Experiencing Joy in Work

IMG_3482Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” – Nehemiah 8:10

“May you experience joy in your fundraising.”

This postcard arrived in my mailbox last week and now hangs on my refrigerator. It’s not the message I normally associated with fundraising. Anxiety? Fear? Stress? Yes. But joy? Not so much.

What about you? What would seem out of place for you on a similar card?

Raising a teenager?
Cooking dinner?
Commuting to work?
Finding a job?

There’s much in life that we don’t naturally see as joyful. But if we look at scripture, joy isn’t dependent on our circumstances. Joy is from God. It is being connected with hime It’s a product of his peace, his shalom.

As I prepare to serve full-time with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the fall, I’m entering a season of fundraising For years the mere thought of having to raise funds for a salary prevented me from taking this leap into campus ministry. But as ministry to graduate students and faculty has been growing in Greater Cincinnati, I know this is the next step.

My first response to this work of fundraising has been resistance. I see myself battling with my inner introvert, my fears of rejection, my grasping to material security. I come up with many excuses why I shouldn’t contact this or that person.

However, over the past weeks a new story is weaving through this work – the story of God’s gracious ministry to the campus and desire for peace. Seeing this story, I’m becoming more eager to invite others into the ministry and more open to seeing how God will work in each appointment. I don’t need to be concerned about getting a certain amount of financial support from a given individual, instead I can watch how God is working and be thankful. I can step out in his joy.

A simple call to a distant relative encouraged me more. I called with some trepidation thinking I would be asking too much. But not long into the conversation I heard support for the ministry, a willingness to share other contacts, and some wonderful stories about my father’s family. I also learned I had called on this cousin’s birthday. Without the fundraising work, I would not have called and would have missed building these family connections.

There can be joy where we least expect it.

Of course, this joy isn’t only about the events that turn out well. Whether I feel it or not, joy is also present when I receive a return postcard from a family friend to remove them from the mailing list – or when I have a list of 20 people to call with whom I haven’t spoken ever or in decades. Looking to God’s joy instead of my fear changes even these interactions – if I will only remember.

May you see joy – God’s joy – in your work today.

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Ruth: An Unexpected Story

96aaa4b2405372e8_640_fieldsThe journey through Ruth continues – check out the latest installment at the Emerging Scholars Blog – http://blog.emergingscholars.org/2015/03/ruth-an-unexpected-story/.

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Devotions on Ruth and More

b5e02f5625224d26_640_pathOver the coming weeks a series of devotions on Ruth that I wrote for the Emerging Scholars Network’s online devotion, Scholar’s Compass will be posted.  If you’re interested in seeing them, here’s the link to the first one Ruth: Stopped Along the Way.  While you’re there, check out the other devotions and resources.  Enjoy!

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First Bloom of Spring – and Beyond

IMG_3446Yesterday I saw the first bulb blooming in the front garden – an Early Snow Glory. It appears delicate, but it has fought through the cold and snow of the winter to get here. What a beautiful sight after the weeks of snow and cold of February and early March. Yes, spring is coming and with it the promise of possibilities.

These small blue flowers are also another reminder of my mother who planted the bulbs years ago and always looked forward to their appearing each year. A bittersweet remembrance of the seeds of love and faith that both my parents planted in their children and with everyone they met.

However, my parents aren’t the only ones who planted seeds in my life. Many people in the past and present, those I’ve known, but many I haven’t, who have planted seeds that continue to sprout. There’s a beautiful garden to view and tend if only I have eyes to do so.

But it’s not only about looking at the garden that has already been planted. Where am I sowing seed? On a literal level, I have a packet of Canterbury Bell seeds sitting in my in-box. When I think of having to plant them in small containers so they can sprout before they go into the ground I wonder if it’s worth the effort and laziness takes over. Then, what if the flowers become trampled or waterlogged? What if they don’t grow? So I’m afraid of putting anything in the ground. However, storing them is also a problem. Last year I threw away a box of flower bulbs that had started to mold and disintegrate when I did not plant them soon enough. So much potential, gone.

It takes faith to plant bulbs: faith that this effort will result in a flower months from now, faith that the earth and the rain will provide the conditions for growth. It’s similar with other seeds that we plant. When I personally think of sharing ideas, compliments, concern, even an invitation to dinner, I’m not sure what will happen. How will the other person react? However, if I never step out these potential interactions, seeds if you will, can decay. So I’m convinced that we need to let go and share our love for friends and family, ideas for changing our corner of the world, our skills for helping others. Though it may be a challenge for some of us, it is worth it to find the soil that will nourish these seeds and see what grows.

As I watch each bulb blossom this summer, I will continue to be reminded of my mother and all that she planted. But I will also be reminded to plant my own seeds. Some will be actual flower bulbs, but others will be through relationships, ministry, and writing.

After a winter of being inside, it is time to step out. What’s the worst that can happen when we plant these seeds in the world? I predict that a garden of riotous color will emerge.  Let’s get planting.

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A Kitchen of Feasting and Prayer

Setting up the kitchen has been one the most telling tasks so far of the work that will go into weaving together several lives, past and present, into a home.

Of course, my parents and I had a working kitchen over the past decade. Cupboards were filled with dishes and the pantry with food. In fact, we had two sets of dishes, one of 16 settings so we could host large groups. But once my mother passed and this space was to be my home in a new way, it was time to actively create a new space. Six boxes from an apartment sat in the garage, holding items from an earlier kitchen and dreams of living on my own. Items I hadn’t seen for over a decade. Each drawer in the kitchen contained memories of cooking with my mother. Now I had to merge the two. So, I invited a friend over to help me decide.

Did I need eight pie plates? No.

Two waffle irons? No

Seven aprons? Well, maybe.

At first it took awhile as I commented on a jelly pottery jar (in the shape of a bunch of grapes) that a friend of my mom’s made over forty years ago. Or, as I decided which of four dish sets I would keep. But eventually we hit a rhythm and just worked through the boxes and cabinets. I felt an active letting go of the past, along with a hope for meals with friends and family in the coming weeks and months.

Through this process life continued. It wasn’t about trying to retain what had been lost. It was about keeping this space as a place of living relationships. I was thinking about inviting over students and friends so I could make use of these pots and pans – and even the pie plates. I wanted toshare the feast of living with those who visit.

In the work of melding these stories and spending time with a friend, it was also a type of prayer. Of recognizing ongoing life that is not ours grasp, but to celebrate.

Recently I encountered George Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) that lists a multitude of images for prayer – starting with “the church’s banquet”.

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
-Prayer (I), George Herbert

As prayer itself is described as a banquet, manna, land of spices, I’m also seeing how a banquet and the enjoyment of a meal may be a form of prayer as friends gather around God’s daily bread.

Stepping into this reworked kitchen, I can only hope that my actions in it will be a prayer, a small part of the church’s banquet. That the cooking and baking here will celebrate the gracious gifts of the Father, that I will see Christ in the people served around the table, and that the Spirit of God, a spirit of Shalom, will invade the space.

IMG_3412Last weekend I had the privilege of hosting a group of former graduate students around the table and continuing this prayer. I used Pyrex bowls and steel measuring spoons that had prepared many meals before and new white and cobalt blue dishes that were seeing their first dinner party. A favorite recipe from an aunt and ones I found just last week. These kitchen items and the food they helped prepare and serve, provided the basis for a type of prayer – communication with God in the presence of friends as people reconnected and celebrated new life, new jobs, and voiced concerns.

It was a grace-filled image of what this home can become.

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A Fitting Story

IMG_3409Several years ago I spent a day at the mall with a friend who was teaching me how to select the best fitting clothes. It was a long and draining day of trying on dozens of jeans and t-shirts to see what sizes and styles worked on me. By the end, though, I felt renewed. I hadn’t been aware the difference the proper size could make in how I looked and felt.

These past weeks and even months I’ve found myself in another ill-fitting dilemma. This time with stories instead of clothes. Just as I used to hurriedly buy clothes so I could finish this chore I disliked greatly, I’ve attempted to inhabit several ill-fitting stories because work needs to get done: organizing property care projects at church; fundraising for ministry; and serving as my mom’s estate executor. So, I’m barreling my way through them not really thinking through the larger implications of the processes I’m using and my attitude.

Because these tasks are unfamiliar, it’s easy to pick an off-the-rack program and try to make it work. It’s been done and tested, right? Once I get through these tasks then I can get on with my real work. But slowly, those ill-fitting stories become the way I work and I lose my own style and the idealized ‘real work’ fades away. Sometimes the stories fit, but many times they just are not right and I’m left with a process that is too tight and doesn’t look like me at all.

Teachers, ministers, counselors, and writers are in the story business – helping others to understand the story of their lives as they find meaning behind the moment to moment details. As I’ve been thinking about my role in this work as a campus minister, I realize that I am tempted to tell others their story, or the one I think they should be following. I want to take the same jacket and put it on everyone, forgetting how uncomfortable that has been for me.

Recently I finished reading Eugene Peterson’s, Under the Unpredictable Plant that explores the vocation of pastor – not as the manager of an organization but as the pray-er and poet of the congregation. One who is interceding, resting on God for all work and the one who is in the midst of point out the poetry in the life of the church. Peterson sees Jesus’ gospel worked out in the lives of the people – not something that they need to have clamped down on them in the form of church programming or commanded disciplines, but something into which they can live and through which the Spirit is already working.

Thinking about the work of Christian ministry in this way, I realized that I can continue to struggle to fit into the clothes that others hand me or become frustrated with the inability of individuals to live in the story I designed for them. Or, I can stop. Take time to pray and enter God’s dwelling place to be changed. As Peterson reminds us, “Prayer rescues us from a preoccupation with ourselves and pulls us into adoration of and pilgrimage to God.” This is a first step of living a story that fits, to stop looking at myself and focus on God.

With this focus, it’s then possible to stop taking on responsibilities of living someone else’s narrative or trying to squeeze them into mine. I can see how God is working already, he is in these lives. As Peterson changed the focus of his ministry he describes how he “wanted to see the Jesus story in each person in my congregation with as much local detail and raw experience as James Joyce did with the Ulysses story in the person of Leopold Bloom and his Dublin friends and neighbors.” What would it look like to do this? To see the stories that truly fit each person.

Working in campus ministry, there is a truth that I do share the same jacket with everyone – God’s story, the Good News. However, this story is not one-size fits all in that everyone will look and act the same on the outside. Instead, its one size allows each person in their unique, God-created image, to live out this story. As Paul pleads for the Colossians to “. . . put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (3:10), we too are invited to put on this new self, our new clothes, our new stories. As Christ fits himself in our lives, the individual stories become more evident. Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses this beautifully in the familiar poem As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

It’s this new self that needs to be put on – a self dependent on Jesus Christ. Selves that, though grounded in the same story, reveal a myriad of images and fit well.

As I look again at the tasks before me, I’m seeking to find better ways to get them done. It’s not about trying to fit into a new program or another person’s expectations, but listening to and being part of the living story of Christ that is unfolding in my life and within the communities in which I am part. It may take time to try different ways of working out these responsibilities. But if my focus is on God, I believe I will find a better fit in the end. Who knows, maybe I’ll even find a spark of joy in the work I’ve been dreading.

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Making a Home

For years I dreamt of having a house. A place to call my own. Out of this desire, I’ve always tried to make any room, no matter how small, into a home. This is true whether it’s been a dorm room, a field station bunk bed, or an office in my parents’ house. I created comfortable places, surrounded by my stories, but also places where others could visit and tell theirs.

After a while the dream of owning a house faded. I secretly enjoyed living in small spaces within a community – whether that be family or school. In these homes within a home I had the freedom to travel and to change jobs since I didn’t have to bear the responsibilities of keeping up a house. I also had the comfort of knowing that other people were around. I felt safe.

Now, after giving up that dream, I find myself with a house and a bundle of fears. I wonder about traveling away from this place for any length of time and having something break down or fall apart. I worry that the finances won’t be there to keep it up. I’m also concerned that I may spend too much time alone now that no one lives down the hall. All this on top of the deep grief I feel at the loss of my mother who wanted me to care for this house.

However, I inherited more than a building. This was the home she and my father had purchased for their retirement. They wanted a place that welcomed people for meals and was grandchild friendly. Children, grandchildren, family members, and many friends were the lifeblood of this place. Every surface in the living room – the mantel, dining room hutch, curio cabinet, and bay window shelf – was full of photographs, each an image of dear friends and family. So whether the dining room table was surrounded with family for a birthday celebration or my mom and I were sitting down to a simple meal, the lives of the people my mom and dad loved were always evident. Some of my mom’s last words centered on the joy she knew in having had a lovely family and a lovely home.  And it truly was a home for many people.

Even though I am thankful for this gift, this is not the house I dreamt about owning, and definitely not the way I wanted it to come about. I wanted my mother to be part of helping set up a house as she brought a peace lily for the front table or made curtains for the bedroom. I wanted my father to help paint rooms and plant trees. But, I don’t have that dream, I have a building – and I have the legacy of my parents. So, I’ve decided to celebrate the lives my parents lived in this place by remembering their spirits through my own expressions of home.

IMG_3399The multitude of photographs are now put away and the frames are ready to be filled with other images. The space is ready for new memories.  Into this home I invite friends, family, and guests to fill it with their lives and creativity.

  • A place of story and transformation.
  • A pilgrimage way station.
  • A writers’ retreat. A shelter.
  • A place to feast on life.

These ideas come from my mother and father who encouraged their children to dream and grow. They read to us, provided us with marvelous opportunities, and surrounded us with love and faith. Out of this soil I am eager to revisit that dream of having a house and to become the active creator, instead of the passive recipient, of the blessings of home.

A lovely home.

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Ash Wednesday – Stop Now

IMG_3398It snuck up once again, this beginning of the season of Lent. I’m tempted to just overlook it and continue barreling through the coming weeks with the multitude of tasks on my list. What about you? Have you stopped for this day?

As I see it, I’m not ready to step back and reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross. I should have planned better and worked harder over the past weeks so I could have time to spend more time in prayer, Bible study, or even in gatherings of other believers. However, that’s not the point. Lent isn’t about being ready to reflect, it’s about reflecting in the midst of our harried lives.

In one of the readings for this day, from the second chapter of Joel, we see God calling people to gather to him, to turn and repent. Not when they are ready, but now. Now when a baby is nursing. Now when a wedding is about to take place. Now when we are running off to our next meeting.

Blow the trumpet in Zion;
    consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
    gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation;
    assemble the elders;
gather the children,
    even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
    and the bride her chamber.
– Joel 2:15-16

So, today it is time to turn even if we are not ready. There is no better time. Waiting for a project to be completed or a relationship to heal will only lead to more work that requires more waiting and one more thing to prepare. Neither does God want us to wait to figure out world hunger or the latest political maelstrom. All he wants is our hearts as they are now – no matter how broken and withered they may be. In actuality we will never have any thing worthy to offer him that he hasn’t already showered upon us in his mercy.

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
    and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster.
– Joel 2:12-13

It is our hearts he wants and he wants them so he can change them and so he can turn us towards him and out to help the world. If we seek to do either of these things on our own, we will only fall. The surprising thing is that as we acknowledge this, God comes to us in his mercy. His Spirit fills us and in this Spirit we live.

“And it shall come to pass afterward,
    that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
– Joels 2:28-29

So, it turns out that preparing for Ash Wednesday would have gotten me started on the wrong foot. I would have thought I was in control and had something to offer. Now, all I can do is trust that God will care for these projects, or let them go, as I take time to stop and look at him. This time reminds me who I am and helps me to step out of my self-sufficient ways.

How will you spend this day and the next forty of Lent?

  • poetry
  • scripture
  • prayer
  • worship service
  • coffee with a friend
  • museum visit
  • walk in nature
  • service to neighbors

Whatever the choice, I encourage us all to stop what we are doing in the midst of life, stop now, even just for a few moments, to find ways to connect with God anew and to relish his grace and mercy poured over us.

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Leave the Story Up to Him

IMG_2552“Our memories are ultimately only fragments, broken by our forgetting, pieces of a past we are not always even sure is our own. And they remain fragments – a broken story – until they are made whole by prayer. In prayer, God mends the fragments into the art of a life, like stained glass, like a quilt, like cobblestone bricks on a circling path.” – Travis Scholl, Walking the Labyrinth

The art of a life.

What a beautiful and life giving image! I don’t know about you, but I can get so caught up in doing all the tasks on my list on a given day that by the end I can’t make sense of it. It’s as if I had paint, clay, ballet shoes, and a piano and just threw everything around without much thought. The materials were good, but the end product doesn’t fit together.

Just this past week several of my days included setting up appointments, running to the store for last minute meal preparations, meeting with students, getting lost in the Web, writing blog posts, cleaning the house, sending off thank-you notes, filling out forms, making dinner, and, finally, sitting in front of the television. In the end I wondered why I’m doing any of it, except to make it to the next day. It seems to be a mess with little meaning.

Many of these activities have potential to be part of something more cohesive – a welcome home for guests, a book for fellow pilgrims, a thriving ministry for students and faculty. The pieces are there. Yet I realize there are often too many pieces for a single picture, or even the wrong pieces. Can a writing life really fit with the schedule of a single woman trying to set up a home, grieve the loss of a mother, build new connections with family, and serve graduate students and faculty? Oh, and then there are the volunteering I’ve agreed to do; the travels I’ve taken and plan to take; the unwritten articles and the untaught classes; the many museums I want to visit; and the meals with friends and walks outside. How can all of these things fit together?

In the end I see a lot of ragged edges and mismatched pieces as I try to create a whole. Maybe what I need is to find a different place to volunteer or a new writing project. Or, a new community of friends who would challenge me just a bit more. But all my efforts usually end up with the same result: a frustrating collage of activities that doesn’t make sense even to me.

Into this whirlwind, Travis Scholl’s words speak peace. Reading his record of walking a labyrinth during Lent reminds me that the meaning of my life is not in my hands. Not in any of our hands. Life comes together as I look beyond myself, especially as I seek God in prayer, learning to see in the way he sees. Through this practice I can look back and realize how these disparate activities fit together into a work of art I could never have intentionally made myself.

After the fact, and through God’s eyes, I can see how what I thought was just another meeting turned into a conversation on education that eventually led to a job offer and to the writing of a book. I can also see how each time I vacuum I am becoming more attuned to the moment and place in which I live, relishing the small things. Through prayer my vision changes and I can tell the story of the past and look forward to the one that is ahead.

I can pick up the materials God has set before me each day, work with them, enjoy them, and leave the story up to him.

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Losing Sight of the Shore

IMG026“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. – Andre Gide

The above quote has been pinned to the bulletin board above my desk since November 2000 when a former supervisor sent it as encouragement and as his image of me. At that time I was moving from a secure job in business to a doctoral program in literature. Not necessarily the safest move. I did not see the lands in front of me clearly, specifically the job possibilities that would come from this journey. I just jumped in and pushed off from the shore of a 9 to 5 job and I haven’t returned there yet.

However, was I really leaving the shore? Sometimes I think that this is not a true picture of me. Throughout my years I have clung to safe moorings of family, home, and jobs. I may leave one thing, but hold onto the others. Even though I left the one job, I had a secure place to live and a supportive family. Yet, without remaining on at least one familiar shore, I don’t think I would have left at all.

So, losing sight of our shores will look different for different individuals. Still, whatever they look like, they are departures that allow us to open our eyes to new possibilities in life. As I left that job, I found new interests in pilgrimage and literature and eventually integrated them with the Christian faith in my current role in campus ministry – a new land I never saw coming in 2000.

Moreover, sometimes the shores we leave are not always ones we choose. As the reality of my mother’s impending death flooded over me last year, I felt unmoored. Pushed into the ocean with only a small rowboat for safety. I would no longer have the sure comfort of her encouragement and her love greeting me every day. There would be nothing to hold to as I left other shores. It still feels like that at times. But I’m also seeing new lands:

  • supportive friends,
  • blessings of remembered stories,
  • grace of God’s presence in suffering,
  • gift of creating a new home,
  • freedom to leave other shores.

In these reflections I think of Abraham, Moses, Ruth, and others who left familiar places, shores of their lives. Sometimes they knew where they were going, but many times they didn’t, or at least didn’t know what it would be like when they arrived. Yet, they kept moored to a faith in God. In the process of leaving one place they grew in that faith which allowed them to arrive at those new lands with a receptive spirit and a stronger trust in God.

I still don’t know if I fully embody Gide’s quote, but now I can even leave that concern behind. In the coming months, I pray for the courage to leave certain shores from which God is calling me. Not in a reckless abandon, but in a faithful walk expecting to see new lands and secure in the One who is showing them to me.  I also look forward to talking with others who are losing sight of their shores so we can walk (or row) together in this time.

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