Just Because

There is much talk in various media outlets about employment and the lack thereof in our country. I know of so many people who have struggled or are struggling with lack of employment or underemployment. I am also aware of those folks who are holding on mightily to jobs they either despise or are completely bored with. Most are hanging on for security or the health benefits the work provides. If they had a chance and their life circumstances were different they would quit, leave the paycheck and the benefits for something else, something they truly love to do or were trained to do.

Work is a complicated thing. Most of us, I believe, hear stories of people who are able to do work they really love and believe that somehow these people are the exception. We hear of folks who create art everyday or run a bed and breakfast in some fabulous setting and we think that somehow their life is easier than our own, that they are getting to live out some fairy tale existence. And they might be. My sense is that they have simply decided to do as Thomas Merton suggests, ‘allowed their gifts to meet the world’s great needs’ in their own way.

It seems to me that we all hope that the work we do will create some modicum of joy in our lives. We hope to make a difference. We hope to be remembered for what we have done. We hope to come to the end of the day feeling as if how we spent our hours is a good way to be spending our life.

On Tuesday I had the blessed experience of seeing someone whose work brings them great joy. Perched above the baseball diamond at Target Field, Sue Nelson sits on a tiny elevated stage in one of the many pubs that line the various levels of this beautiful facility. Her work? She is the organist who adds adornments of music to rouse the fans to cheer and shout for the action on the field. We all know that, this year, Sue has had her work cut out for her. But from all outward appearances Sue makes her music without one whit of worry about a team that is down in the dumps. Sue is there to make music, all the while talking to children and adults who stop by to watch her in action. She keeps one eye on the field in case a ‘Charge’ tune is needed or some little interlude might spice up the game. And she does it all with a huge smile!

When it game time for the seventh inning stretch people gathered around, Sue ramped up the volume, and she led us all in singing that ritual that allows a little levity and unity to even the most dismal game. As she bangs out ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’, her already smiling face becomes a beam of sheer delight. She sings along and sways to her own music. It is a sight to behold. When asked how many times she has played this song, her reply? ” Well, I’ve done it for fourteen years. But sometimes I play it just because!”

Something tells me we all long for the joy that Sue experiences playing this simple, summer tune. We all hope to pour our very souls into the symphony of our own life’s work. We all wish that there might even be moments when we will break into the work for which we are paid ‘ just because.’

As we enter this Labor Day weekend in which we celebrate the ways we have honored and held sacred the work of our fellow life-traveling companions, my prayer is that those who have work might experience a small sampling of the kind of joy Sue has as she plays the organ. And for those who struggle to find work or are pulled down by the stress and weight of work that is soul-killing, may they find a place where their gifts meet the needs of this beautiful and complex world.

And for Sue……thank you for playing and lifting the spirits of us all.


Keep Walking

Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. If one keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
~Soren Kierkegaard

Are you a walker? I have been looking through several of my books about pilgrimage in preparation for a journey to Ireland at the end of September and found this quote embedded in one of the photos. The image was of a winding path that seemed to go on forever into a distant pastoral scene. I have to admit that just looking at this picture and imagining myself walking on that path brought about a certain state of well-being.

It has been my experience that there are many forms of walking. For many years a woman walked with great speed and purpose through our neighborhood. Feet were picked up and laid down at a jarring rate while her arms swung like v-shaped propellers at her sides. She was clearly walking for exercise and her health. Imagine my surprise when I saw her one day, moving at this quick speed, arms flying and feet pounding, while also moving a cigarette to her lips! Her walking was, I guess, helping her walk away her illness.

Now that we have the big black dog living in our house, I have become one of those folks who is a dog walker. I have often thought this is a misnomer. Truly it is the dog who walks the human. But walking with our particular immense being is much like walking with a toddler. Stop and start. Stop and start. We have to check out each and every interesting odor along the way. This walking, mostly, fills me with amazement at the gifts of scent sleuthing available to him, a gift that is lost to me his lowly human companion.

Personally, I like to walk along the river. Walking along something that is also moving at its own rhythm, its own pace helps connect me with the inner rhythms I so often ignore or fight against. On the riverside I find myself moving in a more relaxed way which allows my mind to slow and my heart rate to go to some contemplative place. Like Kierkegaard, this kind of walking often brings me to some of my best thoughts and actually allows me to lay down all that is burdensome at the riverside. It is probably as close to walking prayer as I ever get. Watching the barges carrying enormous loads pushed by the tiniest of tugboats becomes a lovely and inspiring metaphor.

Have you taken a good walk lately? Have you put on your most unattractive shoes, the ones that are also the most comfortable and walked out into the world? Are there things going on in your life that could be helped or even cured by a good walk?

My husband often says that what most people really, truly want is to be told everything is going to be o.k. No matter the state of the world or the bulk of their wallet, most people just want to know that everything is going to be fine. I think it is true. In the midst of some of the crisis we experience or those we allow our imaginations to create, we really just want to know that, in the end, all will be well. Walking can bring about that perspective. Walking alone can do this. Walking with a friend or trusted companion can do this.

So my prayer for you today is that you find a few moments to walk. Whether at a quick pace for exercise or at a leisurely one that mirrors the flow of the river, I pray that in your walking you will hear the sweet voice echoing within: ” All shall be well.”


Generation to Generation

Last week I heard a radio report about two generations coming together in a sweet and powerful way. The story actually included some residents of a retirement home across the street from my church. These senior residents had been paired with international college students with the purpose of improving the student’s English language skills. The seniors and the students would gather to have conversation,to learn from one another and to share life stories while the younger people improved their ability to communicate in a language that still holds pitfalls and moments of embarrassment for them.

The report included some actual conversations with both the younger and older generations. The younger people spoke of loving to hear the stories of their older conversation partner’s early lives, how they met their spouse, what school had been like for them, what kind of work they had done. The older people liked listening to the students talk about their families, the far away places they call home, what they are studying in school, their relationships, what they do for fun. It was a give and take, sometimes slow working through of words and understanding. You could hear the mutual respect the two generations had for one another in what could have felt like a contrived and awkward situation.

Listening to this account of these two generations filled me with such hope. I thought of how I wished this experience for all young people, for all older people. For a long time now I have held that the church is one of the few remaining places where generations intentionally come together. It is one of the places where toddlers and octogenarians share the same seat in a long row of people of even different ages. It also seems a shame, to me, that we have done so little to encourage the kind of relationships like the students and seniors whose stories I heard.

Perhaps my mind was so ripe for this because just days before I myself had had one of those rare generational experiences. It was the week of vacation Bible school at church and the usual rather stagnant energy of our weekday building was instead filled with the electric energy of children. The small ones moved about with a little apprehension trying to acclimate to a new setting, trying to feel their way into school-like behaviors. The middle-schoolers were junior counselors dressing up in costumes to entertain and help emphasize the lesson of the day. Adult leaders moved around with the enthusiasm of cheerleaders who clearly loved what they were doing. It is always a wonderful and exciting week for both the children and those of us who come to the building every day as a part of our daily routine.

As one morning was coming to a close, I headed outside to eat my lunch on a park bench near the playground. As I sat down one of the middle school boys came and sat on the bench near by. He is a young man who has grown up before my very eyes and I have always loved his spirit. We sat and talked about his summer, what his plans for the weekend were, what he was looking forward to at school this year, what he was reading these days. The talking was easy and a true conversation not the interrogations that often pass for conversations between adults and adolescents. We laughed. The sweetness and privilege of this experience was not lost on me and I valued its rarity.

When his mom came to pick he and his sister up, I said goodbye but not before greeting her and his sibling strapped into her carseat looking sleepy from the warmth and rhythm of riding. They went on their way into another August day, to try to grab hold of a few more ounces of summer freedom.

But I walked back into my office filled to overflowing with gratitude for a few moments on a bench with a young man who trusts me enough to sit still and talk. Really talk. Person to person. Generation to generation. It would be my hope that more people could have such experiences, such blessed experiences.

Somehow such precious moments seem to have the power to transform our world. It certainly did mine.

What Makes Us Fat

“Connection is health. And what our society does its best to disguise from us is how ordinary, how commonly attainable, health is. We lose our health – and creat profitable diseases and dependencies – by failing to see the direct connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving. In gardening, for instance, one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if is is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus makes eating both nourishing and joyful, not consumptive, and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, a source of delight.”
~ Wendell Berry

Last Sunday the scripture for the morning was a common one to those who have spent any amount of time in the church. It was the story of the feeding of the five thousand. This scripture, often called miracle story, is the only one that appears in all four of the gospels. Scholars will tell us that it was the central story for the early Christians, the one around which they gathered and shared community and made sense of who they were. It is depicted in some of the earliest Christian art found in the Middle East.

In preparation for worship we began to try to see the ways in which the story had such meaning for these earliest followers of the Way of Jesus. One of the key elements we noticed was that it is a story of empowerment. Jesus demands that the disciples take responsibility for feeding a large number of people who have gathered to hear him teach and heal. He reminds them that they have enough right in their own circle. The miracle comes from taking what they already have and sharing it with all who are gathered regardless of what any individual may have to contribute. It is a fascinating and simple story and one we might want to hold out more often than we do.

One of the things we wanted to do was to also connect it with some modern wisdom, something that might get at people’s real lives in a real way. That is what led us to these words of farmer, writer and environmentalist Wendell Berry. As I read these words in worship on Sunday, I watched as faces softened and heads began to nod, all a sure sign that people were hearing something that made sense to them, connected to their own life experience. Believe it or not this is always a goal in worship!

The wisdom of his words have been traveling with me all week. I have wondered when we moved from thinking of food as what nourishes and brings joy to what it is we consume. I thought of my experience of the truly wonderful meals I have eaten and how almost always they were marked by simplicity, beauty, fresh food prepared with grace and love. Often by people I did not know but whose art within the food made it seem as if it was prepared by a Great Mother.

I also thought about all the people who have no tie to where their food actually comes from other than a grocery store aisle or a delivery person who shows up at their door. This makes me think of all the people who labor on my behalf, people who sweat and toil in all kinds of weather while hoping that same weather will be kind to them and their crops. Once we began(when did it happen?) to think of food as consumption we lost that connection to the greater health of a community that plants and grows and harvests the food that feeds our bodies even when it is not us who is doing the actual gardening. The local food movement is one of the ways in which we are trying to turn this tide and I am seeing changes in this consumption mindset.

Throughout time humans have shaped their lives by what we eat, how we work and how we make meaning of the two. It is one of the common experiences of walking upright and having opposable thumbs. And both the ancient story of Jesus and the modern words of Berry came to nest together for me this week. It became a true experience of carrying my worship into my daily life and having its message continue to work and find a home in me. Another goal of worship.

My sense is that it will be doing its work for a very long time.

Memorize This

“Memory….is the diary we all carry about with us.”
~Oscar Wilde

On Saturday morning I was thankful for the camouflaging of sunglasses as I made my way around the St. Paul Farmer’s Market. In keeping with my usual weekend ritual I headed there in the early morning as the mist was still rising off the shimmering waters of the Mississippi. The chill in the air spoke more about fall than the summer we are still living in and the sky was as blue and clear as could possibly be.

Arriving at the market I did my trip up all three of the aisles taking in the vegetables, flowers, plants, and meat vendors wares before I settled on buying anything. Almost immediately I was accosted by the color, the sheer beauty of all this abundance of earth’s bounty. Row upon row of sweet corn shone forth green and yellows of varying hues. Peppers, green, red, orange and yellow were so shiny they looked like mirrors of themselves. And the tomatoes. Box after box, red orbs of a myriad of sizes waited to be snapped up for sandwiches and canning jars. Eggplants wore their purple robes and green crowns while onions and beets looked on in their humble simplicity.

Flowers, most of which were also giving way from summer colors to those of fall, were bound in bouquets ready for the lucky buyer. The pastels of earlier weeks had been replaced by the richer waves of deep orange, dark red and rusty browns. The hardy blooming plants of autumn replaced their more fragile, wispy cousins pointing toward a time yet to come.

All of this show had me verklempt. Hiding behind my sunglasses I walked through this tapestry of color and hard work. In my mind I kept thinking: “Memorize this.” And so I tried to open my eyes and my heart to the abundance of it all. I allowed the reds and greens, the yellows and oranges to seal themselves into the storage closets of my brain. Like scripture verses committed to memory as a child, I placed these sacred icons of summer in a vault to be called out when I need them most.

In the next months, as vile words of political rhetoric tumble from mouths and threaten to undo us all, I will remember the grit and dirt on the hands of those who harvested beauty. When the news becomes too much for my heart, I will open the vault door and pull out a bouquet of flowers and breathe in their sweet goodness and offer their gift to all I meet. On days when work offers more difficulty than creativity, I will remember peppers, their shiny skins and perfect life come from seed. And when sadness and loss stops by for a visit, I will remember tomatoes, tiny and sweet, enormous and beefy.

As I thought about this bounty that brought me to tears, I hoped that this message, “memorize this”, will stick with me for a lifetime. Even if, over the years, the things I remember are fewer and fewer, I hope and pray, the mental snapshots I recorded on one perfect Saturday morning will somehow swim to the surface and calm and please me. May it be so for all those who wander in the wilderness of memory. May there be an image memorized on a day when tears appeared in eyes that beheld a beauty so wonderful a message came: “Memorize this.”


Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place you are standing is holy ground.”
~Exodus 3:5

It has been what I often refer to as a whack-a-mole kind of week. Do you have an idea what I mean? Like the carnival game where little moles pop up and you stand with a rubber mallet to slap the little critters back into their holes, things have been popping up left and right. None are really of crisis nature but all have been dragging me away from what I would like to be doing. Does this ever happen to you?

Earlier in the week I was internally lamenting this life rhythm while on a morning walk. My mind was doing gymnastics worthy of Olympic gold medal status as I made my way along a familiar path oblivious to the world around me. Though it was quite early in the morning I was already revving myself up for more whacking. And that’s when, instead, I got whacked.

There had been rain in the night and though it had long since passed, I looked up in the blueness of the morning sky and was blessed by the arc of a rainbow. Someplace in a northern suburb the rain must have still been falling while the sun shone through. A rainbow! This brilliant miracle of color that has the ability to awe even the most fervent monkey minded person. How could I be jumbling myself into knots when there are rainbows?

Not moments later, while I was still stunned from this array of colors, a brilliant red cardinal flew across my path nearly at eye level, landing in the wall of lilac bushes that just months ago had filled the walkway with their sweet, purple fragrance. Another whack! Wake up you silly woman and see the beauty around you!

After these two wake up calls I decided to give myself over to the miracles rather than the moles. What did I experience? Not more than an hour later, I witnessed a white, fluffy cloud form itself into an alligator right there in the sky over my head. Slowly one puff after another formed scales and bulging eyes, a long snout and an even longer tail.

Driving alongside a beat up red truck, I witnessed the bounty piled high in its open bed. Dahlias, red, orange, yellow and pink stood tall in buckets headed for someone’s dining room table. Other buckets held mounds of zucchini and green onions standing at attention while still other containers were burgeoning with tomatoes. Some farmer’s hard work was on its way to market, providing nourishment and beauty to those who would receive this sacrament of soil and sun.I was humbled and reminded once again of what really is important, what really happens without my worrying or participation.

So what began as a week of mundane mole whacking is coming to an end with being knocked senseless by this Creation that continues to surprise and set me straight. It is a lesson to be learned over and over again. All the little things that I can allow to cause me to twist and turn with angst usually can be soothed with a good dose of living, really living in the world.

Hopefully, the next time I am ready to pick up my rubber mallet I will remember this much gentler lesson instead. Instead of whacking I will try to remember a bow of color, two red wings, flowers and vegetables overflowing, clouds painting pictures in the sky. It is a lesson, a good lesson, in humility and staying awake.

Political Poetry

Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then like a hand in the dark
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.

In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.”

~David Whyte

This morning I opened a new book of poetry by poet and author David Whyte. We will be blessed with his presence here in the Twin Cities in October and I wanted to further familiarize myself with his work. As I began to read his sparse, well-chosen words I was reminded once again about how little we really need to communicate well, to make all the points that seem so life-threatening to us. Poetry almost always does this for me. In the flood of words and messages catapulted our way every day, it is a good reminder.

I was thinking about just this as I was driving to the office this morning. Since it was the day after the political primary, the airwaves were rife with voices dissecting what the outcomes and the votes meant. I listened as people jockeyed over one another to make their point. In this listening, I noticed how little they were actually listening to one another. It was clear from the answers and their interactions. It is so often that we are not really a listener in a conversation, providing a back and forth exchange of ideas, thoughts or feelings. Most times we are only biding our time to jump in or on the words of the other so we can spew forth the words we believe to be the correct ones.

That is why poetry is such a gift. And thinking about this I began to wonder what the next few months of political rhetoric might look like and sound like if all the speakers delivered their messages in this form. What if poetry was the medium of the political speech? What if each candidate had to choose words wisely, sparingly, in order to offer their bid for office? How different our experience might be!

The idea made me laugh and also stirred my imagination. I could be wrong but I think our experience might be gentler, more nuanced. Though some may say the poetry of rap is confrontational, and some is, for the most part when we have to choose our words wisely, when we have to boil down our message to its essence as in poetry, the letters come together in a more beautiful and exquisite way, a less in-your-face way.

This does not mean it is less powerful or any less important. It does mean it comes from some place, some deep place, that has the ability to lift the hearer toward revelation, steeling them against fear and sending them toward the light. It seems to me this would be one goal of a political process that lives up to its true definition…..’for the good of all the people.’

Of course this little daydream of mine will not happen. But that does not stop me from hoping.

I can’t even remember now how long ago it was that I picked up a small book by Minnesota author Brenda Ueland entitled If You Want To Write. It was a no nonsense guide to the writing life. I loved every word between its covers. It was challenging and wise, inspiring and practical. I am sure that it was in this book where I learned that the first rule in developing a writing life was to put your behind in the chair!

After reading that book I went on to read her memoir ‘Me’. It was a rambling(in a good way) account of her life living near Lake Calhoun in simpler days of street cars and neighborhoods rife with small businesses and people who knew one another. She told of her interesting, perhaps even eccentric, family, a family of staunch progressives who filled their children with confidence and a strong independence. Mostly she talked about all she observed in her daily walks in the world. Another trait of a writing life……being a good observer.

So it was with great surprise that Ueland’s words showed up in an email I receive daily. I hadn’t thought about her in some time so it was a joy to once again read her wise, to-the-point, advice:”Sometimes say softly to yourself: ‘Now……now. What is happening to me now? This is now. What is coming into me now? This moment?’ Then suddenly you begin to see the world as you had not seen it before, to hear people’s voices and not only what they are saying but what they are trying to say and you sense the whole truth about them. And you sense existence, not piecemeal–not this object and that–but as a translucent whole.”

Isn’t that lovely? And wouldn’t you love to endeavor to do that every day as much as possible? I know I would. To hold myself to the accountability of ‘now’ seems one of the noblest things to possibly do. To be so present in the moment,to see the world as I imagine I did as a child, with eyes new to the beauty and the pain in the seams of every blessed day. To hear the sweet and raw sounds of the voices that are both familiar and foreign and to know in those voices the depth of the truth they are trying to express. To experience the weft and weave of any given day with such presence that it is a whole, no longer this thread or that one, but something that comes together as a tapestry never lived before.

I don’t think Brenda Ueland would have described herself as a mystic but it seems to me the words she offers to those who long to write are the message of the mystic,the everyday mystic that is. The one who wakes each morning knowing that the canvas that is about to be painted with hand and foot, with heart and head, with word and sight, is something more than any of us could imagine or create on our own. It is an art that is created quite literally by the dance of heaven and earth, of Divine and Image of the Divine breathing together.

Over the years I have read many books on how to be a writer. When I think back about the wisdom and exercises they offer, the lessons held out are almost always ones about living. Really living. Lessons about being in the moment. About noticing and paying attention. Advice about showing up and giving yourself to the scene in which you find yourself. Words about persistence and great patience, with yourself and the creative process. Challenges to sit in the chair and just begin. One letter after the other until something emerges that often surprises.

As the letters and the words, as the breaths and the moments, flow out into this day, may each of us have the presence of mind to whisper over and over…..”now
…..now…..now. This is now.”

Indeed it is.


The Light of God surrounds me.
The Love of God enfolds me.
The Power of God protects me.
The Presence of God watches over me.”

~James Dillett Freeman

This morning I had the privilege of visiting a new endeavor that is the neighborhood just north of downtown Minneapolis. It is called Heritage Park Senior Services Center and is a collaboration of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, the YMCA, Courage Center, Neighborhood Health Services and Augustana Care. It provides housing, health care, adult care services and wellness resources for older adults. There are apartments for those who need a limited amount of supervision and those who are living with various forms of cognitive challenges. It is a beautiful space full of smiling people, large doses of dignity, and even larger spoonfuls of hope. All this just blocks away from places that see little of any of those things on a daily basis.

In the process of giving a tour and talking with great enthusiasm about the work they do, one of our hosts used a term that caught my attention. She was describing the level of safety and security they endeavor to create. She spoke of many of the residents by name and then added there was extra care taken with ‘exit-seekers’.

Exit-seekers. Of course, I knew what she meant. She was speaking of those vulnerable ones who might, given the opportunity, wander away from boundaries created to keep them safe. Exit-seekers. The term just wouldn’t leave my consciousness. Her concern and use of this term showed such a depth of understanding for those in her care. Her work required that she, and her coworkers, pay special attention to those who might believe they were living a different day, one they had known some time ago, but we’re not living now. They might just seek an exit to walk down the street to talk to a friend or to the diner where they had had coffee every morning. Or they might go out a door on their way to a job they no longer have and haven’t had in years. Their memories of the past are more vivid than their present. Their exit-seeking could bring them to a harm that was unimagined and misunderstood.

I honor these beloved ones and pray a blessing of protection upon them. But, in truth,there are many exit-seekers in the world, people of varying ages and stages of life. I think of those who are searching for an exit that will lead them out of addiction and the pain of living a life that no longer makes sense. There are those who are looking for the door that will take them out of a difficult or even abusive relationship or a job that no longer fits their gifts, if it ever did. There exit-seekers who are often caught in the revolving door of debt and deceit. There are young ones who would love to find the exit that would relieve the pain of bullying. There are even those who are trying to find a way out of a church that no longer is big enough for the spiritual path on which they find themselves. They want to find an exit that allows them to honor what they’ve known but perhaps find another door through which they will find a new home.

Are you an exit-seeker at this point of your life? Is there a door that begs to be opened so you may move on to the ‘what next’? Are you finding it difficult to muster up the courage to walk to the exit and push open the door? Prayer of protection all around…..

For all those who are seeking exits this day, may the finding be easy and the opening gentle and filled with wisdom. For all those for whom seeking an exit would bring danger and disaster, may you be surrounded by the loving ones who watch out over you. Day in and day out. Forever and ever. Amen.