When I am looking for a new idea or a new way to describe an old idea, I need to go away from where all the bustle is, and I need to go to find a bit of peace.
When I am struggling with feeling dry and complacent, I need to go somewhere to clear my head. Generally I can go for a walk close to my house, or if I need to I can go take a shower, something that gets my body moving and helps to work ideas to the surface. Or, if I need to, I go to practice centering prayer, where I lie still and allow my mind to open, relax, and release into the presence of God.
Sometimes I am not searching for inspiration as much as it is placed on me. When I go to the top of the mountain, or to the shore of the ocean, or even to the edge of the local creek, I am inspired by what I see, hear, and feel. I become fully present.
It seems that the common thread in all of these places and situations of inspiration is the ability to become fully present in those places and in my own body. When I am at the edge of the ocean, I can taste the salt in the air, feel the sand under my feet, hear the waves crash against the shore, and see the water continue its endless and never replicating cycle of movement. I have no choice but to sense the place of where I am, and so stand more solidly in myself, rather than have my mind flit between a hundred different places and a thousand different thoughts.
It helps if I don’t have my phone on, tethering me to everyone who has my number. Sometimes I need to get away, and be where I am, rather than wondering or worrying about this friend or that family member. I need space to remember who I am, in my own skin. When I do that, I can more ably respond to others with grace and kindness.
When I know who I am, I am better at being who I am.
I guess, in a way, that I find inspiration in places that allow me to be myself at my fullest potential. When I am not able to be myself, I end up rehashing old ideas and lack the creativity that lies silent and deep in my core. I can grow crusty with old things, but when I crack the shell of routine I am able to do more than I could ever do before.
When I go to find inspiration, I find more than that. I find joy.
The beginning of this week was filled with rain. The rain fell for the entirety of Monday, reminding me of the Kenyan rainforest and camping as a child. We kept the windows open through the day as we took our Sabbath. For a while, it felt as though we were keeping a traditional Sabbath, because all the lights were off and we only used the ambient light from the cloudy sky.
The rain fell in gentle patterns and in furious downpours. The lightning filled the sky and the thunder shook the house to its bones. The sweet smell of washed soil filled our home.
God made mud in our yard. Rivulets cascaded through the moss and formed streams of water down past the foot of our house. Water swept the dry dust of the early summer away down to join the streams downhill.
The week has since warmed and brought sweltering heat and bright sunlight to the days since. But here in the midst of the south, in the midst of the harsh summer, we received a week of cool breezes and chilly nights to remind us of the spring that has passed and the autumn that is yet to come.
With the reminders of the gentle coolness of nights of soft breezes, God granted us a space to persevere through the stifling heat of the summer sun.
Sometimes it takes a storm for me to see the calm afterwards. Sometimes it takes a storm for me to learn that I need to take shelter and find a place to weather the storm. Sometimes it takes a storm for me to understand the wonder and awe that comes from experiencing God’s presence.
Sometimes it takes a storm to wash away the dust and form the mud that creates miracles.
Sometimes all I do is stand in the storm.
… … …
When I am in the midst of difficulties, it is hard to see the gleam of God’s good work when everything is coated in a film of dust. All I can see is the dust, the dirt, the demands and burdens of the daily drudgery. Life takes a paler view when all I see is the chores of the next day or week. There is a difference between hard work and work that is hard to do. A simple task can either be the work of a moment or the work of a day, depending on the way that the task is approached.
I love to be enmeshed in work that gives me life and calls my attention. I thrive when I can see the good that comes from what I do, even if it is elusive, ambiguous, or undefined. That kind of work gives me life and joy.
But there are other times when the work before me can seem simple as ever but is as hard as pushing a ever growing stone up a mountain. I become drained merely thinking about the task before me, even before I press my shoulder to the stone to begin the climb. That kind of work leaves me numb and weary.
On occasion, it is not the work itself but the environment surrounding me. If I need to push a boulder up a mountain, it is much easier to do if the ground is firm and solid rather than loose and slick. If I cannot find a place to put my foot to support myself, all I can do is slip and tumble down to the valley again, or scrabble at roots in the crumbling soil, hoping to keep from scattering my support like so many clods of clay.
Whatever the circumstance, the work remains, so I try to take small bits of it at a time, looking at the narrow individual task, rather than be overwhelmed by the scope of the work before me. This is easier said than done, of course. I prefer to look at the wide picture, see the broad scope before me, but looking over the whole journey can stall my action and keep me from attending to the present moment.
And so I trudge on, and hope that in my continuing tenacious determination I find a new place to gain a different perspective. The mud might stick to my boots and make them a few pounds heavier, but the weight does not keep me from moving forward. I look for a stream to wash my boots, or a solid place on which to rest for a while.
My endurance grows. I become stronger as I continue to tread the path before me. The stone may not be any lighter, but I learn a new way to carry it so that it doesn’t wear me out as much.
The miracle is that sooner or later I can put it down; I no longer have to carry it. At first, without the weight of it on my shoulders I feel off balance. I forget how I held my body without the tremendous extra weight upon me. As time goes on, and as I continue to move, I remember what it felt like to not carry a burden the size of a boulder. I learn to set my feet in a new way, different than before I picked up the stone, since now I have changed from my long journey. I have grown stronger, and my new strength grants me grace.
I wish that I didn’t have to go through the hard part of the journey. I wish that I didn’t have to carry a burden in order to learn how to be strong and graceful. I wish the mud could just stay by the riverbank and off of my boots.
But the journey isn’t just about the finish. The path twists and turns and makes switchbacks so that I can learn from where I have been and prepare for where I am going. The mud is a messy reminder of the creative work of God in the midst of the harshest circumstances.
And really, truly, my path is not just about me. It is also about the people around me: those who help me bear my burdens, those who need me to help them carry theirs, and those who walk alongside me. When I find folks who can journey with me, my burden is not as heavy, and the path is not as rough.
I keep my ears open, and my eyes wide, looking for people who help me in my journey. I try not to listen too deeply to the voices that say that I cannot do it, that I will fail at whatever I try. I pay attention to the markers on the trail, listening to my fellow journeyers so that I can continue on the right path. I find shelter from the storms. But occasionally, I’ll step into the downpour, because I know that it is good to be cleansed deep into the cracks and crevices of my soul.
There’s a song that goes “I will call upon The Lord, who is worthy to be praised. So shall I be saved from my enemies. I will call upon The Lord.” I find it prettiest when it is sung as a call and response, with the different parts falling in upon each other as the song gathers strength and passion. The chorus goes “The Lord liveth, and blessed be the rock, blessed be the rock of my salvation.” This song, especially sung as a call to worship, draws all who sing and worship together to sing and name The Lord as present in this space.
I think about this song frequently, even if I haven’t sung it since the last time I was at a campfire worship circle. I want to call on The Lord to be present in this space, in each and every space where people are in worship, or hurting, or in danger, or in pain.
The conflict is escalating in Israel and Palestine, and I know there are no easy answers, but my heart breaks with the stories of families being torn apart, children wounded in a war between their parents. How difficult to teach a child the reason for their injuries, without teaching them the hate and fear that led to the conflict in the first place.
There are stories of people being better than the war growing around them, stories of grace and forgiveness in the midst of grief and heartbreak. But these stories of hope are scarce in the midst of conversations of missiles and interception measures.
I pray for peace in the midst of this conflict, as well as other conflicts around the world, those I have heard of, and those I have not, conflicts between communities and conflicts in the midst of diseases reaching epidemic proportions. I pray for healing, for grace, for the power of God to reign in broken places and in broken lives.
May The Lord live and bless us, let the name of The Lord be praised, root us on the foundation of the rock that gives abundant life.
I will lament and I will praise and most of all I will continue to hold all of the world, all of these amazing, intricate people who were formed in the image of God in my prayers. Let this call, this invocation be carried by the Spirit to the very heart of God.
Today Le Tour de France ended in a part of France in which I traveled when I visited my sister while she taught there. (Sis, you can keep going to cool places, and I’ll keep visiting you there.) It was cool to see parts of the country, the cobblestones I had walked on where now the competitors were racing. The thing about the stage today: it was raining. And so at the end of the stage, every single biker was covered in the mud kicked up from the road from their tyres and the tyres of all the men racing with them. The announcers said that they were showering or at least getting a “thorough toweling off” before they had any interviews.
I’ve not often been that dirty. I have a pretty clean job, where I do a lot of writing, and I might sweat, but it is only because I might be preaching outside or if the heat is turned higher than I find comfortable. On vacations, I take a shower after a day at the beach, but that’s to get salt and sand out of my hair. I don’t play sports very often in the rain, though I do enjoy a stroll in a summer downpour every so often.
I remember once, though, that I got pretty dirty.
While I was volunteering with Peace Corps in Kenya, a group of us wanted to go over the border to Uganda to white water raft the headwaters of the Nile. There is probably a flight that goes from Nairobi to Kampala and a quick cab or charter flight that would take at most an hour or two to get the journey done. But, being volunteers and with limited spending money (I almost said we were poor, but that would be lying) we all took the local mass transit available. That means we all took Matatus. A Matatu is a unique vehicle, designed for fifteen passengers, with the diesel engine block directly under the driver and front passengers. They are everywhere in Kenya, probably in most of Africa. We saw a couple of the same vehicle bodies when were in Tokyo, but they were not the same, they were way too clean and didn’t have nearly enough people in them. Remember how I said they were designed for fifteen passengers? Sometimes, especially in the western side of Kenya, the conductors can fit in an extra five, ten, or fifteen people in, as well as live chickens, goats, children who sit in laps, and any assorted collected luggage. It can get a little cramped.
Our group came together, and managed to fill most of a Matatu, but not all of it, there were locals riding with us. I managed to sit in the very back, alongside a window that I cracked open to get some good air circulating through. There is no air conditioning in Matatus. You learn to make the best of imperfect circumstances. I was sitting pretty for the final leg of our trip. Window seat, got a seat nearly to myself, friends around me, doing pretty good, actually.
When we got to the base camp of the rafting company, I gave myself more than a once-over. My arm, where the sleeve met the skin, looked like I’d gotten a farmers tan. Not too bad, just a bit red and dark. On closer inspection, I realized it was dirt. That’s right, the dust of the road had layered on thickly enough so that I thought I had a tan. It was time for a bath.
I went on to take the most amazing shower of my life. Showers are not all that common in Kenya. I didn’t live with running water in my home and took bucket baths to get clean most of the time. The base camp had showers set up along the ridge looking out over the river, one wall made of forest and river in the distance. As I soaped up my hair I could see rivers of dirt streaming down my body. I don’t always rinse and repeat, but this time it was incredibly necessary. It felt so good to be clean.
I wonder when else that is the case. Do you have to get really dirty to appreciate getting clean? The contrast makes the positive so much stronger.
I struggle with thinking sin is the same way. And in some ways it might be. When a woman comes to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, the host at the table complains at her effusive display of gratefulness. Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a man whose debts as big as a mountain being forgiven who is more thankful than a man with a mole’s hill worth of debt forgiven (Luke 7).
Paul asks: so should we sin more, to make the forgiveness that much sweeter? Absolutely not (Romans 6).
The thing about God’s grace: it is sweet regardless of the journey we have taken to receive it. Whether we have raced through the cobblestones of Northern France in the pouring rain, ridden in the back of a Matatu down a pot-holed dusty road, or done what seems to be nothing of consequence, God offers us grace to cleanse us of all that has hindered us.
I forget this. I forget that grace can come to me and those around me, whether we have a squeaky clean past or a hundred different skeletons in our closet. Shouldn’t we get a little dirtier just to make the cleansing that much better? Not necessarily. And in the same vein, it doesn’t matter how dirty you get, whatever past you think you have that is going to make God cringe. The waters of God’s grace shower down in a never ending fountain that cleanses us of everything. Every doubt, every fear, every anger, every moment of jealousy, every single thing. Now. We still live in this world, even as we are working to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. Grace is not a one time thing. We still need grace to work in us every day. Just like you need a regular shower, you need a regular encounter with God, with the grace and Spirit of God to stay in the right direction.
God is not done with you yet. God is waiting to cleanse you with grace again. And guess what? It feels so good to be clean.
It is beginning. The healing. I can feel it a little more now than I could yesterday. Today I didn’t crash into oblivion after lunch. Today it doesn’t feel like I am trying to hack out my lungs every few minutes. Today it doesn’t quite feel like I’m breathing through a soaking wet towel any more.
Today I feel a little better.
I’m not well yet. I still get a little light headed when I stand up or move too fast. I still need to take my antibiotic and fun cough suppressant. I still need to make sure that I have a way to take care of a runny nose and anything that might get produced during one of my hacking sprees.
But I can tell that I am healing.
It is slow, this healing thing. It has made me be patient. Patient in ways I really didn’t have a care to be. I haven’t been able to take my walks like I want to, and so my step totals for the week are going to be abysmal. My energy is not where it should be. I wouldn’t want to try to preach again tomorrow. I won’t be running anytime soon.
I am looking forward to feeling better tomorrow.
Until this morning, I wasn’t sure that I was getting better. I couldn’t have told you whether or not I was going to have to call the doctor for a better solution to being so terribly out of breath. I didn’t know if my crazy strong antibiotics were having an effect on the infection still wriggling away in my lungs, taking up residence and stealing my power from within me. It still seemed to me that I was just as unwell as when I initially went to the doctor.
Today I am just enough better that I can continue to wait and see. I’ll still take it a little easier than normal. I am still waiting for my reserves to build back up and return. I need to be ready for whatever life will throw at me next.
Whatever it is, I think I will be ready. I will be just that little bit stronger. I will be prepared to face the next curve solidly on my feet. Just make sure that it waits a couple more days. I’m not at full strength quite yet.