Monthly Archives: March 2012

Hitting the Wall

Okay, I’ve been hearing lately about this ‘wall’* that can occur on one’s spiritual journey.  A time when what we thought we knew about life doesn’t make much sense any more.  A time when we can’t keep moving forward as we are.  I have been brushing this off knowing that I must have hit it some time ago when I was changing careers.  Or, maybe I just didn’t notice it.  Characters in novels may need to hit these proverbial walls – Jane Eyre learning about Rochester’s wife, Bertha, or Jo March living through the death of her sister Beth – but I didn’t.

Then I went back to work, to start another quarter of campus ministry – and this was the last thing I wanted to do.  My inner being was rebelling against this journey.  I felt a failure.  I felt I’ve been on the wrong path, losing myself in a morass of administrative tasks.  I’m just scooting by in connecting with God and others.  I’m not really excited about anything in my life, not reaching out in new areas, complaining, wanting someone to come in and fix it.  You get the picture.  I felt that I was physically bumping up against a wall.  It was all I could do to take a few steps to the car, drive to my office, and prepare for the evening.  Something was pushing against my chest.  I wanted to cry out – this is not me.  I felt caged.  My service is not authentic and is too much founded on my limited means.

Looks like that wall is before me, no matter how much I want to deny it.  It would be so easy to start hiding behind a stack of work once again.  Sending emails to students, writing up task lists, shopping for food.  But I don’t want to go there this time.  I want to keep hitting the wall.  Crying out in prayer, even if it feels empty, and forcing myself to address the trouble in my soul.  This is definitely not a comfortable part of my life story.  I don’t know how long this wall will be before me or how it will break me.  But beyond all reason, I trust that what comes out on the other side will be a story I could have never imagined on my own.  There’s another Author in charge.

(I most recently encountered this idea while reading the book The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich.)

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This Isn’t the Story I Signed Up For

Over the past decade I was supposed to be setting up a new life – landing an academic job after finishing a Ph.D., moving to a new apartment or condo, enlarging my network of friends, and trying new endeavors – all encouraged by my greatest supporters, my parents.  I could step out knowing they would always be there to keep pushing me or to hold me when needed.  I could picture – and almost touch and taste this life.

However, instead of striking out into new lands, over the past seven years I have been sitting in hospital waiting rooms four times waiting to hear the outcomes of major surgeries, hearing the diagnosis of cancer for both parents, and watching my father die.  I would be no where else but with my mom and dad through their unexpected health struggles.  However, this is not the story I had imagined.

Listening to friends and students, I know I am not alone in feeling that something majorly wrong happened to my story.  Whether our plans are to get a specific job, marry that one person, or move to a dreamed of location – these certainties often disappear and we’re left with questions.  What do we do now?  How do we change our narrative – especially when our identity has been so caught up in our prior plans?

Holding onto these imagined stories, no matter how good, often inhibits the possibility of fully living into the story before us.  As with most people, the stories I’ve created about my future have been exciting and good.  They have led me to where I am now, even if the final images don’t match.  But they have also encouraged me to ignore or just try to get through the scenes that I don’t like.  If I can just get through this next surgery then my mom will be healthy and we can get on with life.  If I can just stand and smile for thirty minutes at a social event, I’ll be able to leave and get to the activity I really want to do.  Any possibility of interacting with people during these other times is ignored so that I can keep on track with the narrative I’m writing.

Looking back at these missed opportunities, I’m beginning to more fully accept that I should look at my story as more than a narrow path along a plot line.  It takes place in the interaction of the characters in their surroundings.  It’s a movement, not a well wrought narrative with a tidy ending.  What if the story ahead doesn’t have the trappings of that happy ending, but a relationship with the one who is good – God – and with other people along the life journey?  What if I live into the story before me instead of constantly rewriting a safe one?  Now that would be a story to sign up for.

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Entering Laura’s Story

The Trail

After walking through Laura Ingall’s house, Rocky Ridge Farm, I sat for awhile on a bench just outside, taking in the house and the lives lived there.  Trees still towered over the roof, providing shade and the peaceful rustle of leaves.  The building itself was rather non-descript, except for its occupants.  Here Wilder had  created a home of her own, a three dimensional story that people can still explore and that is linked to her creation of the Little House books.  Her life was one of intentionally living in the places around her – giving her plenty of material with which to later build these still popular books.

When I got up, I went to the bookstore to buy some of the creations that came from this place.  These were some of the first chapter books I remember reading and I always enjoyed picturing myself in the adventures in which Laura and the others found themselves. I walked through the store at least four times pondering what books to buy for myself – focusing on those about travel and place – and what to buy for my nieces and nephew.  I wanted to purchase books that would draw them into these stories so they might catch a flicker of interest in writing, reading, and journeys.  Maybe some day they will find themselves outside of the house of an author, musician, or scientist who inspired them.

Along the Trail

I was ready to leave after taking a quick tour through the Rock House, a house Laura and Almanzo’s daughter, Rose, had built for them on an a distant part of the property.  Then I noticed the trail.  There is a walking path – just over a mile – between the two homes, but it had been closed due to excessive rain over the past weeks.  I had been disappointed that I could not walk the path when the guide at Rocky Ridge had said it was closed.   However, this part of the trail didn’t look too bad and I did not see a sign saying stay out, so I started walking – and kept going through woods and meadows.  I took time to look at wildflowers, watch butterflies flit from plant to plant, and feel the cool of the shade in the woods.  It was a quiet walk.  No one else was around.  I felt a little rebellious venturing into a closed area.  Further and further I ventured, breathing deeply and wondering what was over the next hill.

How fun to just play and have a mini adventure.  I was letting my bonnet carelessly hang down my back as Laura was wont to do in so many of the stories.  Not a bad practice.

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Finding a Little House

Leaving behind the river town of Hannibal on my mini-pilgrimage last summer, I spent an afternoon driving to Mansfield, Missouri to see Rocky Ridge – Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home during her writing life.  On the edge of the town’s square – complete with bandstand and memorials – I stayed at the Weaver Inn Bed and Breakfast.  Here was a sanctuary where I could revitalize before going to the next pilgrimage site.  After eating an authentic Mexican dinner at a small place next door, I took a reconnaissance drive to Rocky Ridge and then returned to take a much needed rest.

Rocky Ridge

The next morning, after a filling breakfast, I was off.  Similar to my time at Mark Twain’s sites, I toured the museum and the house.  However, these places were a little more rustic and not as sleek. The glass display cases contained items from Laura and her family – quilts, photographs, and tableware – labeled with hand-typed cards.  I felt I was peering in into the attic treasures of this family.  At one point, a guide directed some of the other guests to look at Pa’s fiddle, one of the more popular items in the museum.  Pa’s fiddle?  Ah, yes, that emblematic item of the Little House on the Prairie stories and television shows.  What I remember most about Pa’s fiddle are the sarcastic comments my father would make related to the television show and how Pa always managed to save the day.  Somehow I had walked right by it this relic.  Yes, relics.  In many ways this site had the feel of a reliquary, a place to honor the ‘bones’ of a saint, more than a mere museum that preserves the past.

This feeling continued as I entered the small, white house – a full immersion experience.  Unlike other historical houses I’ve visited, the guides did not provide caveats about this house being lived in by the writer, but the items only period pieces that they may have owned.  No, this was the house as Laura left it when she died.  She and her husband, Almanzo, had placed, if not created, everything, including the additions to the original small house.  Beds, books, pots, tables – everything was theirs.  They looked through these windows and decided on that wall paper.  I wanted to browse through the shelves of books that they purchased and read, but that was not part of the tour.

We left through the front door, crossing over a threshold that had seen much life.  Creation emanated from this little house in the forms of Laura’s books and Almanzo’s farming.  It was good to be in this place.

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Mississippi River

Lately I’ve been following Mark Twain down the river in the book Life on the Mississippi.  So far it’s not so much an adventure as a lesson in riverboat piloting, though Twain does introduce some great characters along the way.  I am struck by his comment that once a pilot learns every inch of the river – the placement of the bends, the height of the banks, the location of plantations – and how they will change as the course and flow of the river moves, he loses sight of the river’s glories: “All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river!” (95).  As a steamboat pilot in training, Twain’s place of dreams had become his office.  A note of sadness echoes through his words.

Even so, through his increased knowledge, Twain was able to relate his experience to his readers more fully and in a way that takes us with him on the journey, not merely paints a general image of the beauty he sees.  With this knowledge he tells of  “the alluvial banks [that] cave and change constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose sand-bars are never at rest” (97).    This path from pursuing a dream to learning the usefulness of the associated trade is a path many must take to grow.  Remaining at the awe-filled stage of wonder might provide an impetus to follow one’s dream. Who would ever become a doctor if the first thing they experienced was the grind of medical school?  However, some of that initial awe must be converted to actual work in the muck before any use can come of it.

Those initial images and passion may draw us to a new story, just as the river drew Twain.  And if we’re honest, the reality of what it takes to know that story more deeply does change our original understandings, often removing some of the sparkle as we see the under-workings.  But if we look well, we also see new riches.  I have often feared that if I know too much about a subject, it will lose its attraction.  This was the argument I had for not studying literature in college.  Professors would ruin the stories I loved and I wanted to hold onto the feelings of my first readings.  Yet, when I finally entered a literature class, theories of reading and interpretation did not destroy my interest, they provided a deeper understanding.  Furthermore, I gained a language to talk about what I was reading with others. Yes, some of the joy of just sitting down with a book without constantly thinking about it from a critical stance was gone.  But, I had gained a larger community.

So, in the spirit of Mark Twain, I would encourage you to go into piloting.  Learn the course of the river you are on and share it with others.

Twain, Mark.  Life on the Mississippi.  New York: Penguin Classics, 1986.

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A Day in Hannibal

Mark Twain's Childhood Home

Last summer I was antsy to undertake another pilgrimage.  I wanted to fly over to England again and relish the passion of the moors or maybe follow the steps of Martin Luther in Germany.  But that wasn’t to be.  Lack of time caught up with me.  But I did manage a quick three-day get away to Missouri where I ventured to the homes of two iconic American authors – Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

For the past years, much of my focus had been on planting myself at home and learning this thing called campus ministry.  Unfortunately, this has led me to forgo one of the practices that has given renewed energy to my life – pilgrimage.  I’m not sure why I do this – bare knuckle my way through an activity because I think I should, while ignoring other parts of life.  Maybe I fear that if I allow any type of enjoyment into my schedule, I’ll give up practical work for foolish ventures.  However, often these foolish ventures provide the impetus, and even wisdom, for the practical.

So back to my latest pilgrimage.  I left on a Thursday afternoon to reach Hannibal, Missouri, on the shores of the Mississippi River.  I’ve enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s works, but have never really studied him.  One day in Hannibal wasn’t going to change that, but I thought it would help me to get back on track with my story.  The evening was wonderful as I walked through this small town, gorged on Italian food, hiked up to the lighthouse, gazed at the flooding river, and listened to an outdoor concert.  This was definitely a small town kind of evening and I allowed myself to just enjoy it as I was drawn into the interplay of people and place.

The next morning I made my way over to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum.  When I stepped in, a rush of familiarity overcame me as I entered this literary site.  The museum was softly lit with well-produced displays covering the life of Mark Twain.  Immediately I started reading the words on the walls, looking at the copies of his books, and picturing the life that had made this writer.  I walked outside to the small Huckleberry Finn house and finally entered Mark Twain’s boyhood home.  The rooms had to be viewed from the distance of a plexi-glass divider, but I still got a sense of the life lived here.  Images of family life interspersed with lines from Twain’s works created a connection between the boy and the future writer.

Overlooking Hannibal

Of course the tour exited through the museum shop, and I loaded up on books to familiarize myself more with this writer – particularly his travel writings.  Striking out on adventures and telling childhood stories, even embellished ones, drove Twain’s life.  Did it make the stories he told a lie?  Not necessarily.  It helped direct and provide meaning to his life.  As a reader I was content to listen and be drawn into the adventures whether along the Mississippi (Huckleberry Finn) or in Egypt (The Innocents Abroad). These stories contain wonderful hijinx that show the characters relishing life.  I ended my time with lunch in a former bordello – still with a musty smell of a well-lived place – and a milkshake from Becky Thatcher’s Sweet Shoppe.

No literary breakthroughs here.  I can’t say I deeply connected with any of the stories.  Yet, I found myself moving toward pilgrimage again as I engaged with the stories of the place.  I even started to recall those my own from childhood.  Stories of enticing neighborhood kids to our porch with a set of building blocks, playing dolls with friends during summer breaks, and building forts with furniture and sheets on snow days.  It was a breath of fresh air that helped me break from the rut I had been creating.  Let’s play.

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Such a Time as This

And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?  (Esther 4:14b)

Esther was just a Jewish girl in exile who had been selected by King Xerxes as a favored member of his harem.  She fit in with the others and kept her religion to herself.  It was not in her nature to cause dissension or to bring unwanted attention to herself.  Maybe life in a harem was not what she would have chosen, but she fulfilled her duty there and eventually became queen.  She probably would have been comfortable playing the role of queen for the rest of her life.  It was definitely better than living in the pain of exile and on the margins of society.

However, it wasn’t long before she realized that she could not forsake her past.  A new edict stated that all Jews in Xerxes’ territory were to be killed.  She was safe for the moment because no one knew her ancestry.  But how long would that last?  Her Uncle Mordecai didn’t think it would be long.  Furthermore, because she had access to the King, she of all the Jews could do something about the death decree.  Ugh.  She was in a comfortable position, holding a revered role in a new story.  But really what appeared to have been a whole new story was just a part of that older story she thought she had left – God’s story of saving his people.  So, she returned to that story and risked her life.

Many things today can take us out of God’s story – that work of reconciling people to himself.  We get caught up in the rush to build our lives with a career, friends, and family.  It’s safe and we receive affirmation from society.  However, it can also numb us to the pain and brokenness of others.  That is until we stop and listen to the Mordecais in our lives.  Have we been placed in specific positions for such a time as this?  Are we in positions to play a small or large role in helping God redeem his creation?

Today is Purim, the Jewish holiday set aside to celebrate the story told in the book of Esther.  What better way to observe this time than to join in God’s continued saving ways in the lives of people around us.

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Taking Time to Pause

While listening to a sermon – and thinking about my plans for the afternoon, getting directions to the Art Museum off my iphone, and planning the days ahead – I heard the word statio.  My mind stopped racing for a moment to learn that statio is the spiritual practice of stopping between events to pause.  To be present.  As evidenced by my own poor attempts at multi-tasking, I could really use this practice.

As are many people, I’m often going from one activity to another in a rush.  While I hastily load my bag and run out the door, I hope the 15 minutes I allowed for a 20 minute commute will be enough.  There is no time to reflect and consider where I am going,  where I have been, or even where I am.  Somedays I get into bed unable to remember the previous 15 hours as one activity blurs into the next on these packed days.  My calendar is just too full to allow the extravagance of pausing, right?

Wrong.  My hurried transitions are probably not a symptom of too many important activities happening at once.  No. The activities are a symptom of a larger unease with myself.  As long as I’m active, or proving it by seeming busy, then I’m doing something of worth.  My life is okay.  But the worth is often a veneer if it’s primarily based on external activity.  I don’t take time to look around at the story I’m living now.  Who is the person with whom I’m going to have coffee and how is Christ appearing through her?  What is my response to the book I just finished?  What am I thinking?  Where am I now and what do I see, really see?

Even though I want to take time out, I often don’t get around to it.  I fear that taking even a small amount of time to look around may pull me away from the path I have carefully laid out or bring about uncomfortable vulnerability.  However, maybe the path needs to be changed.  Or, maybe I just need to be grateful and truly experience the beauty of the path.  The practice of pausing is a practice of place.  It roots one in the present moment.  Wouldn’t such a view of life be a relief?   In between events I can remember that I am human and God is God.

Statio.  It doesn’t sound like a lot.  It isn’t a week-long retreat, a day of sabbath, or even a morning quiet time.  As I now start rushing through Lent and the additional readings and activities only seen to add to the chaos of the day, maybe this is the one practice that can make a difference.  Just stop and pause for a minute.  Just be.

Be still, and know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!  Psalm 46:10

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Many Shelves

How many shelves do you have?  This is not a question heard at most dinner parties. But at a table of graduate students, it was not out of place in the least.  While many people may compare their fantasy sports teams, closet contents, or cars, grad students, especially in the humanities, see their books as a point of pride.  How they are organized, the number, the variety.  And many people don’t spend their evenings, especially their precious free evenings, looking at old books, but this group had gathered for just that reason.

After dinner, ten students made their way to Hebrew Union College’s Rare Book Room, just a short walk down the street from the campus ministry house where I work.  A student had planned the evening and it turned out to be one of the more popular activities of the quarter.  One of the first thing to catch everyone’s eyes when we walked into the Klau Library was the card catalog – yes, a real, live card catalog.  It wasn’t recommissioned for another purpose, but actually used to order and find books in the stacks.  Most of us don’t have this tactile experience of locating books anymore.

Savoring Books

Downstairs we entered the outer courtyard and showroom of the rare book sanctuary.  We waited outside until the director unlocked the main door.  Immediately everyone went to the glass cases along the walls.  Sixteenth century torah, calendars, a rabbinic Bible, miniature books.  Just a taste of the entire collection.  A history of scholarship.  Only a glass pane separated us from touching the books, the pages that others have turned so many years before.

After a few moments, the director rolled in a cart laden with manuscripts unprotected by glass.  An early Josephus printing, a book of martyrs in German, a 13th century partial pentateuch, a desk book bound with the pentateuch, comments, prayers, and other writings.  People stepped up to the table first to see and then carefully turn pages – some yellowed and singed, others covered with oils of the hands of people from centuries before.  The original readers were the ancestors of the community of scholars sitting in the room today.  During the next hour we talked about the progress of book publishing, the development of commentaries, the difference between holding a manuscript held by others and looking at a copy – just the words, not the very presence of the work.

Who knows where the books on our shelves will end up years from now?  Some in the trash, some in auctions or attics, but hopefully, some in the hands of future scholars wondering about this continuing conversation.

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