Learning a new skill as an adult is hard. I was accepted into a choir that will be singing in Germany in June 2017 in honor of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation*. It will be thrilling to Bach sing in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the church where Bach was Kantor for so many years, under one of the world’s great interpreters of Bach, Helmut Rillig. Not only will I be learning new music for the week-long event but I have decided to try to resurrect my high school German.

I have done this a number of times in the last 45 years but this time, I have found a system that works and is sustainable for me: Duolingo.com. I was made aware of this online program on the Road Scholars’ Facebook page. There a multitude of languages one can learn through this site as well as other ways to customize the learning process, including ways to test out of lessons, which I have yet to do.

I chose a “regular” commitment level, which means about 10 minutes a day. You can commit to more or less and there are days when I have done a lot more than my basic commitment. Short lessons teach new words and algorithms focus on your weak spots in the practice sessions, which you can do as many or as few times as you want.

There are little reward points called “lingots” that you can spend in the virtual store on things like a lesson in idioms or a timed practice or buying a “day off” when life prevents you from keeping your commitment one day. I get a daily reminder e-mail and I can even post my progress to my Linked-In page. There is the option of competing with others via Facebook, an option I have not chosen to do at this point.This is a wonderful program and I have been doing it daily now for nearly three weeks. I am pleased that I remembered some and am pretty good about translating from German into English. I do less well translating English into German.

All of it is still humbling. Remembering whether a certain German noun is masculine, feminine or neuter is hard and I often get dinged as I move through my lessons. It isn’t enough to have the noun correct; I must have the article correct as well! Computer games like this don’t let you cheat: I either know it or I don’t! There really are absolutes with German nouns and their articles.

One can extrapolate this idea  of “I know it or I don’t” into training of any kind, be it physical, mental or even spiritual. A disciplined life really does bring its own rewards and often from activities engaged in for just a few minutes every day. Of course, a disciplined life is also a way of being that includes an attitude as well as the specific physical, mental or spiritual exercises we intentionally do. Never despise the small! Over a period of time, those small habits can bring great changes into your life.

While ten minutes a day will not allow me to discuss with Herr Rillig the finer points of Bach’s cantatas when I am in Germany, it will allow me to order a sandwich and buy a pair of shoes. Auf Deutsch! And that will be reward enough for me. What can you start doing today for ten minutes that will bring you a reward at some point? Begin now!

*If you want information on how you, too, can audition for this choir, contact me ASAP.

“What is the deepest thing you feel called toward–the one you feel passionate about and you know is profoundly true! How can you live this out in the world without apology or pretense?”

That was the question early this morning as I was sitting in my chair in this old house, journaling the reflection questions for the next chapter in Christine Valters Paintner’s “Illuminating the Way:Embracing the Wisdom of Monks and Mystics.” Wow! What a question for that time of day! Or any time of day, actually. What would your answer be?

Mine was “worship and music.” Those two realities have driven my life since childhood and continue to be passions of mine. I have always been one that loves to practice. In high school, I would spend four hours on Saturday mornings practicing for my piano, organ and violin lessons. I was the kid who went to church after getting in late from prom and before going on the after prom picnic the next day. Had I not been in a conservative denomination that still doesn’t believe God calls and equips women to lead the Church, I probably would have gone to seminary. Yet, at this point in my life, I can honestly say my gifts are better used as a musician instead of a pastor. Christian worship and music are truly passions of mine and have been for many years.

Here in these latter days of my life, the question has become for me more about where I want to continue using my gifts than if there are areas I want to pursue that have been sidelined due to the need to “make money.” I have been very blessed in that my work has been my creative expression. Many people don’t get that opportunity and use their post-working days to engage in activities they didn’t have time or opportunity to follow while raising kids and working to support a family. I don’t take this gift lightly but it is time to ask before age and health make it impossible to ask, where does God want me to use my gifts now?

Maybe in the same place and in the same way I have been using them! However, I think, periodically, it is good to ask ourselves if God is inviting us into a change of some kind. Are we staying “status quo” because that is really where God wants us or because we are too scared to explore other options? Are we in a failure of imagination due to all the practical reasons something “won’t work” or are we truly in a season of life where this is what needs to be happening? Are we in a rut or a furrow? And how do we discern one from the other?

As always, a spiritual director can be most useful here but the most important first step is the willingness to ask the question. An open heart is the beginning of any discernment process: a willingness to be chosen.

One way to tell a rut from a furrow is the growth evidenced in each. Things don’t grow in ruts because they keep getting run over and packed down; furrows are fertile nurseries for seeds.

Which are you living in?

The University is holding graduation today in the football stadium and it is pouring rain! Hail, thunder, lightning: oh, my. All those anticipated outdoor graduation parties and barbecues–I hope they have a Plan B!

This past week, coincidentally on Ascension Day, we celebrated the end of our “Year of the Jubilee,” a year of quiet discernment following the clear ending of a long-time call. We sat over lunch in one of our favorite places and gave thanks for all that is past, anticipating all that is to come. We reviewed the principles we had worked under this past year and began to formulate ideas of how to discern what comes next. It was the first time in a year that we talked about finding the next places of work because you can’t listen if you are planning! So, it is with joy and trust in God that we step out into these days of asking, seeking and knocking.

Here at this old house, we have been reading “The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning” by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. I highly recommend it! The Church has not done well dealing with imperfection in the lives of the faithful. This book embraces imperfection because it is a part of being human. Only God is perfect, a fact we too often forget and, actually hate deep down, if we are honest.

Last night, I began the chapter called “Not Magic, But Miracle.” It can be summed up in this quote: “Spirituality involves not magic but miracle and mystery; not willfulness but willingness.” The example the book gives to help clarify this is that the misuse of alcohol is a form of magic; booze leads alcoholics to believe all kinds of false things about themselves and the world. It is an attempt by alcoholics to control their life and/or the lives of others. Spirituality, on the other hand, embraces the unknown through miracle and mystery. It is a letting go of control and of letting God be God. It rejoices that we are imperfect human beings.

Those who are not alcoholics can still struggle with this magic vs mystery concept. Performing religious rites such as church attendance (notice the rise in it after terrorist attacks) or mindless prayer rituals in an attempt to get God to bless us in a way we define can be a form of magic. Using religion to manipulate or control is not engaging in healthy spirituality. Eating or shopping in an attempt to improve our mood can be a type of magic. It is certainly willfulness and is in stark contrast to a willingness to be in the grief or pain, embracing it, and working through it instead of hoping it will somehow magically “go away.”

One way to check if an action is willfulness or willingness is your response to the person who suggests your choice of action isn’t a healthy one. Do you become defensive? Angry? Become secretive about your behaviors? If you can engage in an honest dialogue about why you want to eat/drink/shop at this moment, then you are in a space of willingness, a mindset that embraces imperfection. If you don’t want anyone to know about any of your habits, you may want to find a spiritual director and examine their purpose in the light of God’s love and mercy.

If you do discover that you are trying to change habits or situations through magic and willfulness, ask yourself “What do I want?” Then, ask it again. Ask it over and over until you have peeled the “onion of emotions and false thoughts” down to the core of who God created you to be. Then, embrace that core with a willingness to pursue God’s leading you to the best next step for you. Walk in the mystery of love and life, looking for miracles along the way.

That is what we are doing. Care to join us?
Until you heal the wounds of your past, you will continue to bleed. You can bandage the bleeding with food, with alcohol, with drugs, with work, with cigarettes, with sex, but eventually, it will all ooze through and stain your life. You must find the strength to open the wounds, stick your hands inside, pull out the core of the pain that is holding you in your past, the memories, and make peace with them.
Iyanla Vanzant
 

Sigh. It is snowing again. Still. We are in the middle of a forecast that calls for five days of snow/rain. At this time of year and at this altitude, none of this is unusual but for some reason, it is discouraging me this year. I am ready for warmth and more consistent sun. Yet, I know that without all this moisture, this semi-arid climate I live in at 5280′ would dry up in a New York minute increasing our fire danger significantly.

Drought and the subsequent fires that come are our major weather-related dangers here at this old house. All of this old wood in these historic buildings, close together on the property, is a tinderbox. One kitchen fire and it is all over! Meanwhile, I find myself restless, unsettled, feeling house-bound as the trails are all wet and walking covers my glasses with raindrops.

This Thursday is Ascension Day, 40 days after the Resurrection. It is also the day that our year of quiet listening and discernment ends. On Thursday, we begin to actively seek what next steps will be for us. We have allowed ourselves during this last year only to talk in broad principles of interest. We have focused on “being” more than on “doing.” When one is involved in the heavy-lifting of an active career or call, it is easy to slip into thinking that our worth is based on our “doing.” When that work or call ends, we are left with our “being.” Is that good news? For some, yes; for others, no. Or as someone one said, “Who am I when I am no longer what I was?”

If we have defined ourselves for the most part by our “doing” in life, what we can produce, when we are no longer able to do as much or as well, when we are empty-nesters or widowed, when we retire or are fired, when we are too ill or old, we may find ourselves despairing, looking for external definitions for our value. Throughout all the stages of our life, we must cultivate our “being,” that is, who we are when all of life’s props are stripped away from us. Kurt Vonnegut encourages us to “…Go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

One tragedy of the decimation of arts programs in our public schools is that children are not being taught to develop their souls and spirits as well as their minds. As with most things, life-skills are best learned along the way beginning in early childhood. “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Children who are urged to focus on a way to “make money” through their educational years without the counterbalancing encouragement to figure out how to make a life for themselves in the midst of economic realities will struggle with tying their basic human worth to what they can produce.

Maybe this continued miserable weather that makes it hard to get out and “do something” is God-through-Nature’s invitation to have a day more focused on being. Is my unsettledness an indication that I still have a lot to learn about doing vs. being? I invite you to join me in reflecting on that this week.

 

We did a field trip today. Leaving this old house early this morning, we drove out to eastern Colorado. There was a museum to see and a birthday party to attend. It was a beautiful day, warm, lots of sun, and a very different geography of Colorado. The eastern part of the state is plains. Southwest Colorado is more deserts, mesas and buttes, full of Anasazi ruins. My day-to-day life takes place in the Front Range area where the Great Plains end in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Central and Northwestern Colorado is more high mountains. A lot of variety and “something for everyone.”

At the museum out east, I learned about the Battle of Beecher Island, which took place on the plains but in a river bed area that has a high butte above it:

The Battle of Beecher Island, also known as the Battle of Arikaree Fork, was an armed conflict between elements of the United States Army and several of the Plains Native American tribes in September 1868…Near present-day Wray, Colorado, [Beecher Island] was named afterwards for Lieutenant Fredrick H. Beecher, an army officer killed during the battle. [Wikipedia]

The museum curator talked about “dog Indians,” a politically correct term: The Dog Soldiers or Dog Men (Cheyenne Hotamétaneo’o) was one of six military societies of the Cheyenne Indians. Beginning in the late 1830s, this society evolved into a separate, militaristic band that played a dominant role in Cheyenne resistance to American expansion in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, where the Cheyenne had settled in the early 19th Century. [Wikipedia] The curator described this particular unit of “dog Indians” as being made up of disenfranchised Native Americans from several tribes who came together to fight the encroaching white settlers.

It reminds me of modern terrorist groups who often recruit people from places where they feel they “don’t fit in” with the culture of their parents nor the culture of their current homeland. People long for community and when they can’t find it, they will create it, often in ways that aren’t necessarily good for themselves or society at large. “Lord of the Flies” comes to mind here as do some bullies and packs of homeless dogs throughout the world.

The land that saw so much blood shed now suffers from the chemicals used in agribusiness: fertilizers, feedlots, genetically-modified seeds, pesticides. We humans are always seeking to dominate something or other in some way. If we can subdue (which in the Biblical sense never meant “dominate” but rather “steward”) Nature or a group of people that frighten us, we gain a sense of power and safety, false as those feelings may be. It can be fairly disheartening to think about!

Yet, we had a wonderful day with wonderful people celebrating life and God’s goodness. The Discipline of Celebration (see Philippians 4:4-8) encourages me to focus on those thing and so, this evening, I will.

 

Next Page »