Everyday Life

If your everyday life seems poor to you,
do not accuse it;
accuse yourself,
tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches;
since for the creator
there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place.
― Rainer Maria Rilke

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
~Mary Oliver

As a child, I would sometimes spend long rainy afternoons languishing on the couch, complaining to my mother how boring life was. 

Her typical response was to remind me my boredom said more about me than about life– I became the accused, rather than the accuser,  failing to summon up life’s riches. 

Thus convicted, my sentence followed:  she would promptly give me chores to do.   I learned not to voice my complaints about how boring life seemed, because it always meant work.

Some things haven’t changed, even fifty-some years later.  Whenever I am tempted to feel frustrated or pitiful or bored, accusing my life of being poor or unfair, I need to remember what that says about me.  If I’m not poet enough to recognize the Creator’s brilliance in every slant of light or every molecule, then it is my poverty I’m accusing, not His.

So – back to the work of paying attention and being astonished.  There is a life to be lived and almost always something to say about it.

An Advent Paradox: He Who Was Rich Became Poor

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No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor.
The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything,
look down on others, those who have no need even of God
– for them there will be no Christmas.

Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.
~ Oscar Romero

 

 

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We overflow with abundance when we acknowledge our poverty of spirit ~
only filled by One rich beyond measure, but who became poor for us.

He became poor so we recognize our true need for Him.
We who are rich in so many material ways still hunger and thirst –
floundering, not flourishing.

For love’s sake He chooses poverty, humility and suffering.
He chooses us and we’re poor no longer.

 

 

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Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee. 
~Frank Houghton

 

 

Preparing the Heart: Finding Room

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For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.
~Frederick Buechner from The Magnificent Defeat

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Though I’ve worked with many homeless people as a physician, I’ve never known homelessness myself.  However, I have been room-less and those experiences were enough to acquaint me with the dilemma for Joseph and Mary searching for a place to sleep in Bethlehem.

It was my ninth birthday, July 26, 1963, and my family was driving to Washington D.C. for a few days of sightseeing. We had planned to spend the night in a motel somewhere in eastern Ohio or western Pennsylvania but my father, ever the determined traveler, felt we should push on closer to our destination. By the time 11 PM rolled around, we were all tired and not just a little cranky so we started looking for vacancy signs at road-side motels. Most were posted no vacancy by that time of night, and many simply had shut off their lights. We stopped at a few with vacancy still lit, but all they had available would never accommodate a family of five.

We kept driving east, and though I was hungry for sleep, I became ever more anxious that we really would never find a place to lay our heads. My eyes grew wider and I was more awake than ever, having never stayed up beyond 1 AM before and certainly, I’d never had the experience of being awake all night long. It still goes down in my annals as my longest birthday on record.

By 2 AM we arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and my dad had reached his driving limit and my mom had declared we were not traveling another mile. We headed downtown where the brick Harrisburg Hotel stood some 10 stories high, an old structure in a questionable area of town, but the lights were on and there were signs of life inside.

They did have a room that gave us two saggy double beds to share for eight dollars, with sheets and blankets with dubious laundering history, a bare light bulb that turned on with a chain and a bathroom down the hall. I’m surprised my mother even considered laying down on that bed, but she did. I don’t remember getting much sleep that night, but it was a place to rest, and the sirens and shouts out on the street did make for interesting background noise.

Some 12 years later, I had another experience of finding no room to lay my head after arriving late at night in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with supposed reservations at the local YMCA for myself and my three student friends traveling together on our way to Gombe to study wild chimpanzees. We landed at the airport after midnight after a day long flight from Brussels, managed to make it through customs intact and find a taxi, only to arrive at the Y to find it dark and locked. It took some loud knocking to rouse anyone and with our poor Swahili, we were able to explain our dilemma–we were supposed to have two rooms reserved for the four of us. He said clearly “no room, all rooms taken”.

The host was plainly perplexed at what to do with four Americans in the middle of the night. He decided to parse us out one each to occupied rooms and hope that the occupants were willing to share. He looked at me, a skinny white girl with short hair and decided I was some kind of strange looking guy, and tried to stick me in a room with a rather intoxicated French man and I said absolutely not. Instead my female traveling partner and I ended up sharing a cot (sort of) in a room with a German couple who allowed us into their room, which I thought was an amazing act of generosity at 2 AM in the morning. I didn’t sleep a wink, amazed at the magical sounds and smells of my first dawn in Africa, hearing the morning prayers coming from the mosque across the street, only a few hours later.

So I can relate in a small way to what it must have felt like over 2000 years ago to have traveled over hard roads to arrive in a dirty little town temporarily crammed with too many people, and find there were no rooms anywhere to be had. And to have doors shut abruptly on a young woman in obvious full term pregnancy is another matter altogether. They must have felt a growing sense of panic that there would be no safe and clean place to rest and possibly deliver this Child.

Then there came the offer of an animals’ dwelling, with fodder for bedding and some minimal shelter. This stable and its manger became sanctuary for the weary and burdened, remarkable in how unremarkable it was. We are all invited in to rest there, and I never enter a barn without somehow acknowledging that fact.

There are so many ways we continue to refuse access and shut the doors in the faces of those two (plus one) weary travelers, forcing them to look elsewhere to stay. We say “no room” dozens of times every day, not realizing who and what we are shutting out.

There is no room in our busy and “important” lives–from the moment we rise through the frenetic pace of work and home activities, there is no room for the solitude of quiet prayer and reflection, and for shared gratitude and grace.

There is no room in our schools, where all mention of religious practices outside of academic study is unwelcome and eagerly litigated.

There is no room in our city squares or buildings, where nativity scenes are banished and replaced with winter festival scenes of snowflakes and snowmen, or any symbol of religious significance is matched with a statement from the “Freedom from Religion” organizations declaring atheism as valid a faith.

There is no room in our homes where TV, computer, and social media become the altars of worship and occupy more of our time than anything else.

There is no room in our hearts and minds as we crave entertainment, sex, and drugs more than the freely offered gift of life.

Small wonder we pay no attention to who is waiting patiently outside the back door of our lives, where it is inhospitable and cold and dank. Few of us would invite our special company into the barn first and foremost. Yet these travelers don’t seek an invitation to come in the front door, with fancy meals and feather beds and fresh flowers on the cupboard. It is the dark and manure strewn parts of our lives where they are needed most. That is where He was born to dwell, and that is where He remains, in the humblest parts of our beings, the parts we do not want to show off, and indeed, most often want to hide.

There will always be plenty of room there.

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Into this world, this demented inn
in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
Christ comes uninvited.
~Thomas Merton

 

Never Poet Enough

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If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches; since for the creator there is no poverty and no poor or unimportant place.
― Rainer Maria Rilke

As a child, I would sometimes spend long rainy afternoons languishing on the couch, complaining to my mother how boring life seemed.  Her typical response was to remind me my boredom said more about me than about life – I became the accused, rather than the accuser,  failing to summon up life’s riches.  Thus convicted, my sentence followed:  she would promptly give me chores to do.  I learned not to voice my complaints about life was treating me because it always meant work.

Some things haven’t changed all these decades later.  Whenever I am tempted to feel pitiful or bored, accusing my life of being poor or unfair, I need to remember what my accusation says about me.  If I’m not poet enough to celebrate the gilded edge of the plain and ordinary, if I’m not poet enough to articulate beauty even in the sharp thorns of life, if I’m not poet enough to recognize the Creator’s brilliance in every molecule, then it is my poverty I’m accusing, not His, and a poet I will never be.

So it’s back to work then.
There is a world to admire, a life to be lived and yes, poems to be written.

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God Among Us: Brothers of All Mankind

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Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity for this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
Hebrews 2: 14, 17

 

And in the Incarnation
the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God.
Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men
is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man,
and in his own Person restored the image of God
in all that bears a human form.
Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord,
we recover our true humanity,
and at the same time we are delivered
from that individualism which is the consequence of sin,
and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race.
By being partakers of Christ incarnate,
we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore.
We now know that we have been taken up
and borne in the humanity of Jesus,
and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means
that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others.
The incarnate Lord makes his followers the brothers of all mankind.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

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I’m reminded after every long day in my clinic, weighted down by the sorrows of the people I am asked to help — how much greater was the weight borne by God as mere baby delivered by woman to become humanity with us and for us.

His incarnate presence unites us all as brothers and sisters to each other, whether or not we speak the same language, whether or not our skin color is the same, whether or not we have great riches or dire need.

This is the truth of the God of love, that we should love one another, even after a week such as this — we are delivered by Him who was delivered.
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All poor men and humble,
All lame men who stumble,
Come haste ye, nor feel ye afraid;

For Jesus, our treasure,
With love past all measure,
In lowly poor manger was laid.

Though wise men who found him
Laid rich gifts around him,
yet oxen they gave him their hay;
And Jesus in beauty
Accepted their duty,
Contented in manger he lay.
Then haste we to show him
The praises we owe him;
Our service he ne’er can despise;
Whose love still is able
To show us that stable
Where softly in manger he lies.
Poverty Carol (Welsh)

 

 

  • This is the truth sent from above
    The truth of God, the God of love
    Therefore don’t turn me from your door
    But hearken will both rich and poor
  • The first thing that I do relate
    Is that God did man create
    The next thing which to you I’ll tell
    Woman was made with man to dwell
  • And after that, ’twas God’s own choice
    To place them both in Paradise,
    There to remain of evil free
    Except they ate of such a tree.
  • But they did eat, which was a sin,
    And so their ruin did begin,
    Ruined themselves, both you and me,
    And all of their posterity.
  • Thus we were heirs to endless woes
    Till God and Lord did interpose
    And so a promise soon did run
    That He would redeem us by His Son
  • And at that season of the year
    Our blessed redeemer did appear
    He here did live and here did preach
    And many thousands he did teach
  • Thus He in love to us behaved
    To show us how we must be saved
    And if you want to know the way
    Be pleased to hear what He did say
    ~The Truth from Above — Traditional English Carol

 

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The Future Flowering

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We kill at every step, not only in wars, riots, and executions. We kill when we close our eyes to poverty, suffering, and shame. In the same way all disrespect for life, all hard heartedness, all indifference, and all contempt is nothing else than killing. With just a little witty skepticism we can kill a good deal of the future in a young person. Life is waiting everywhere, the future is flowering every­where, but we only see a small part of it and step on much of it with our feet.
~Hermann Hesse, from Vivos Voco, 1919

Hundreds of thousands of people have the choice of living (and likely dying) oppressed in the midst of conflict, too often with the risk of being enslaved and raped, or to try escape to an uncertain fate on the other side of a border, a fence, a turbulent sea.

So many of us are here, living in countries that sustain and grow us, because we descend from people who escaped war, or hunger, or extreme poverty. Many of us worship a God who was a refugee Himself from a king who sought Him dead.

Can we extend a hand of hope to millions who also want to put roots down in safety so their lives, and their childrens’ lives, may flower?   Even if it means less soil for us all, are we not the privileged gardeners to prepare the ground so all people may flourish?

 

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