Archive for March, 2009

Of divine love and sentence diagramming

They say that confession is good for the soul so here goes. Writing can be a struggle for me. It seems a strange confession for someone who’s career centers around words. What I’ve found is that my comfort level with the spoken word is miles above my confidence in the written word. In many ways, this blog is about changing that.

Beth Oliva Fagerlund, my middle and high school English teacher, always thought I would be a writer. In fact, one of my favorite grammar exercises has always been sentence diagramming. I’ve always been good at sentence diagramming primarily because I’ve tackled them as puzzles to be solved. Since part of the writing process involves editing my work, I should be a natural. If I understand sentence structure I’m more likely to communicate my thoughts clearly while varying my sentence structure. Even something as elementary as object and subjects can get fuzzy. The subject is usually the word that does something and the object is the word receiving what is done. 

As I began preparing for my Easter Sunday message I was reminded by author Cynthia Bourgeault of the love that drove Mary Magdalene to the tomb that first Easter morning. Her love, embracing both soul and spirit in complete transformation, was more than Peter or any of the other disciples could imagine. Perhaps we have that fundamental flaw as well – confusing subject with object. Should we picture God only as an object, the “someone” or “something” that we can love? Would it not be better to view God as the subject of love and we humans as the object of His love? How might that fundamental shift affect our followership? Perhaps a simple grammar exercise has the power to transform.

House of Stories

Spring cleaning has taken on a new form for me this year as we prepare to sell our house. Added to the usual scrubbing, dusting and window cleaning tasks are things like stripping and staining our staircase, repairing a stained-glass windows and painting the walls and baseboards around our newly tiled kitchen/entryway. Our agent has encouraged us to neutralize our home before putting it on the market.

I’m writing from the study of my friend and mentor Len Sweet on Orcas Island, Washington. Len and his family live in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. By that I mean their home is a collection of antiques from that era – each with a unique story. Each and every nook and cranny of this tiny house is filled with amazing works of art and craftsmanship. One of the great joys of my annual pilgrimage to Orcas is hearing the stories behind each of the pieces in their collection. I asked Len about the enormity of the spring cleaning task in the Sweet house. He surprised me with his reply. He said spring cleaning in the Sweet house is about cleaning up and cleaning out. We clean up the pieces while remembering the story behind it. We clean out the pieces to which we have forgotten the story

Forgotten stories. That’s why this spring cleaning for me has been so difficult. My home tells the story of the Wahlstedt family from it’s beginning 20 years ago in Tennessee to the past five years in Texas.  I now understand part of the angst I’ve felt in my spring cleaning. Every wall I painted Sea Sand, every window treatment I make neutral, every picture I replace feels like a step toward a forgotten story.

The story will go on.

Lessons from a Toddler

You know it’s a bad day when the two year old under your care for the afternoon denies you access to his collection of Thomas the Tank Engine model trains. There’s nothing like being told by a toddler not to touch his trains because they’re his. I’ve got to hand it to my be-diapered little friend, he’s had those toys since he was only a few months old and he never grows tired of playing with them.

Unfortunately, there is a graveyard in my garage and it grows larger by the day. Headstones that bear the words garage sale or thrift store mark their final resting place in plastic caskets. Once upon a time these toys were the object of incredible desire for one of my four children. They were not things they simply wanted, they were things they desperately needed. But as with all things designated as must haves, their allure quickly faded. Watching my youngest child add to the graveyard this week saddens me in a way. With growth comes new tastes. 

The truth is that we all seek satisfaction. We all desire things that will ultimately satisfy our cravings. In an attempt to satiate our desire, we buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t really like in the hopes we’ll be seen as more powerful, more beautiful, or more . . . whatever. The challenge is that we don’t always recognize this innate drive at work within us. Our need to seek is part of the Imago Dei in us. We were created with a drive to seek God but we settle for toys that quickly lose their appeal and die. Our desire to seek God is connected to our desire to return home to Eden. Eden is the place where we experience the Divine. A true experience of God always changes me. A true experience of God always satisfies. . . whatever the hunger inside.

Fruit as a Doorway

In many ways the Lenten season is a time to rediscover the simple things of life and faith.

As a young boy I loved me some PB&J. Bad grammar aside, those of you who share my affinity know that a true peanut butter and jelly sandwich is made with concord grape jelly. The thicker the jelly, the better the sandwich. 

My love affair with the grape has been reignited in my religious recovery only now the grapes are pressed, blended, bottled and aged. Few things give me more enjoyment than a lightly chilled glass of well-balanced Zinfandel or bold Merlot with a hand-rolled Cuban cigar. Puff and sip, sip and puff then repeat.

Jeff Cook suggests that in the realm of spiritual life fruit is a doorway. Pour yourself a generous glass of vino and follow for a moment. In the book of Genesis,when the serpent presented fruit in the garden, Adam and Eve when they ate it entered death and brokenness. In the book of Joshua, when God held out fruit in the desert, those who ate and believed entered the Promised Land. On the night before his death, Jesus took wine and offered it as a symbol of his blood soon to be poured out for the forgiveness of sin. Drinking of the cup meant freedom. Drinking of the cup was the doorway to becoming fully human again.

What is the Lenten season if not about becoming more fully human. May I, may we all drink deeply.

Of Trees, Travel and Grandpa

I owe a debt of gratitude to my paternal grandfather. Grandpa worked for sixty years as caretaker of a scenic, wooded estate on the Gold Coast of Long Island. His hands were calloused, his neck had the look of worn leather but his heart was soft as the moss that grew on the towering oaks dividing manicured lawn from leaf-covered forest. Grandpa often used the work we were doing as platforms to teach about life.

One day my grandpa and I were working to clear the thorny underbrush that hampered movement through a heavily wooded area just below the main house’s veranda. It was a warm and sticky summer afternoon. The kind of afternoon that literally saps your energy. I was relieved when Grandpa announced it was time for a break. I took a long drink from the nearby well and collapsed spread eagle on the greenest patch of lawn I could find. My relief lasted but a moment before Grandpa called me to come and rest against the back side of a large Elm. I suggested my location was far more comfortable than his but he insisted I join him. After sitting down next to him, I asked him why. I’ll never forget his reply. He said, “David, you never know when someone from the big house will be watching you. Always be aware that you are sending a message when you work here.” The message he was concerned about sending in that instance was that we spend our time relaxing in the sun rather than being about our business.

That story illustrates what I hope this season of Lent will be for me – a chance to become more fully aware. More fully aware of God’s creation around me. More fully aware of the people with whom I interact. More fully aware of God’s image and breath growing inside me. I want to be more aware of what I’m saying. I want to be more aware of what I am doing. I want to be more aware of my motives. I want to be more aware of my actions. To paraphrase the words of Anthony De Millo, to live an unaware life is to live a mechanical life. That’s not being human. Being human is the antithesis of being mechanical. 

I travel often to work among orphans in poverty-stricken areas of Africa. It’s easy to become anesthetized to the hundreds of thousands of people living there in extreme poverty, just managing to survive. Waking up early, they eat, do hard manual labor, sleep and then wake up, eat and do it all over again. Many who travel with me for the first time often wonder, “Is this all that life holds for them?” The reality is that most of us are not any better. Sure, our routine may be different – few of us do manual labor just to survive – but the end result is the same. The machine we call life may be bigger and more nuanced than theirs but it is a machine nevertheless. We might as well be the tree I rested against all those many years ago.