It has gotten quite hot here at this old house.  A friend and I went out Plein air painting this morning. We were out in the east part of the county around some mini-lakes with a lovely view of the mountains. We found a spot under a covered picnic pavilion where there was a nice breeze so we were fairly cool and bug free. Since West Nile has returned to Boulder County, I needed to pay as much attention to the presence of any mosquitoes  as I did to my art work. My friend is a semi-professional oil painter; I am a visual artist wannabe.  I have a lot to learn and my friend is very generous in her advice.

There is something special about being outside while doing an activity. Working in nature always makes a mundane task feel more special. Think of a picnic vs. eating at your kitchen table. The fare at the picnic may be less elaborate but somehow it tastes better. Nancy Roth in “Awake My Soul!” quotes the environmentalist David Orr who said that “we are bound to living things…by ‘biophilia’ [which means our desire to be connected with the rest of life in the natural world], which begins in early childhood and ‘cascades’ into cultural and social patterns.”  With the alarming decrease in the amount of time both children and adults spend in nature, a crucial connection with the rest of life is being weakened or even lost.

Richard Louv in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder to describe symptoms found increasingly in children who rarely if ever “play outside” and, in some cases, are showing signs of behavioral problems. These problems include a lack of respect for nature. See, for example, the increasing evidence of graffiti in National Parks, an area a few years ago people would not dream of defacing. Or a lack of compassion for wild animals and their habitat requirements. It is thought by some, as well, that depression and attention disorders can be due to a lack of regular interaction with nature.

This is all rather controversial and not everyone agrees with the diagnosis or the symptoms. However, Nancy Roth pointed out that many people “find God” in nature. My question is if nature is less a part of people’s lives, due to fear of strangers, a general inertia in life or an overzealous desire to protect wilderness that makes it hard to interact with unspoiled places, might that impact one’s ability to even ask God questions? The Desert Fathers and Mothers saw Creation as a “Scripture” equal to that of the Bible. They spent time meditating on creation as much as on Scriptural texts because they believed that God’s handiwork taught them a lot about God, themselves and others. If one is disconnected from nature, doesn’t that leave out a huge portion of the text about God’s work in the world?

Suddenly, being in nature is more than “fresh air and exercise”! It becomes a way of learning about God, ourselves and the world. If we don’t spend much time with God’s creation, are we losing something important to our faith formation? Is it stunting our children’s growth in faith? Meanwhile, Psalm 19 continues to remind us that:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
    and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them;
    and nothing is hid from its heat.

The question for us today is, will we come to know that voice of Nature praising God for ourselves?

Long-time readers of this blog know that writing about and teaching on the Christian spiritual disciplines is a passion of mine. (On the main page of www.valeriehess.com, you can find a list of the books I have written or co-authored.) As I am continually looking for new ways to acquire “holy habits” or intentional living practices, you can imagine my delight when a long time family friend asked John and me to beta test her “Guide to Practicing Life One Week at a Time: 52 Pickup.” We were given an incomplete version of the guidebook and a few of the 52 cards that will come with the full set when it is finalized and published. The idea is to do what a card says for seven days, using the guidebook to understand the practice more and record your experience with it. I was intentional about choosing my card; John drew his randomly. For the next week, I am working with the card “drink more water” because that is something I have been sensing I need to do anyway. The goal is to drink half of my body weight in ounces in water every day.

Many of us are under-hydrated. Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration, according to the Mayo Clinic web site, include:

  • Dry, sticky mouth
  • Sleepiness or tiredness — children are likely to be less active than usual
  • Thirst
  • Decreased urine output
  • No wet diapers for three hours for infants
  • Few or no tears when crying
  • Dry skin
  • Headache
  • Constipation
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

I have suspected for a while that some of my late afternoon fatigue might be due to not enough water to sustain full energy. I will be curious to see if my suspicion is correct as the days progress. I have already noticed that drinking a lot more water can require advanced planning! More water equals more trips to the bathroom. Intentionality in this practice includes both input and output. :-)

I believe many of us know what we need to do in our lives to make them “better.” Sometimes, we really don’t know and then we seek out a spiritual director or a good friend to help us uncover a blind spot but many times, we know what we need to do to make our lives function more smoothly. Often, the solution is fairly obvious: drink more water, get more sleep, take a daily walk, let go of a toxic friendship, start tackling the piles of accumulated stuff. Taking the first step into a better way of living is usually the hardest; once we get started, the good feelings that come as a result sustain the practice. If we let someone know what our intentions are, that can help motivate us to keep going when we might give up.

That is the brilliance of the 52 Card Pick-up we are testing. It never fails to amaze me how one small deck of cards can hold me accountable. I began my regular walking program years ago with the only reward being a daily hash mark in a journal I was keeping!  Of course, one can create a set of cards  or a hash mark system on their own or with a friend or family member but often we don’t even take that step. This is where our friend’s idea will be a useful player for those looking to live in a more healthy, life-giving way. If someone has bought a system, they are more likely to try it out so that they don’t feel like they wasted their money. Also, having that card for the week staring you in the face everyday can be a powerful reminder and motivator!

This week, I invite you to join me in drinking more water. Take your weight, divide it in half, and try to drink that many ounces of water. Other liquids like tea, soda pop, or coffee don’t count in the total, only water. I would love to hear how you feel after a week. Maybe this is something you could do as a family. Whenever we work on spiritual or physical habits together, they are more likely to “stick.” A friend or co-worker could also partner with you on this. Buy a reusable water bottle, preferably glass, if you don’t already own one, and figure out how many refills you need to drink in a day to reach your goal. (The nightmare of disposable plastic water bottles in the environment and the dangers of the chemicals they leach as they are refilled are beyond the scope of this blog.)

Let us also remember with each ounce of water, that water is a metaphor in the Bible for God’s grace and mercy. Perhaps, as we water our bodies, we can find ways to “water our souls.” For example, you could say Psalm 23 every time you stop to drink. Or you could pray for a different family member with each few ounces you down. There is no way to fail at this. Simply seek to increase your water intake but more than what you did the day before and see how you feel. Bottoms up, everyone!

 

After nearly six days of rain, it felt like we had been transported to Ireland! But now we are back to warm sunshine and those great Colorado blue summer-sky days. The lilies in the backyard of this old house are probably four-feet tall and looking out my window, I see a lot of green where normally it would be more tawny-colored. A very unusual couple of wet months that have made this semi-arid environment lush. But lest we get too settled into summer, the first Rufous male hummingbird arrived at my feeder today. They are always the first true harbingers of the coming fall. They have traveled south from far northern places on their way to their winter habitations. I had better enjoy this heat while it is here.

The historic summer Chautauqua community continues to be a strong presence in the park. A few folks who came early have headed home but some new folks have arrived this week. I am so blessed to live where I do! The migration of the historic summer community isn’t that different from the birds. I know the early summer folks, the mid-summer folks, the late summer ones and those who bridge multiple seasons. I love to see them come and hate to see them go but that is the cycle of life for all of us.

I had some days alone this week as John and his younger sister drove to Arkansas to see their older sister. Once again, I was reminded how time can fool me. It was easy to think that a whole list of things would be accomplished in the long hours to myself  but in truth, how quickly time flies! I continued my deep cleaning of cupboards and closets. I attended a couple of meetings related to Chautauqua as well as hosted friends for short visits. But alas, despite a hope for long hours of reading time, my book pile has not decreased at all. In fact, it has increased. For some reason, Amazon boxes keep arriving in our mail box. I guess that is what happens when I hit “submit order” several times a month! Too many good books out there to read.

Meanwhile, at the church, a shift has taken place. Imperceptibly, I have begun to transition from “the year is over, let’s relax into the slower pace of summer” to “the fall is coming, the fall is coming” preparation. Music orders are arriving, including the Michael Haydn Weinachts-Responsorien for Christmas Eve. Rehearsal schedules are being crafted and the fall liturgy is being mulled over. Again, the cycle of the year, this time, the liturgical year.

As John and I continue in this time of transition, assessing what we might want to pursue in this next season of life as we listen for the Holy Spirit’s guiding, I have come to realize anew that I like practicing. While heading down to church the other day, I found myself evaluating where I am in my professional career. Am I happy? After 45 years of being a church musician, is this something I want to keep doing? Yes! was the solid conclusion. The thought of not being able to practice the organ or lead music for worship saddens me. That day will come, I know, as I, too, am in the cycle of life,  thoroughly ensconced in “early autumn” myself.

I am blessed that my vocational calling and my career intersect. That is not true of too many people. Some have to do their vocation outside of their career. It is a real gift when what you love to do is something you can also earn money doing. Sometimes, we have to earn a living and then do what we love as a hobby. Many artists and musicians know that reality. But I am very content that my passion and gift are synonymous with my bread labor.

Do you know what your vocation, your calling and purpose in life, is? Does it intersect with your career or do you need to do bread labor apart from creative labor? What season of life are you currently in: Spring? Summer? Autumn? Winter? What changes can you make in your vocational calling and/or your career to more fully reflect who you are? (Spiritual directors are great resources in helping people discern the answers to these questions but so are compassionate friends and grounded clergy.)

You owe it to yourself, to God, and to those you love to find out who you are and what you were created to do.  As St. Irenaeus  said, “Gloria Dei est vivens homo!” (The glory of God is man/humanity fully alive.)

 

Happy 4th of July to my American readers! We are having a great time here at this old house. The park is full of the historic summer community; generations of Chautauquans return over the 4th just like the swallows come back each year to San Juan Capistrano. The Colorado Chautauqua opened on July 4th, 1898 and we now have sixth and seventh generations of descendents in some of those early attendees’ families. We also have wonderful newcomers to this community as well, new families that have decided to call Chautauqua home for at least part of each year, making a great blend of historic and renewing elements each summer.

The annual tennis tournament began at 8 AM (with a break for Quiet Hours, of course!) and the historic summer community’s picnic is this evening. Right now, the weather looks like we might get rain but at least it will be cooler than it has been some years. Some really hot years, I have wondered if the picnic had been temporarily transported to Texas for the evening instead of being held in the foothills of cool Colorado! Tonight, I think my neighbors from hot and humid Houston (and Dallas and Austin and San Antonio) will be glad to be in Colorado.

One of the things I love about my summer Texas neighbors is that they know how to decorate their houses and themselves. Bunting and flags are everywhere throughout the park and there is always a lot of 4th of July bling at the annual picnic. I have collected a few items myself over the years of living here. This morning, I had to remember where my red, white, and blue stars necklace was as I hadn’t pulled it out for 12 months! T-shirts with rhinestones, fun hats and bandanas will also make an appearance tonight. It feels like Texas up here today! I love it.

It is good to stop and remember our nation’s birthday. We so easily forget that the birth process of a nation, as well as all birth processes, wasn’t an easy one nor was it straightforward. There were many contentious issues to deal with then and many opinions on how they should be solved. There were people of good will and scoundrels in the mix. We fought more than one war over the issue and civil disobedience was as alive and well then as it is today. It took years to settle into a Constitution, a government that was fully up and running, and a currency that was our own. These things did not happen overnight. It is easy to think about the things of the past with rose-colored glasses on, thinking that there was some Golden Age or that everything fell into place in homogenous ways. Anyone who has read more than one book about the founding of this nation knows that it was a messy and fractious process over a number of years.

The beauty of our democracy is that everyone is entitled to a voice in it. The results may not be to your liking but we all have the privilege and the responsibility to weigh in on issues.. It makes me sad that voting percentages are so low these days. We are all good at complaining but less good at seeking solutions and compromises because those things take time and we have become an instant-fix society. Ennui has settled into many people’s political educations and interest; I am always very thankful during a Presidential Election cycle that we don’t have TV here at this old house. Talk about a turn-off to wanting to be involved in the political process! The British allow their election cycle for prime minister to last only five weeks! Maybe we should re-think the time and money spent on electing a President and other representatives in this nation. It is confusing and exhausting for everyone.

This year, with the recent decisions of the Supreme Court, people seem to either think the country is going down the toilet or has risen from the ashes. There doesn’t seem to be too much in the middle, at least from what I have heard. We really won’t know for decades what those decisions really mean for us as a nation and as a society. Today, we have forgotten the uproar over the introduction of federal income tax and social security, things we can’t imagine living without now. Where will health care be in 50 years? I have no idea and no one else does either. We in the present are no ultimate judge of what policies will be considered by history to be innovative or short-sighted. None of us knows which side of history we will end up on. That is why it is useful to regularly read history. It keeps the present in perspective.

In the meantime, we live our lives, doing the best we can to be good citizens, voting intelligently, trusting all to God, and playing the best tennis we can in the local tournament. God bless America and all the other countries of the world as well.

 

 

It has been an emotional couple of days here in this old house. The eulogy that President Obama gave Rev. Clementa Pinckney brought me to tears and then, when he began to sing “Amazing Grace,” I was undone. It was not only the power of the message of the moment but the fact that, while he has a nice voice, it is not a trained voice. Yet, the President of the United States stood and sang about God’s grace in front of a gazillion people. Now that takes courage! My response to people who don’t sing in church because “they don’t have a voice” will be President Obama’s example. If he can do it, they can do it!

I read somewhere this week that since we have periodically amended the Pledge of Allegiance, now might be a good time to do it again. It might be honorable and useful to add the word “equality” along with liberty and justice: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty, EQUALITY, and justice for all.”

Words have an impact. Words instruct, even when we are not focused intently on them. Words, especially sung words, go deep into our souls and resonate, for good or for ill, and come out as actions, good or bad. The symbols and attitudes that are present in a person’s formative years will eventually become ideologies that result in actions. Personally, I have always struggled with the loud professions from the entertainment industry that violence in media doesn’t lead to violence in society. If that is true, then there is no value in interacting with the media! Why watch a film or hear a song if it isn’t going to mean anything to me or touch me at some level? I believe this false disconnect is an attempt to neutralize and sanitize art from morality. I don’t believe that is possible. Everything says something, true or false! Madison Avenue knows this very well and seeks to manipulate consumers on a daily basis through images, words, and music. When you see a pair of Golden Arches, you know exactly what that means and stands for! Children are especially susceptible to images and words. It is hard for them to distinguish reality from fantasy, right from wrong. Add music and the concoction becomes even more potent.

Symbols are not neutral. A cross on a building and a cross around a neck make statements about both building and wearer. Catherine Kapikian in her book, “Art in Service of the Sacred,” wrote: “Paul Tillich gave a useful definition of symbol as that which ‘participates in the reality of that for which it stands.'” The reason the desecration of a flag upsets us deeply is that our flag is a symbol of our country. The desecration is not so much to a piece of fabric but rather to a political and demographic reality. People who desecrate a flag are also likely to commit acts of violence against a governing body or official who serve under that flag if the opportunity arises. Think of Middle Eastern radicals burning the US flag and then think of 9/11. I see a direct line here. Our own Pledge of Allegiance is to a flag but ultimately to the nation.

There is really very little “neutral” in our lives, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise. What we say, sing, pray, do–all comes from our inner life which is either a barren desert or a rich tapestry of goodness. To hear President Obama affirm God’s unmerited grace to us as individuals and as a nation is a powerful statement of both hope and warning. God help us not go back to blind lost-ness this time as this latest tragedy fades into the next.

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