Tuesday, November 25, 2014

All Good Gifts Around Us....

I did not grow up celebrating Thanksgiving (obviously). All I knew about Thanksgiving I learned from Tom and Jerry Cartoons, and the occasional showing of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - which was an odd cartoon to broadcast in the U.K. I never really understood why Peppermint Patty got so angry at being offered buttered toast, pretzel sticks, popcorn, and jelly beans. I did wonder if whether Woodstock eating Turkey at the end of the cartoon was actually cannibalism :)

Part of the joy of Thanksgiving for me has been the opportunity to embrace traditions and make them my own. My first ever Thanksgiving was spent just outside New York City. Snow was gently falling, and I was sitting at a large table with more foreigners than U.S. citizens and it felt like a wonderful reflection of the world coming together giving thanks to God for His blessings. I remember my first Thanksgiving after I became a U.S. citizen my self, it felt like my adoption into America was complete and I no longer felt like the outsider at the feast.

I have a personality that can easily stew on the negative, so Thanksgiving is a great reminder for me of the positive.

I am blessed. I have an abundance. I don't worry about what I'm going to eat (expect for chasing exciting new recipes), I have no fear about where I'm going to sleep tonight. I can afford what I need and what I want. Just having an abundance in the areas of food and shelter puts me way above many thousands in this world.

A few years ago I was leading a small group reflecting on Parables and Poetry and the parable that was randomly assigned for Thanksgiving was Luke 12:16-21

 Then he told them this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’ “Just then God showed up and said, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’ “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.

That passage created some tension for me over Thanksgiving. My expressions of what I was thankful for had me sounding suspiciously like the rich man in the passage. As I reflected more however I found myself drawn to the phrase "The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop". If consider myself as the Rich Man and my life as the 'farm' what crops am I producing?

My life seems to move through various seasons. Attitudes, relationships, abilities, all grow, blossom and die. Positive and Negative crops all grow together. I can be judgemental and petty, I can create music that helps people encounter God.  I can hold a terrific grudge and an abundance of unforgiveness. I can create spaces that are welcoming and hospitable. I can be stubborn and rude. Loving and gracious, jealous and suspicious.

My barn is very full!

It surprises me how tightly I want to hold onto my bad crops. Giving up a grudge or a prejudice can be difficult A closed fist seems to offer more protection than an open hand.

It surprises me how tightly I want to hold onto my good crops. If I give away my abundance I become fearful that I may get trapped in poverty, that I might spread myself too thinly.

There is a Staff Member at Chapelwood UMC Kathy Jo, who used to be homeless. She has a white board in her office, and she changes what it says weekly. This week it caught my attention because it says "It's not what we say about our blessing, but how we use them that is the true measure of our Thanksgiving."

The crops in my life  are opportunities for God to transform me more into the image of Jesus. They reveal where I am falling short of being the unique best 'me' that God has created.

The crops in my life are an opportunities for God to use me to transform the world.

I'm slowly learning to not put the crops in my life in categories of Good and Bad, but to simply ask God to show me what opportunities He is presenting to me through them.

What is growing in your life right now and how can you encounter God through it?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Checklist Spirituality

Thoughts for Sunday's Contemplative Service

St Theresa of Avila writes about prayer using the metaphor of watering the garden of the soul. She writes about different ways water can get to the garden. From a well, from an irrigation channel, or from the garden being located next to the river. (And from the rain...which we're not mentioning this week ion the service.)

Digging wells, and irrigation ditches both feel like a lot of effort. Carrying buckets of water is back breaking work. Theresa's third illustration is of the garden being next to the river. No work needs to be involved because the roots of the plants can grow deep down into the soil and receive water that way.

The only effort involved is the natural process of growing roots.

This can be an encouragement and a challenge.

An encouragement because there are times when spiritual disciplines can be exhausting. I want to nurture my soul, but prayer feels unobtainable and my bible seems to be welded shut. Knowing that at some place in the depths of my life, I have roots that still draw from the water of life, gives me strength to make it though those times that feel 'dry'.

A challenge because being rooted to the source means I no longer can have a Checklist Spirituality. The hard work of digging wells and irrigation ditches, the drudgery of carrying daily buckets of water, all give me a to do list and a sense of achievement when I'm done. Praying for other people can feel a lot easier than simply allowing myself to rest in God's presence - resting feels like I'm not doing anything.

Inside each of us there is a place where our roots go deep into the living water of God. Our work is trusting that our roots will draw the nurture we need.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Well and the Water

Thoughts for Sunday's Contemplative Service

When I was a child I was remember watching an Episode of Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World that was all about water dowsing. It fascinated me so much that I made my own dowsing rods out of a spare wire coat hanger and walked around the back garden for hours. I never dug any holes by Mom's rose bushes, but I was captivated by the idea that somebody could walk around and tell you where to dig for water.

Much of my early spiritual life feels like that. I would listen to Experts telling me where I should 'dig' for Living Water. Whether it was retreats, books, revivals, preachers, denominations, particular practices, I would listen to the expert tell me how they had encountered God and then rush out and try and duplicate the experience in my life.

Most of the time I failed, or if I didn't fail, the results didn't last.

Of course when I didn't find water, I blamed myself, the 'expert' couldn't possibly be wrong. I misinterpreted what they said, I didn't pray hard enough, I had un-confessed sin that God was punishing me for etc.

I remember a Charlie Brown cartoon from when I was a kid. Linus was praying and trying to work out how to hold his hands like an antenna to get the best 'reception' from God. It seems funny to me now, but that is very much what I was doing.

I've come to realize that my interior landscape is as unique as my fingerprints. Other people can give me guidelines about where to dig wells to find living water, but they cannot speak with any certainty. I need to learn to trust my own spiritual intuition.

Digging wells is exhausting work. When it doesn't lead to water it is disheartening it causes me to doubt my own ability to hear God's voice. And there are other subtle traps I've noticed as well.

Somehow I've gotten it into my head that if I am digging in the correct spot it should be easy to connect to God. That living water will just flow naturally and effortlessly into my life. Digging wells doesn't work like that...and neither does my relationship with God. Sometimes it is back breaking work for me to connect with God. Every fiber of my being wants to stop digging, and it's only as I persist that I push through the ground to connect to living water again.

And sometimes, wells dry up.

I can get very attached to the location of a well. Particular practices that pour living water into me do not work for ever. I remember revisiting a book that was very meaningful to me at one time in my life. When I reread it 10 years later I couldn't work out what I saw in it.

Certain prayer practices work for me for a while and then they go dry.

Not all wells last forever.

The temptation for me here is I confuse the Well with the Water. I think because the well is gone, that the water is gone too.  The Well is not the Source, it is just how I access the source.

I'm learning to develop a nomadic spirituality. One that isn't afraid to trust that God will lead me to new sources of water.



For Reflection:

What wells do you currently have in your life? Where do you access living water?
Where might you be being called to dig somewhere new?



Friday, September 19, 2014

The shape of my soul.

This week I was asked 'What does your soul look like? What is an image for that place of connection between you and God?'

The image that came unbidden into my mind surprised me.

A jigsaw.

As I've sat with it over the past few days I've felt a connection to it. I remember solving jigsaws in my youth. Find the corners first, then build up the edges. Next sort the interior pieces by color and then match to the box image and slowly complete the puzzle.

In my teens and early twenties I had a fairly good idea not only of the dimensions of the jigsaw of my soul, but also of the image on it. And then, when I started building it, I discovered that the shape was not a simple rectangle like I expected. I found extra corners and edge pieces that didn't meet my expectations. I found corners that were not 90 degrees. I found small pieces that were beautiful unique shapes in themselves and I would pause to reflect on them. The picture was more different and varied than I could have ever imagined, and at times I've begun to wonder if this jigsaw is double sided or even 3 dimensional.

There is something beautiful to me about encountering God in the midst of something incomplete.Of knowing that I am partnering with God building something that is a beautiful mystery, that I will always be surprised by colors, and corners. Knowing that I will not have the jigsaw finished this side of Heaven adds a sense of relief and a release of pressure....

.....and every encounter has an opportunity to reveal a new piece of the puzzle.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Openness and Authenticity

(notes for this Sunday's Contemplative Service)

Two weeks ago in the Contemplative Service we handed out cards with names on them. The names were drawn randomly from various sources, all the names were real people from  around the world. We were encouraged to pray for these people. We did not know them, did not know how to pray for them, and would not ever know how our prayers were answered.

Why did we do this? So many of us pray our own agendas when we pray. We tell God exactly what He should do and how He should do it. This exercise removed that possibility. All I could do was hold my two people out to God and pray that He would be with them in some way.

So Tom and Tam became my companions for a while, and I learned about openness and mystery in prayer. I surrendered my agendas and even allowed the way I pray for them to change how I pray for myself.

That same week my friend's five year old son Arthur had open heart surgery.

I tried to pray in the same way, to be open to the mystery of prayer and pray without expectations and agendas....and I couldn't do it. I got angry with the whole exercise. I told God in no uncertain terms exactly how I wanted Him to be with Arthur and how I wanted Him to make sure that Arthur's surgery was a success. Anything else felt like lying, I couldn't, wouldn't surrender the outcome of the surgery to God.

Arthur came through the surgery wonderfully well and is already back home.

I'm so grateful to God for that.....and I still find myself getting angry even imagining any other outcome.
I'm still wrestling with this issue of authenticity and openness.

How do I pray honestly for what I feel and still be open to the mystery of God and not become attached to the outcome? How do I pray in a way that feels honest about who I am and what I want, and acknowledges that ultimately I have to hold things loosely?

I've heard talks on the benefits of praying specifically. How articulating what you want to God helps you process and reflect on it. Be authentic to God, He knows when you are not anyway.
I've heard talks on the benefits of praying generally. How you should simply surrender the other person to God and be open to God doing whatever God wants.

In the midst of all this advice and suggestions, I find comfort from Jesus in the Garden.

"....Let this cup pass me by" is specific and authentic
"...not my will but yours be done" is a prayer of openness and surrender.

So this week I've tried to hold onto the tension of Openness and Authenticity. To ask God to help me find the place where they intersect, and when I get angry at the thought of what could have happened to Arthur, I try and place my anger in God's hands as well.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Jesus gets it backwards.

Had I been Jesus' script writer I would have worded the sentence a little differently:

"....where the plants produced thirty, sixty or even a hundred times as much as was scattered!"

Start with the lower number and then increase as you raise your voice, get the listeners really excited about the possibility of a hundredfold return. That's the way to really sell this story Jesus.

But that is not what Jesus does in the Parable of Sower

But a few seeds did fall on good ground where the plants produced a hundred or sixty or thirty times as much as was scattered. - Matthew 13:8

I've lost count of the number of times I've read that parable, but this is the first time I've noticed the word order. I was reading the passage aloud for worship and was putting some emphasis and emotion into the reading to keep people engaged. It was the process of that interpretation that I suddenly noticed the word order in that sentence.

How do I read it aloud? Do I read it getting louder and more excited to make it seem that a thirty fold return is even better than a hundredfold? Or do I allow my voice to trail down after the one hundredfold so that the sixty and thirty fold return sound like a Disclaimer?

Interestingly enough Mark's version of the Parable has the yields listed in ascending order, and Luke's version only lists a hundredfold return. Both of these sit more comfortably with me than Matthew's telling. 

I wonder if my confusion over how to read Matthew aloud displays my Reward Mentality. What do I get out of being planted in good soil? How do I maximize the return on my investment? How do I grow spiritually as quickly and deeply as possible? Mark and Luke are much more inviting in this regard, especially Luke. I'd like the hundredfold only option please.

What if this Reward Mentality that seems so ingrained has me focusing on the wrong thing? Instead of putting my efforts into somehow obtaining a hundredfold return I should instead be focusing on being good soil and leave the volume of growth to the Sower.

This Parable of the Sower (also often called the Parable of the Soils) is one of the few parables that Jesus explains. In Matthew's retelling of the explanation he writes this:

But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. - Matthew 13:23

There it is again, that descending order of numbers that started my problem, and there too is the phrase 'hear the word and understand it'.

Many of us do not hear. We do not listen to our own bodies. We do not hear the cries of the poor and needy. We do not hear people who hold views different to us. We hear only what we want to hear.

Hearing is exhausting. 

Understanding is worse. The more you seek to understand the more you realize that even the simplest concept is complex beneath the surface.

Why bother? 

When I hear and when I seek to understand, a relationship is formed between the Listener/Knower and the person/object/concept/issue. I can no longer view them as separate from myself. There is only one field, one seed. Their growth may look different to mine and their harvest may be lesser or greater, but hearing and understanding leads to acceptance and embrace.

Who do you need to hear and understand today?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Slow Cooker Beef Stew

I love this recipe. It may take a little more time than the average 'throw everything in a slow cooker' recipe, but the taste is definitely worth it....and I definitely suggest buying and cubing your own stew meat as opposed to purchasing the packets of mystery meat (and gristle) that they sell for stew at the store. It does take time to cut up the meat, but you get a better quality of flavor and reduce the amount of fat in the stew. If you can't find chuck eye roast look for something similar.

PRE-CHOP EVERYTHING BEFORE YOU START COOKING :)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 medium onions, minced
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried)
Salt
1 1/2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups low sodium beef broth
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons minute tapioca
2 bay leaves
1 (5-pound) boneless beef chuck eye roast - trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
Ground Black pepper
1 1/2 pounds red potatoes, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 pound parsnips (optional), peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
2 cups frozen peas

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet. Add onions, tomato paste, garlic , thyme and a pinch of salt. Cook stirring often until the onions are softened and lightly browned 10 - 12 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, scraping up any brown bits.

Put the onion mixture into the slow cooker. Stir in beef broth, soy sauce, tapioca, and bay leaves. Season the beef with salt and pepper and add to the cooker.

Toss the potatoes, carrots (parsnips if using) with 1 tablespoon oil and season with salt and pepper.

Using two sheets of foil wrap the vegetables in a large sealed foil packet and and set it on top of the stew in the cooker then put the lid on the top...chances are it is a tight fit, mine usually is, but carefully wrestling with the shape of the foil packet helps. If the foil rips, just add another layer :)

Cover and cook on low for 9 to 11 hours or on high for 5 to 7 hours.

When cooked transfer the vegetable packet to a plate. Turn off the cooker and let the stew rest for 5 minutes and then tilt and scoop off as much fat as you can (this shouldn't be much if you trimmed the meat well).

Remove the bay leaves from the stew then stir in the vegetables and any juice from the packet.

Stir in the peas and let the stew sit for 5 minutes for them to cook through. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.

Enjoy the taste (and the aroma)

How to do the Prep work the night before

Chop the carrots, parsnips (if using) and the onions.

Cook the onion mixture as listed above (up to the point you put it in the slow cooker) and instead store it in an air tight container in the fridge. Store the chopped veggies in another container. Store the cubed meat (unseasoned!) in a third covered container.

The next morning put the onions in the bottom of the slow cooker. Season and then add the meat. Chop up the potatoes (it takes just a moment to do). Then continue from 'Using two sheets of foil.....'