It is nearly 80 degrees here today at this old house. Last week, I was posting pictures of huge piles of snow. Today, there are small patches left, here and there. This is what I love about spring-time in the Rockies. Shorts one day, boots and down jackets the next.

I was especially thankful that the weather has been so nice this weekend. I led a reflective Lenten retreat in the mountains yesterday and it was wonderful that many of the women took advantage of being outside during the extended times of silence. The theme was “Watching with Jesus” and focused on his prayer time in the Garden of Gethsemane, while the disciples slept in grief, a form of coping we are all familiar with.

During the retreat, we talked about prayer as a way of life, about being vs. doing and the need for balance between those two, and St. Patrick’s Breastplate as a form of spiritual protection. An open session question led us off on a brief discussion of guilt. Whenever you are with a group of Christian women talking about guilt, invariably the Proverbs 31 passage comes up.  Proverbs 31:10-31 is a paean to the “Martha Stewart” of her day:

A capable wife who can find?
    She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her,
    and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm,
    all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax,
    and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant,
    she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night
    and provides food for her household
    and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
    with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength,
    and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
    Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
    and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor,
    and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows,
    for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings;
    her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates,
    taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
    she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
    and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
    and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
    and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy;
    her husband too, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
    but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
    and let her works praise her in the city gates.

Talk about a guilt-trip!  Too many women compare themselves to this Biblical list and give up or, worse, feel shame and defeat. Yet, a very important point in this passage is too often not mentioned: this woman had staff! Like Martha Stewart today, this model of domestic prowess had help. Why do we fail to miss this important point?

She was able to multi-task because she was delegating to her servant-girls and to other members of her household! She was a domestic CEO and not an exhausted, I-can-do-it-all-myself-from-scratch fantasy. If we look at that list of what the Proverbs 31 woman does, we see that she is busy and on top of things, but she is NOT doing it by herself.  She has help. Reading this list from Proverbs is like reading Martha Stewart’s to-do calendar in her monthly magazine. What isn’t listed on that calendar is the staff at home doing the laundry, cleaning the house, caring for the yard, shopping for the groceries, prepping a lot of the meal ingredients, and walking the dogs.

During Lent, the practices of fasting, prayer and works of charity are meant to help us live out of our True Self, the person God created us to be, and not our False Self, the person someone has told us we should be. Lent can help us with fasting from exhausting expectations for ourselves, praying for the strength to live fully into who God created us to be, and remembering that works of love and charity can include ourselves as well as others.

So live creatively. Seek to emulate Martha Stewart’s inspirational ideas but do only those that are ultimately life-giving. Or if all else fails, hire staff.

We finally are getting a reprieve from snow and cold here at this old house. We are back up into seasonal temperatures and the mountains of snow are beginning to melt. 2015-03-05 09.55.57It will be weeks before some of the piles made by the plows disappear; they are deep and iced over. The sky is a dark blue, the sun is shining, and the birds are singing. Under all that snow, the crocus and daffodils that had started to make an appearance in early February are sleeping, awaiting the moment when they can begin growing again.

I got my nose pierced this week. It was a sudden choice made after months of pondering. I found myself walking by Tribal Rites Tattoo parlor and the next thing I knew, I was in, signing up for a small Swarovski crystal to be inserted into the side of my nose. It was something I had said I wanted to do for my 60th birthday, which was last fall. I had done research prior to my birthday and a bit after but maybe because it was a full moon that day, I was led to act on the thought right after I got my hair cut. The clinching factor in the decision was my hairdresser, who thought I could pull this off,  had a 20% off coupon for the tattoo parlor!

It amazes me that something that was so foreign ten years ago is now so main stream it has coupons in the same books that carry discounts on dry cleaning. Same thing with the marijuana industry, now legal here in Colorado. To see advertisements in the family newspaper for the various shops, some even with a coupon (“get a free edible with any $100 purchase”) takes some getting used to.

Years ago, I remember my mother collecting S&H green stamps, patronizing one business over another because the one gave green stamps and the other didn’t. I remember her licking pages of these little stamps into books and then going with her to redeem them for things. I remember one time, the long-forgotten item required a partial book along with several full books. The clerk tore one book in half, giving the other half back to my mother. This shocked me as a child. Books were meant to be treated with care, especially those that came from the library. The idea that one could be torn in two both horrified and fascinated me.

Betty Crocker mixes still offer points on box tops. Today, these seem to be collected mostly for schools to redeem for useful items. Over forty years ago, my mother started saving those for me to gather household goods to put in my “hope chest.”  The hope chest tradition was common for young women in a bygone era. It was a special box used to store household goods in anticipation of getting married someday. My mother’s was made of cedar wood. Mine was an old wooden toy chest that had been painted, if I recall correctly. During high school, a young woman would collect things like flour sack dish towels that she had embroidered, sheets, dishes, bath towels, and other household items. After her wedding, the box would be moved to her new domicile and she would set up housekeeping. Using the Betty Crocker box tops, my hope chest included a nesting set of three stainless steel bowls, which I am still using today. I also used it to get the silverware we used at every meal for 35 years.

I think everyone needs a hope chest, both men and women, single and married, young and old. I think everyone needs a box to collect the items they might use to fulfill their dreams. Maybe it would be used for household goods in a dream of marriage and family but maybe it would be used for travel books or educational program brochures or pictures of cabins in the mountains or books of poetry. It feels like there is so little hope in too many people’s lives. Maybe if everyone had a box, even a shoe box, where at least torn-out magazine pictures of dreams could be stored, it might help people make it through the next day, the next month, the next school year. These boxes would be sacred space, off-limits without an invitation to look, shared only with trusting and supportive people, people who won’t laugh when you say you want to do something outrageous, such as get your nose pierced at age 60.

Maybe we can make a hope box for someone who has lost hope. Maybe we could make one for an elderly person now confined to a nursing home. It could contain pictures of their life, trips, family and friends, and old letters. Maybe we can make one for a single mom, one that encourages her to get that education, stand up to that abusive boyfriend, not lose the dream she had before her life took an unexpected turn. Maybe instead of an Easter basket, we can give someone a “hope chest.”

Because isn’t Lent is about hope, filling hope boxes in our souls? Hope that after the fast there will be a feast? Hope that God knows our dreams and shares them with us? Hope that when all around seems death, Easter Sunday is a-comin’? I suggest the icon for this revival of the hope box tradition be the empty tomb. Inside, instead of nesting stainless steel bowls, we would find folded grave clothes and a missing body. Now that is a hope chest!

We have set records for snowfall for the month this week here at this old house. We have now had over 50 inches fall in February for the first time ever since records began to be kept and over 20 inches of that fell this week. It is beautiful: the dark blue Colorado winter sky against the sparkling white snow. It has been a bit tricky getting around town as the city tends to do less plowing of the streets rather than more but life has generally gone on as normal here at this old house.

That is both good and bad. Here in North America, we are not used to our routines being interrupted. In fact, we tend to dislike having our forward trajectories thwarted, even by something like a major snow storm. I do find it interesting that we use the weather selectively as an excuse to rest. If there is something we really want to do or feel we must do, we will brave the elements to get there but if we are tired, stressed, feeling behind, we will use the weather as an excuse to cancel, stay home to catch up or maybe, even rest.

Lent is an interruption in our normal routines. Maybe that is why so many people don’t like it. Even regular church-goers will seek to slip through Lent surreptitiously, avoiding discussions of the three disciplines of Lent: fasting, prayer and acts of love and service. The more somber music in worship “depresses” them and the idea of giving something up is so foreign that they will give a ridiculous answer when the discussion of their possible Lenten fasting practices comes up in conversation. We want life to be “business as usual.” The idea of stopping and reflecting on our sin and mortality simply does not fit with modern society’s notion of progress and upward mobility.

But we cheat ourselves by not stopping, shifting our routines to walk with Christ toward Calvary and beyond. Easter means less because we have tried to by-pass Lent. In C.S. Lewis’s “Narnia” series, the White Witch jumps a wall into a special garden where healing fruit grows. She sees no need to enter through the proper but difficult gate that Digory must find. The apple the witch eats becomes her ultimate destruction whereas for Digory, it becomes the source of healing for his mother back in England.

When we attempt to by-pass Lent, ignore it except for an hour or two on Sunday mornings, it seems to me that we are not going to benefit as much from the healing power of the Resurrection when Easter morning dawns. It will feel like “business as usual” but with a trumpet or two added in.

That is why it is good for Mother Nature to remind us periodically that we are not in charge. Be it through a snow storm, high winds or tides, flooding or drought, we do well to flow with the seasons, both of nature and of our lives. We can practice in Lent dying to ourselves so that when the day of death does come, or at least the end of life as “business as usual,” we can do so with joy and not bitterness.

Lent can be one way we  disrupt our normal life. Through a shift in focus and routine, we can train to recognize that business as usual is a mere illusion, easily disrupted. We can arrive at Easter more ready for God to do a new thing in and through us.

My tracks from yesterday were gone,
Obliterated under countless other shoe prints
And cross-country ski marks
And snowshoe treads.
It was hard to know that I had been this way only the day before
Except for my memory of the warm, wet pine smell,
The snow crystals and deep blue sky,
The birds’ song,
The rumblings of rock and ice breaking off the rock faces.
What mark was there to prove that I was there?
That I came this way on an early spring day in late February
With snow on the ground?
My mark was gone
Indistinguishable from other footprints who had also traveled the way.
Is this what it will be like after my death?
A day, a week, a year after I am in the ground
What mark will I have left on the surface of the hearts of those who knew me?
Of those who didn’t?
Will my life be obliterated by the passing of hundreds of others on the path of life
While I now lie back in the dust from which I was formed?
At a garage sale at the retirement home years ago,
I bought a metal box that held photographic slides.
(I am dating myself.)
In it were the pictures of someone’s trip to Hawaii.
I dumped them in the trash.
What else was there to do?
They meant nothing to me
But that action has continued to haunt me all these years.
Was there no one who wanted those memories?
All memories die with their creator.
All tracks in the snow melt into oblivion.
Will the birds remember I walked by?


copyright Valerie E. Hess 2015

It is snowing, again, here at this old house. We got quite a dump at the beginning of the week as well, one of those storms where an inch was predicted but ended up breaking a record for snowfall for that day. Here at this old house, we had nearly a foot! This current storm is supposed to bring us a lot but Mother Nature is not always predictable. We are no where close to what Boston has but we have a lot more snow right now than the Sierra’s do! Relatives in California say the drought there is scary. Municipalities are running out of water and are having to truck it in, with no relief in sight. The southwest corner of Colorado is also in a drought. It helps me understand what may have caused the Pueblo people of the Mesa Verde area to abandon their homes: a lack of rainfall for several years in a row equals death.

It is interesting to think of all of this in light of tomorrow’s Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent: Mark 1: 9-15–

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I have been to the Judean wilderness and it is not the deserts we think of here in the United States. The deserts here are, for the most part, lovely in their own way, with flora and fauna that inspire great metaphors. In the Judean wilderness, the rocks have trouble surviving! Truly, nothing grows there except around the oases, which are few and far between. The Dead Sea is the symbol of that wilderness, a body of water that is lifeless.

I find it fascinating that Jesus goes into that place of barren death immediately after he hears God pronounce him “the Beloved.” That hardly seems like a way to learn about and embrace one’s belovedness. Yet, it is in that wilderness that the essence of life itself and, particularly, our individual life, is revealed. When water, food and shelter are at a premium, one quickly becomes aware of the difference between needs and wants. When there is nothing to distract me from myself, I come face-to-face with my true self, for good and for ill.

At the end of this forty day time of fasting in a desolate place, Jesus is at his strongest, more able to counter the derailing attacks Satan tries to use on him.  Perhaps one definition of temptation might be anything that attempts to side-track us from who God created us to be, from our own belovedness as God’s children, from taking the true path and not a “short-cut” that ends up being a trap.

When we understand deeply our status as God’s beloved children, when we aren’t dependent on the props of life to shore up a low-self esteem, when we can function more out of our true self and not from our false self, we are less likely to succumb to tempting short-cuts and sidetracks. As Isaiah 35: 1-2 promises,

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.

Or as the prophet says earlier, in Isaiah 1:18, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow:” a good metaphor as I watch the snow piling up outside, bringing the promise of water for the future.

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