Friday, June 3, 2016

On the Camino: Consider the Wildflowers

Jesus said, according to the King James Version, "Consider the lilies of the field, how the grow..."  I'd translate it "Think about the wildflowers..." And since I have been walking the Camino de Santiago (French Route) in May and June, I have had plenty of inredibly beautiful wildflowers to think about.  If you are interested you can follow the Camino trip at

In addition to agreeing that "Even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as well as these,"  I've had a few other thoughts as I walked along.

First, wildflowers do not grow in order to be useful to people. I know that sometimes we go about planting them but in general wildflowers just happen. I suppose they don't happen if you grow genetically modified crops that are resistant to RoundUp and spray the variety out of your fields. I am grateful that they are not doing that here. I think that some of these plants actually do have some sort of medicinal or culinary uses. I know o passed wild thyme and anise. They give great joy to those who see them, at least to me as I walk by on the Camino. But I think that they are not there for that purpose. We ask "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise?" To which any scientist would give a resounding "YES!"  If a wildflower blooms and no one sees it, is it still a thing 
of great beauty?  I would answer yes, and that it is appreciated and cherished by the God who made  it. Of course each of these flowers has its own place in the natural order of things. They feed the birds  and the snails (there are marvelous snails along the Camino), and help the bees to make honey. But the flowers do all of that without working at it. 

A bunch of years ago I wrote a simple song about flowers which has come back to my mind as I have been walking along through all of these spectacular flowers. You can listen to the song here: Blooming

Now in truth, Jesus asked his followers to consider the wildflowers in a specific context, that of not worrying. And I must shamefacedly admit that my life on the Camino even provided me with a specific example of this. I had done my laundry, hoping that it would all dry out on the lines. Especially some rather expensive underwear pants that I am wearing on this hike. Then as I was out for dinner, it began to rain. I dashed home to bring my clothes off the line only to find that some kind person or persons had already done so. But as I found my clothes I was distraught to realize that my underwear was not there. I rushed around like a madwoman accusing anyone with black shiny clothes in their hands. "Are you absolutely sure those are yours and not mine?"  Finally, I located what I was sure we're my underpants. They were the right color and feel of fabric. It was not until the next morning when I tried to put them on that I realized I had done exactly what I had accused others of doing--I had grabbed someone else's underwear by mistake.   Unfortunately, an Albergue at the crack of dawn is not a great place to correct such a mistake. I spread the underwear out where I thought it  might be seen and had to hope that my unknown victim would recover them.  I realized that the very  scripture I had been contemplating applied to me, "And why do you worry about clothes?  See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith?" (Matthew 6:28-30). I had to realize that I had been precisely a woman of little faith in that instance. (And to my chagrine I also realized that my underwear was in my own backpack all along--I had brought them in early and forgotten). But even if my initial supposition had been right and someone had unwittingly taken my things, I would have done much better to relax in the confidence that if God clothes the flowers he will also clothe me. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Rat Nests and Life

My hair grows rat nests from time to time.  They are totally disgusting knots of hair that tend to grow at the back of my neck, under my pony tail, an area that is easily skipped if I brush my hair in a hurry.  Two of my children had times when they deliberately cultivated dreadlocks, which are essentially controlled and elongated rat nests that they had to work quite hard at creating and maintaining.  But my rat nests are private balls of grossness that I hope nobody else sees.  I tell myself that no one else sees them.  They come from not using the right brushes and not doing the job thoroughly.  But once they are established they are a real nuisance to get out.

There are basically two approaches.  One is to take out the scissors, and hack the thing off.  If it has grown too big, this can mean loosing quite a bit of hair, and having some strange short ends in your hairdo while the strands you have sliced out regrow.  The other is a lot more tedious and time consuming, and there is no guarantee that it will be completely successful.  You soak the thing in hair conditioner, and gradually tease it apart with combs and brushes, bit by bit.  When you reach the point where your nerves are frayed, you wash it, regain your composure, add more conditioner, and begin again.  Some hair gets lost in the process, some gets pulled out by the roots when you get too impatient, but with patience, work and time, and lots of hair conditioner, you can straighten these things out.

All of this is a trivial and somewhat disgusting part of personal hygiene.  And yes, over the years I HAVE managed to get somewhat better at dealing with these before they grow too big.  I have better hair brushes, and I've learned to pay a bit more attention.  I have years when I don't grow any rat nests at all.

The trouble is that my life grows hairballs too, or messes that are the equivalent.  Messes that come from not doing things right, from skipping steps, and taking short cuts, and not paying attention to details.  From letting things slide.  Just like the rat nests at the back of my neck, the bigger they grow, the less I want to deal with them.  Which makes them grow even worse.  And those hairballs of life can be a lot trickier to undo, because the threads are likely to involve relationships with other people.  I mean, when the issue is just a scuzzy uncleaned refrigerator, you make the time, and you throw stuff out.  Bleach will kill most of the germs most of the time.  I don't buy real Tupperware because it's too expensive if you are going to have to throw it out when the contents are too gross to look at.  But going back to people and apologizing is much harder.  Figuring out how to make things right when you've really messed up, even if the messes are lots of little things. The problem is that you know that if you had set things right when it was just a tangle at the end of a day, there would have been no issue.  But now you have a huge snarl, that's been weeks or months growing.  I never let a rat nest grow for a year in my hair, but messes in relationships have an easy time growing for years.

You can cut them out.  I guess that's what happens with some divorces and failed friendships.  Maybe sometimes that's the only solution.  I had a co-worker once who had a drawer full of unpaid parking tickets.  He was planning, so he said, to cut all ties, change his name and move to another town.  It seemed like a drastic solution.   And I suspect some suicides are just a case of the hair balls of life feeling impossible to deal with.  Better to cut my head off than try to straighten things out.

I think the grace of God is a lot like hair conditioner.  I'd love to have a magic liquid that I could pour on rat nests in my hair and make them straighten out.  I'd love to have the right kind of prayer that would suddenly and miraculously untangle all the hair balls in my life.  In my experience it doesn't work that way.  On the other hand, the grace of God does make what seems completely insoluble something that can be coped with.  And what is more, God, like a special friend or a supremely patient mother can help us get through that depressing job of combing the tangles out, standing beside us and keeping us at the task without destroying our hope and courage.

Sure, it's a whole lot easier if you never let the rat nests grow in the first place.  Keeping short accounts, applying the grace of God, forgiveness and repentance every day like hair conditioner with every shower and a thorough job with a good stiff job is definitely the way to go.  But rat nests, even the ones made of human relationships, can be faced, and by the grace of God they can often be untangled.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Where's Waldo? and the Christian Life

When my children were little, we took great delight in the Where's Waldo books, which I gather were published as Where's Wally in other parts of the world. On each page there were hundreds of little figures, doing a wide variety of things, but somewhere, carefully hidden in plain sight, would be Waldo, with his easily recognized red and white shirt. It could take quite a lot of searching, but he was always there to be found.

This morning as I woke up, it occurred to me that this is like the Christian life. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that God is there, is here in the tangled mess of our lives. Paul says in Romans 8:28 that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. Colossians 1:17 says that in God "all things hold together." But sometimes our lives do not seem to be holding together at all, and it becomes difficult to believe that anyone, let alone an all-powerful God, is really doing anything good in them.

David and Karen Mains, in their allegorical book Tales of the Kingdom write about a magical place where the children have special days to look for the King who comes in various disguises. The boy the story follows has a hard time, because even though he is encouraged to look with his heart and not his eyes, he is not sure what that means or if he is willing to believe in anything beyond what his eyes can show him. "Seeing is believing" he says, and is told that in the Kingdom, believing is seeing. Finally he realizes that the one who has been showing up all day, as a poor beggar, as a young man delighting the children, in other guises, was actually the King.

Mother Teresa looked for Jesus, and saw him in his "distressing disguise" in the poor of the world.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem "God's Grandeur" tells us that "there lives the dearest freshness deep down things...Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."

So where will we see God today? It's a matter of looking with eyes of faith. Sometimes our problem is not having faith that He is there to be seen. Sometimes, at least for me, the problem is that we do not take the time to look carefully.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Fan-dom and God

In the past year or so, I have discovered the interesting world of fan-dom. Up to this point, I have occasionally admired actors, directors, authors, and politicians but the desire to connect with them never became acute. I figured that there was nothing I could say or do that would ever register on their radar, and so there was no particular point in making any effort.

And then, in the process of doing some personal research on Bollywood, I stumbled on the blog of Amitabh Bachchan. I admire the man's work, and would ordinarily have left it at that. But in the blog, I discovered an invitation to see the world through his eyes, to be a part of his "FmXt" (as he calls the extended family of his blog readers and commentators). Having never gathered an autograph in my life nor wanted one, I even joined the throng of those who asked for a "yellow line," the virtual equivalent of an autograph, Bachchan's way of responding to comments on the blog. It shows you that Amitabh himself has actually read your comment--he claims to read all of them--and taken a moment to respond. Yes, the day I got one, even though I asked for it, it made my day, even though I felt silly about caring so much.

All of this got me thinking about what it is that these throngs of fans actually want from the person that they clamor to be near. A movie star comes by and is inundated with requests for photos, handshakes, autographs--some proof that we have been in their presence, some acknowledgment that we exist. "Me, me, me, look at me" we cry. If we could, we would have them actually relate to us, though I suspect that most of us would be tongue-tied if we really came face to face with these greats that we admire. What would you say, what could you ask that would be meaningful? "I love you, I love your work, it has touched me so deeply." Here's what happened to one person.

So what does this have to do with God?

First of all, God is greater than any person that I may admire. I fervently hope that my admiration for any person does not approach worship. And yet this pale copy may show me something of what real worship entails. "Dear Sir, I am in awe of your work." "O God, all that you have made is amazing. When we look at the stars, we see the work of your hands; even a handful of sand or dirt is an amazing thing full of complexity and wondrous possibility." "Dear Sir, your book or your performance changed my life." "O God, you heal my heart, you transform my life in ways beyond counting."

God is greater, and yet he is also much more willing and able to pay attention to us than these human stars. We clamor for a Tweet or a wave, an autograph or a handshake. For years, fans have been mobbing Amitabh Bachchan's house in Mumbai every Sunday evening that he is home,just for the chance to see him wave to the crowds.
Yet when we pray, we have an assurance that God hears us, that he knows us through and through. For God, we are not one face in the thronging masses of admirers. We are intimately known and personally loved. It's a wonder to me.

--A Fan of God

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Make a Wish

Amitabh Bachchan as Genius, the genie, in Aladin

My grown son, David, and I went to Aladin this weekend, the new Hindi movie starring Amitabh Bachchan as the genie. See a promo for the movie. The movie has subtitles, and is available for a little while at a few movie theaters in the US. After that, I think that your best bet for legal viewing in the US will be I will not call this a deep movie, but it's fun.

I respect Amitabh Bachchan greatly as an actor, and have also been delighted to get to know him a bit as a person through following his blog, which he is amazingly faithful at writing. Since he is one of the most famous actors in India, I was initially startled to find that this one is not a fake, the man actually writes a daily blog, the quality and consistency of which is an inspiration to bloggers everywhere.

On the way home, we got talking about wishes and genies. David pointed out that in the stories, and certainly in this version of the story, people seem to have given very little thought to what wishes they would make if a genie showed up. He allowed as how this is a topic that he has given a great deal of thought to over the years (presumably to be ready, should the opportunity arise. One never knows what the day may bring.) The key issues in his mind were that you have to wish for things that would be useful, but not to wish for anything that would change your nature, or the nature of people around you. His suggestion for this was to wish first for a large amount of money (he suggested that a hundred billion dollars would be nice, if you could also request no accompanying hyper-inflation) followed by the ability to play all musical instruments well, and the ability to speak and understand all languages fluently.

It got me thinking about the fact that the Bible has a "wish fulfillment" story, though not the traditional three wishes of the fairy tales. Solomon was given a wish after he built the Temple (2 Chronicles 1:7-12). God said, "Ask for whatever you want me to give you." Wow! And Solomon chose pretty well, too, asking for wisdom and insight to be able to lead the people and thus fulfill his duties as king. He doesn't wind up with a sausage glued to the end of his nose, or with a gift that destroys everyone around him. His request actually makes God happy, and he not only gets what he asked for but lots of other stuff as well, "wealth, riches and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have," thrown in as a bonus. But it still goes sour in the end, because Solomon lacks the one key thing that his father David had, a heart fully devoted to God. And in the end, all of Solomon's wisdom does not provide the blessing of a heart that is turned to God.

The thing that Jesus suggests we seek, rather than riches, rather than wisdom to rule a kingdom, is the kingdom of God, a gift that he says the Father is pleased to give us, though perhaps we would do well to remember than right after the assurance that it is the Father's good pleasure to give us the kingdom comes the command to sell our possessions and give to the poor (Luke 12:31-33). Something to think about.

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God. (2 Corinthians 1:20)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Aik Alif (Only an A/Only One Thing)

Noori, one of the groups I saw in Chautauqua
(and the group that performed this song)

I wrote most of this when it was fresh in my mind, but never posted it.

This past summer, I was fortunate enough to hear a concert at Chautauqua, NY by a variety of Pakistani musicians, that included a song called "Aik Alif," which sets words to an 18th century poet Bulleh Shah to modern music by Ali Hamza and a modern Sufi musician Saieen Zahoor. You can listen to the song with subtitles here.

You read to become all knowledgeable
But you never read yourself
You run to enter your mosques and temples
But you never entered your own heart
Every day you fight Satan
But you never fight yourself
Bulleh Shah, you try grabbing that which is in the sky
But you never get hold of what’s inside your own house
Stop seeking this knowledge [of the world] my friend.
Stop this seeking my friend
Only an alif [the letter A, beginning, or oneness] is what you need
Only an alif is what you need; truth
Stop seeking this knowledge my friend.

God beloved, God beloved, God beloved…

I am going, I am going along
With the devotional one

One who doesn’t know the strength of truth
One who doesn’t know the strength of truth
God won’t give them the strength
We are drowning in our own selves
There are no boats or rough waters; only truth
Stop seeking this knowledge my friend
Stop seeking this knowledge

For me, the song seemed like a Muslim scholar's version of what Jesus said to Martha, when she was concerned about Mary's seeming indifference to the demands of service. "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:41-42).

In the poem, Bulleh Shah reminds himself not to chase after all this learning, as though that will take him to God. He also scolds himself for focusing on the fight against Satan instead of worrying about the evil that is in his own heart. Both concerns seem appropriate to me, though as a Christian called to academia and in the midst of the struggle to write my dissertation, I have to acknowledge that part of my focus on God requires a focus on books and knowledge. In the same way, many housewives feel the story of Mary and Martha cannot be taken to mean that the laundry and the dinner preparations should be completely ignored, but still find that it is relevant to their lives.

"Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this:
'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your mind and with all your strength.'"
(Mark 12:28-30)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Kiva--Encouraging Entrepreneurs

Kiva is a way to support microfinance--small loans at interest rates which are low for the area, to entrepreneurs in the third world who generally have little access to alternative means of finance. The result is that many people in the third world are helped.

This happens with minimal cost to the individual lender. You lend in increments of $25, and your loan is bundled with the loans of others to allow larger loans to the borrowers. You get to pick the businesses that you want to support. As they repay, you can take your money out via Paypal, or you can lend to others, watching your money roll over and support a wide range of enterprises. You don't get interest on your money (and yes, you might not get repaid--but this is rare). Still, you have a rare chance to see what your money is accomplishing.

Check it out.

Psalm 112:5 Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely, who conducts his affairs with justice.