and motivations of some people that seemed to have been lost in one fell swoop. I have lost, and regret having done so, the way loved ones, dead now, looked when they were content and what it was that used to make me laugh so hard that my face hurt.

I lost my fearlessness when I fell off the back of a motorcycle and I lost my need to be the best or win first place when I discovered that not everything in life is about winning. I lost the knowledge and anticipation that my plans will turn out as I expect and the notion that bad things won’t happen to good people. Not all of the things I lost, therefore, are missed or necessary or important. But sometimes I would just like to see them again just to remember what it was that I used to think was so wonderful about them. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that chance, of course because even though I believe in heaven, I don’t really know what it will be like. And if I’m honest, even in this season of Easter, I don’t know if Jesus physically rose from the dead either. I guess somewhere along the way I lost the need for that kind of certainty too. If pushed I would say I like the thought of heaven as a grand place of love and sweet reunions and I like the thought of Jesus, up from the grave, skipping down the street holding hands with a friend who didn’t go anywhere and laughing about what he had missed in the three days he was gone.

Truthfully, part of the reason I’m a pastor, a bearer of good news, is because I’d like to be the one to tell him, “don’t worry, one day soon, you’ll get it all back.”

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Calm Waters

One of the rules for whitewater rafting reads, “Rest when you get to a calm place because there is going to be more whitewater.” I have found this rule to be relevant not just for rafting but also in life. I have not, however, always paid attention to this bit of wisdom. In my younger days, I misused the calm places by worrying about what I assumed was likely downstream. I spent my calm and uneventful days waiting for the other shoe to drop, anxious about what failure or trouble was around the bend. I never fully enjoyed the calm places because I could only think about the next spot of whirling waters and how easily it would be to drown.

The older I get, however, the easier I have found resting to be. Maybe it’s just because I’m old and I find I have less energy for being anxious about tomorrow or about what may or may not be coming my way. Sometimes yesterday’s paddling wears me out so much, I need today just to recuperate. Maybe I am just old and tired but at least I finally know how to enjoy a good rest when I’m given one.

The truth is, I have never really loved the whitewaters of life. Even though I know there are times when I have made my own turbulence, created my own undertows and dangerous currents, I have always preferred an easier ride downstream. I’m not one of those people who always seem to swim against the tide or who doesn’t feel alive unless they’re paddling against crashing waves and dodging rocks or maneuvering long drops. I know folks like that but their lifestyle and their dramas always make me weary.

Yet and still, there’s no way to avoid the swirling torrents. Life is after all, full of whitewater. There is always a crisis we had not expected, trouble we hadn’t planned for, waves of grief and disappointment that seem to emerge from nowhere. Whitewater is ahead but that doesn’t mean we need to be afraid or worried, although, it certainly helps if we are prepared. Wearing a life vest is wise. Having faith can keep a person from becoming lost to the trouble. Learning a few skills, correct paddling, how to hold and set the oars, can keep the raft from flipping. Understanding how to navigate trouble, knowing healthy responses, where to go for help, will keep you afloat. And how we look at whitewater can make a difference too. Trouble can actually be a time of great learning, an opportunity to grow. Whitewater can make us strong.

I’m able to rest in calm waters because I don’t fight what I know is coming anymore. I accept the whitewater and am confident that what I have on the raft, what I have learned over the years, all my resources and experience is enough, and the fact that I trust the direction of the river, keeps me from too much anxiety. The calm places are a blessing, a gift, and I am glad that I know how to rest in them. It has taken a long time but at least I finally recognize a good thing when I see it. I lay back, let the current carry me, close my eyes and let the sun warm me, and I don’t worry too much. Whitewater is coming but for the first time in my life I trust that I’ll be ready.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Finding the Sign We Need

There is a hand-painted sign in the desert where my dog and I walk every day. It’s large, a 4 x 4 weathered piece of plywood and the letters, about six inches high, are block shaped, cobalt blue, and easily noticed in the dull brown landscape of New Mexico.

“Please don’t give up on me,” it reads and it is propped against a small Russian olive tree, the only tree in the small walking area off Tramway Road. The patch of land is owned by the city and is protected by the Flood Authority Office of Albuquerque. It’s situated between a housing division and an apartment complex and there are trails and loops used by joggers, dogs and walkers, mountain bikers, and horses with their riders. It is a wonderful place to be outside and enjoy the high desert atmosphere.

I saw the sign for the first time about a month ago. I don’t know who made it or who placed it near the tree along one of the trails. Perhaps it is the same person who put stones around the trunk of the Russian olive or the same one who strategically places large boulders along the path to discourage drivers from operating their motor vehicles across the desert. I suppose the sign refers to the tree, a message to anyone who would run over it or destroy it in some way. Seeing something, especially a tree, survive in the desert can make the most cynical of people become a little sentimental.

I have also considered that the sign hasn’t anything at all to do with the tree but is instead a re quest about a relationship, a plea begging a lover not to leave. I think of some young man, desperate not to lose his sweetheart, making a sign, leaning it against a tree on a trail where he knows she’s bound to walk. It is a message from his heart asking her for one more chance at love.
I don’t know what the sign means, who is asking for what. I only know that it touches me, reminds me of the frailty of love, the unpredictability of relationships, and the delicate balance we always seek of knowing when to hold on and when to let go, when to fight and when to quit, when to say, “I’ve done all I can do,” and when to say, “I will not give up.” I imagine learning that balance takes more than a lifetime and probably more than a few signs to guide us.
Yesterday, I stopped by the tree on my early morning walk. I studied the sign and then poured the water from my bottle all along the narrow, spindly trunk. Carmella, my dog, sat, respectfully observing my small blessing. She sniffed the air, her long golden snout lifted slightly, and turned again to me. I nodded and she stood and we finished our walk and went home.

I’m not sure of the significance of my gift. I’m not sure that it benefits the tree or that it addresses the concern posted on the piece of plywood. It just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Water in the desert, after all, is always a blessing and maybe that’s all the maker of the placard wanted. Somebody, somewhere, honoring their plea, somebody not giving up. I suppose, when it comes right down to it, that’s really the sign most of us are longing to find.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A New Beginning

Texan journalist Browning Ware tells the story of a school boy who was having an awful time with his classroom assignment. Each time he went to the teacher to ask for help he had to mark through his work and begin again. By the time he had finally finished with the assignment, his paper was a mess. Filled with answers scratched through, notes written on the margins, small holes where he had erased too many times, he was ashamed of the work he had to turn in. The teacher, noticing his embarrassment and his untidy assignment, called him to her desk. As he stood before her, his work held in his hands behind his back, she reached in the drawer beside her. “Here,” she whispered and handed him a sheet of paper from her own pack. “Why don’t you use a clean piece of paper? Why don’t you start over?”
I love January because it is the month when we get a clean piece of paper. It’s the month when we get to begin again, get our do-over. It is the first month, the beginning of another year. Having noted that, however, we must understand of course, that there’s not anything wrong with having a messy paper or a messy life. Messiness is, after all, a sign of humanity and honesty; it’s what life is really all about. But I just think when we get a clean piece of paper, have a new beginning, especially when we have an answer, it’s nice to feel that feeling of being able to start over, try once more, leave behind our mistakes and wrongdoings from the past and begin again.
I am rarely able to keep my resolutions, which is probably why I have the same ones every year. I resolve to drink more water and not talk as much but I always seem to manage the same results. By March I’m back to the diet sodas and unceasing chatter. I also resolve every year to be more patient and a better friend. Unfortunately, just like the lack of water and silence, I fail miserably every time I make the effort. But I love the knowledge that I get another chance to try again, try and do better, try to be better. And even though my growth may appear minimal, I do think I manage at least one more right answer a year. And somehow, the starting over helps. Even if I begin the new year knowing that I’ll mess up this page too, that my mistakes will likely outnumber the right answers, I still like the sense of being able to have a fresh start.
The school boy in Ware’s story took a long time, making a lot of mistakes, filling up an entire page with his errors before he finally got to the answer; but he got there. And when he had his right answer, he got to begin again. My life is filled with stumbles and falls and long periods of heading in the wrong direction; but once a year I get a new piece of paper. I get to begin again. And even as the year ends and my paper is filled with mistakes and holes, I look to January, an answer in hand and a fresh start, and I think, maybe this year I’ll get it just right.