Collaboration and the Art of Giving Up Credit

Candid Together van Gogh quote

“I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.” Joshua 24:13

A creative masterpiece is the result of a succession of little strokes, tiny marks, a single idea and then another. For it to hold any meaning the work depends on a variety of colors or hues or shades; the inspiration dependent on the community of the artist – all who participate in giving and receiving form. The finished work resembles nothing of its initial spark and is complete only when the artist ceases from adjusting, contouring. And even then, the creator is compelled to create – to start on another inspiration with a mark here, a brush stroke there.

The people under Joshua’s care came into a land though a succession of acts over decades (and more) by the hand of God. They landed in a space that was already cultivated, rich in the necessities and in luxuries. All the people participated in the effort (for ill or for good) and the result was still the same: the provision God promised became reality. The only thing God asked of them was to acknowledge God, glory in God, the Creator-Provider.

Nothing I accomplish is entirely my doing. Everything that our country is today (for good or for ill) is a result of all who went before us and all who surround us. If there be meaning in the masterpiece of humankind, all the colors and hues and shades that comprise it – and shape it – must be visible. And the fullness of its beauty, then, is perceived more vibrantly, appreciated in the richest wisdom when standing in the presence (glory) of the Creator-Provider. To focus on anything else detracts from its beauty, and in the scriptures is called “idolatry.”

I, for one, am grateful for the remarkable people in my life brought together by the More Than, and over a succession of little things accompany me to become, to accomplish something great – masterful.

Who surrounds you today, brought together with you to become more of you?

Breathe deeply as you consider each one.

Be grateful.

For a cogent, forthright assessment of the US’s idolatry, read Miguel de la Torre’s brilliant, “Keeping the White House White.”

yūgen and the art of grace

yūgen art of grace

Mindfulness practices are prevalent and pervasive, and their effects are well documented and understood. At the same time, their techniques devoid of the context from which they were derived (for example, relationship with God) limit the potential and capacity these practices hold for greater wellbeing and wholeness. An article I recently read by, Lomas, et. al., discuss this problem as pertains Buddhism.[1] It is easy to see how well it can be applied to Christian spiritual practices.

The Zen branch of Buddhism is Japan’s iteration that incorporates the spiritual philosophy into the everyday experience. In particular, it is a spiritual sensibility that does not require words, as the Holy Spirit in the Christian experience understands with a sense “too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). It made its way to Japan through China who shaped its expression through the lens of Taoism. The Tao, then, refers to an all-encompassing being without form and is omnipresent. To encounter this being one must rest into the free-flowing action, relinquishing control “and aligning oneself with the Tao.”[2] It is hard not to call to mind an omnipresent Creator-God and the words of Jesus beckoning those who hear to rest, be still, come and be, stay a while.

It seems to me that by not seeing God in the practices of other cultures, Christians limit the capacity for the Spirit of God to make things right internally and in the community and beyond. These are not so different from many of the ancient practices of the so-called Desert Fathers and early spiritual writers. But, they are relegated to antiquity because very few are willing to go spend the balance of their lives living in a hut in the desert. Yet, practices found in Zen Buddhism, for instance, evoke similar results but are deemed not-God since the reference is to the Buddha, not Christ.

In Acts 17:23, even Paul recognizes the opportunity to see God in the practices of the Greeks when he recognizes the alter to an unknown god. And just as mindfulness practice extracted from Buddhist philosophy and lifestyle is stripped of its transforming potential, so too Christian prayer and Bible-teaching is limited when there is no whole-self surrender to the natural movement of a pervasive Creator-God.

In Zen, art is especially conducive to evoke meditation and a sense of awe and wonder. These are included in practices such as painting, swordsmanship, and, chadō, the tea ceremony. Chadō, also found in art forms such as archery and poetry, is described as having four key elements:

Kei, or reverence, refers to mutual deference and respect from the participants, and concomitant control of the ego. Wa, or harmony, reflects the experience of nonduality, in which the self does not stand apart from the other, but participates in a union of ‘interbeing.’ Sei, or purity, signifies that the heart-mind is free from the turbulent emotions which usually tend to disturb its equanimity. Finally, jaku, or tranquility, refers to the nature of the resulting untroubled mind.[3]

It is easy to notice that mindfulness spiritual practice is typically separate from daily activity, a way of being. But I can begin to engage by allowing myself to be moved with awe. My favorite Zen principle is yūgen, or profound grace. Profound grace! It is beyond expression, each part and gen translated as “cloudy impenetrability,” offers a sense of knowing the unkown, intuiting the intangible – mystery. It is a way of being that understands there is darkness, but does not despair because beyond the intellect is the Spirit who bears witness to my spirit that I am God’s own. It is a beauty that each person expresses – but does so much better when it is allowed to reverberate, seep through the yuck of each day.

And it is a beauty that is evident in the lovely human being in the picture above. Thank you, Bethany, for practicing yūgen and patiently allowing me the pleasure of capturing the essence of it on my phone!

[1] T. Lomas et al., “Zen and the Art of Living Mindfully: The Health-Enhancing Potential of Zen Aesthetics,” Journal of Religion and Health (2017/07/17 2017): 4.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Ibid., 8.

An Authentic Life: Keep It Simple

lbs walt whitman poem short

With Parker Palmer, I don’t really like being told what to do. I am so glad, in this instance, that he overcame his issues with authority and shared these instructions from Walt Whitman on how to live an authentic life:

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any [person] or number of [people] — go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families — re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

— Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass

Today, as I examine my own soul, will you do the same? And then, perhaps, might you share with me the ways in which you live out your great poetry in your world?

Open Minded Possibilities (aka, eyes to see)

open minds open roads

Photography by, Greer Snyder

One clue my body supplied that I was turning on the 50 mark was my eyes’ seemingly belligerent refusal to make sense of the printed words in my hand. I have worn glasses for reading since about my mid-twenties, but if I concentrated enough, I could still read. But when it became dangerous to look down at my Waze app while driving, and even the street signs took a bit longer to resolve, I knew it was time for bifocals. And I acknowledged I was firmly situated in middle-age. With the expert flip of the phoropter’s trial lenses my ophthalmologist determined the optimal curve and thickness to make reading near and far a cinch.

A recent paper in the Journal of Research in Personality rather compellingly established that the personality trait of openness is related to the very physical sense of visual perception. That is, “openness is linked to differences in low-level visual perceptual experience.” Those who scored high on a measure for Openness to Experience could hold two images simultaneously in the brain. Whereas, as once thought to be a universal operation, those with a lower score alternately flip back and forth between two images, the brain suppressing one image than the other.

The research design and type of results indicate it is unlikely there is a personality type response bias. They also found that priming test subjects with an imagination task coupled with music increased the mixed percept experience, especially for the high Openness scorers. And with the mindfulness research that show how mindfulness spiritual practices increase openness to the environment in general, it seems in the realm of possibility that low scorers can train their brains to hold two images as one.

This is important because it affects the way we interact with the world. For instance, though it has always been possible to mix red and yellow and see that together they make orange, if the media were not available, some brains could conceive it. How much more might I miss if my mind remained fixed on seeing that your imaginative genius is true about you and reading is difficult for you, but not see that together those qualities make you a remarkably creative computer programmer? Indeed, instead of encouraging you to learn and develop those skills, as a parent I might force you to labor over those essays and quench your spirit. And the world would lose; I would lose.

I love this kind of research that shows how brains work, and how much our behavior and personalities and circumstances affect its operation. Sometimes just by knowing something, understanding a process, it becomes easier to nurture that mechanism or change a behavior in order to encourage a new process. I am not a robot. I am not consigned to one way of thinking—thank God! But it is much easier to hold to one particular perspective. It takes energy and courage to admit that my perspective is monocular. But once I allow the trial lenses to flip, bring into focus two perspectives, the thrill of expansive perception is thrilling. It is spiritual. It is Love.

In what ways might I allow God to switch up my lenses and understand the movement of the Spirit in a more expansive way today?

 

You can find more on mindfulness practices in my book, here.

Have Courage, Wait – Day Thirty-Nine

courage and wait

The Aracuraria Chilean Pine Tree can live to 1,000 years, with its upside down paintbrush-like shape that might have prevented plant-eating dinosaurs from grazing the forest’s floor. Tasmania’s Trakine Forest is home to the 3,000-year-old Huon Pines, and rivers that nurture lobster-sized crayfish in its currents. And the Japanese Cedar, or Yakusugi, thrive and have done so for about 7,000 years. But the Inyo National Forest in California guards the estimated 4,843-year-old Bristlecone Pine, Methuselah – the oldest living tree on earth. There’s also the Norway spruce in Belarus and the Baobab in South Africa, and a few others that dot our globe, that existed before homo sapiens – and persist.

The Japanese have a beautiful tradition, the practice of Shinrin-yoku. It means, taking in the forest atmosphere, and is the therapeutic, rejuvenating process of intentionally surrounding oneself with nature. The practice encourages healing as it reduces stress just by calmly walking among the trees and foliage, absorbing the sights, smells, sounds of nature. It seems fitting that this tenacious life that emerge from the earth and securely anchor to it would be a source of healing our fragile bodies and minds, soothe our weary souls. It is a reminder to me that life persists even as the moments in my own life seem to zip by at sometimes frightening speed.

Today was the last (half) day of school for my sons, another marker passed, the next stage in view – time zips and hurtles by. But I am at a waiting stage – a marker that feels like for me a perpetual state. It’s as though everything around me moves, is in constant motion, still, I must wait. I have always come to accept the recognition that God is working whether or not I accomplish anything, but as I hang on by the tips of my fingernails to 49, it is especially uncomfortable. These nearly forty days of meditating on my fast-approaching place in 50, I don’t think I’ve come to any profound conclusions. Though, I am not sure what I expected, necessarily, to emerge from this 40-day practice, I’ve been engaging this practice in community.

The tree featured in the opening picture is Brazilian, but transplanted to the Singapore Botanic Garden. It is robust, with ancient roots, yet flourishes on another continent. It is a stunning reminder to me that though I have been moved to many places around the world and the country, my roots are ancient and robust and eternal. Everywhere I go, a forest of exotic, unique, healing foliage surrounds me – a community of souls that thrive and grow with me. So, will you wait with me today? Wait, listen, ponder, soak in the beauty around you, around me? May we be refreshed and rejuvenated today. If you have the time to find some nature, try some Shinrin-yoku, and please share your experience! If it is not possible just now, listen to the sounds in the link below and meditate on my picture here, or others you might have. Imagine. Dream. Have courage. Wait.

 

 

Savoring Goodness – Day Thirty-Seven

Savor God's goodness

One time when I was about four or five, it must have been Thanksgiving, I was sitting with my brother and two other children at the kids table in the back room. It was a communal meal so all the families contributed and somebody brought a dish of boiled peas and carrots. Peas were at the very top of my Can’t Stand list of foods, and I could only tolerate raw carrots, not cooked. But to refuse it would be impolite and my father insisted. Being the good little girl I was, I complied and took a bite. And promptly regurgitated the mess back onto my plate. I still can’t stand peas.

Science shows that children possess taste superpowers – their tongues are especially sensitive to bitter flavors, and react accordingly. Previously accepted data held there is a veritable map for various taste sensors (one part detects sweet, another tastes bitter, etc.). Now it is understood that they all work together to inform the brain of the flavors at work. And as we age taste buds stop regenerating making us less sensitive to nuances in the flavor. This makes it easier to stomach foods that tend to be healthier and promote longevity – and are more bitter.

At the same time, less sensitivity tempts us to ignore the potion of herbs and spices that infuse the mango that roasts with garlic on that lovely piece of salmon. Or allow the hints of mint and basal linger on the tongue before washing it down with a sip of wine. In this way it also creates the conditions for overconsumption since I can rush through the meal more quickly than my stomach can tell my brain it is full. Too I did not take the moments required to find enjoyment in the way an interesting combination of ingredients make a chicken breast taste—a practice that improves a sense of well-being and staves off a common reason for eating more than is healthy to begin with.

Along with my connective tissue disease, I am also allergic to wheat, dairy and coconut. My diet is much different from when I was a kid, and sometimes it is easiest to limit what I eat to what I know is healthy and will not trigger an asthma attack, while also providing enough calories. Sometimes I will eat something that I find no enjoyment in purely because I need to eat something substantial and do not have the energy to explore other options. But since Greer has come home we’ve had many conversations about how controlled we are by food, instead of appreciating it in healthy ways—and that it is a luxury that many in the world cannot conceive.

There is something mystical and alluring about Psalm 34:8, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” This idea that the sense of taste can bring insight—vision—to understanding the goodness of God, is evocative. The images of the banquet table and narratives around a meal and creating the best wine for the wedding party, these are scattered liberally throughout scripture. It can run both ways: when I notice and savor the goodness of God I can almost taste the nearness of God’s Spirit, ingest the aromas and flavors of heaven; and, when I allow a bite from the meal prepared by my sons – or an expert chef – to linger, notice the delicious concoction and appreciate the company around my table, heaven is at hand.

This weekend I will celebrate my birthday with my husband, and my brother and his wife around a meal and drinks. It is always a beautiful time with them to linger over skillfully prepared creations and freely chat and laugh and be. And as 50 is fast approaching I am hyper aware of the necessity for being intentional about savoring each moment. Will you practice with me today, the very spiritual mindfulness practice of relishing each food and drink consumed?

Inhale the aroma wafting up to nose.

Is it hot or cold, somewhere in between?

Do my taste buds wake up and tingle inside my mouth?

Exhale and receive the bite.

Inhale as I allow the piece to mix on the tongue, the senses register nuance.

Is the flavor strong? Can I distinguish the ingredients?

What memories do these flavors conjure for me?

Exhale and remain a few moments with those thoughts.

Be grateful for God’s goodness. See, the Lord is good.

Language as Sacrament – Day Nine

Generosity of Language

When I was in primary school grammar instruction was compulsory, precise and rigorous. Understand the categories and rules and I could receive an ‘A.’ While I was an exemplary student, I am also mildly dyslexic—I just didn’t know it then. Categorization is excruciating for one with a dyslexic processing brain. And word order? Oy gevalt! And the torture of enduring a teacher reading to the class an example of the gross misuse of pronouns—and recognizing it as my own! So imagine my dismay when I recently learned that it is now acceptable to use the word ‘their’ to indicate male or female in the singular!

Indeed, many so-called grammar rules have changed over the course of my (nearly) 50 years. Not only the rules, but word meanings shift and new words are coined and words that were once strictly nouns are verbed. At 50 years, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is revisited with contempt for the harm it has done (and continues to do). The ache I face as I witness the agony my children endure while reconciling their dyslexic processing with great intelligence and attending creative genius. How can I tell them they need to apply the rules so they can receive an adequate grade, but it is essentially meaningless—while promoting respect for those entrusted with their education?

Sacred Listening max and sam

Language is meant to communicate, and something I read somewhere (please forgive the errant reference) if the message is successfully communicated, language has served its purpose—the grammar is in effect, correct. But language also serves an even greater purpose. Pádraig ó tuama, the community leader of Corrymeela, Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization, expresses it so eloquently:

“Language needs courtesy to guide it, and an inclusion and a generosity that goes beyond precision and becomes something much more akin to sacrament, something much more akin to how is it you can be attentive to the implications of language for those in the room who may have suffered.”

Is this how we see language employed these days? Twitter and Snapchat, among other myriad means of communication, oblige brevity and are disbursed in a flash—more often than not, without any real thought behind the ostensible message.

Language can wound and exclude. It is important to fully grasp the power of language. In order to keep from such wounding or exclusion, ó tuma advocates a “generosity of listening.” It is an orientation to the text. Namely, that which is in the text is recognized as sacred because it arises from the text of somebody’s life. And to be generous with anything, time is essential. It is being present, mindful of the other, listening for the divine – with inclusion and courtesy, generous.

As I write, I pray that no one is counting my grammar errors. I also pray to be honored today by opportunities to practice generosity of listening. I pray this for you, as well, and welcome your reflections on your experience of the sacrament of language!

Love Mercy – Day Four

Mercy anne lamott

On this fourth day into contemplating turning 50, desperately resisting the compulsion to take the easy route and apply the term angst (though it is likely more akin to ambivalence—but, more on that later), I am drawn to consider mercy. A recent entry to a blog I follow reviewed Anne Lamott’s book, Hallelujah Anyway, with a beautiful hand and great wisdom, but mostly leaving Lamott’s words to speak for themselves. She calls mercy “radical kindness” and it occurs to me that kindness is the last thing I give myself when I begin the long spiral down the chute of “what ifs” and “too old now fors.”

I resist the good-natured counsel I often hear to “be gentle” with myself and to call it “grace” without any sense of doing something about it. How can I be kind to myself, radically or no, and not get stuck binge-watching Netflix with cumin corn chips and a whiskey sour? Lamott, with her severe honesty is instructive here:

“[Mercy] includes everything out there that just makes us sick and makes us want to turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer . . . .”

It is this “and doing goodness anyway” that supports everything that I have preached or written about, how I instruct my children and counsel others, but often forget myself. When I find that I am so weary of trying to make things right in this world, to do justice and motivate others to do the same, but keep hitting walls . . . over, and over, and over, and over . . . and 50 years in . . .

Do goodness anyway, Nicole. Of course. And there is such power in realizing that doing goodness, practicing mercy, is a spiritual act. Doing goodness, practicing mercy is the oxygen that sustains the life of one who lives in the reality of the Kingdom of God—on earth as it is in heaven.

“Kindness toward others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all.”

Yes. And this brings me back to the words I put on the opening picture. The first piece, forgiveness – with mercy, inextricable – is the first step. Must be the first step. Forgiving those who crushed (knowingly or no) and forgiving myself for grasping too tightly, or for giving up (way) too easily. Because, do I want this or do I want to be right? And with Lamott “Well, can I get back to you on that?”

“I want to want this softening, this surrender, this happiness. Can I get a partial credit for that?  The problem is, I love to be, and so often am, right. It’s mood-altering, and it covers up a multitude of sins… I know justice and believing that you’re right depend on cold theological and legal arguments where frequently there is no oxygen, but honestly I don’t mind this. I learned to live in thin air as a small child.”

How does she know me so well? But, yes. I do want this surrender, to practice mercy and breathe the oxygen of goodness, and be the fragrance of that rose still more fragrant when crushed under that heal. Because the kingdom of God is a community, a gathering of people just as fragile and prone to being crushed – and crushing each other. But if I choose to do goodness anyway, you might choose goodness – even when I may crush you (Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy). And behavioral science shows that behavior is contagious. So, perhaps you might commit with me to do goodness anyway – today? Just today. Because, like God, mercy is timeless – even for those who are (nearly) 50.

Endure, Stand, at the Pace of Grace – Day Three

endure with grace

On this day, fifty years ago, Katherine Switzer began the #BostonMarathon. The problem was, women were not allowed to participate. Two miles into the contest, the race director, Jack Semple, fully angered at the realization that a woman had somehow slipped in attempted to physically force her out. Tom Miller, her boyfriend at the time, fought Semple off and Switzer went on the complete the marathon. On Monday, at the age of 70, she again ran the Boston Marathon, this time comprising 45% women.

I am a runner, though I will never run a marathon. Still, it is women like Katherine Switzer who, in the year I was born, had courage to do what she was capable of doing despite the arbitrary social conventions that would prevent her. She helped to forge a path for those of us who were born that year, and enable and encourage us to widen that path in the years to follow.

stand with grace.jpg

A feature that is important not to miss is that Tom Miller also had courage to run with Switzer. Many women are alone in the quest to be wholly present to the world in her gifts and abilities. Switzer was not alone. Thankfully, I have a partner in crime who likes to buck convention when convention crushes the spirit in himself or another human being. Howie is my chief cheerleader who had always seen me for who I am, supporting my efforts to live the Life in me fully.

In my nearly (still 37 days to go!) 50 years of life I have seen progress and contributed to the work to make things right for both women and men. My ordination journey is one of those areas, but that is a story for another day. Still, there is a great amount of work yet to be done. So as I pass a mantle to my children—my two girls and two boys—they understand their unique expression of God’s character at the core and are standing with others in their own way to promote the manifestation of that beauty. And I know that they will be faithful to the effort to make things right in the world.

at the pace of grace

And I know my children are not alone. We endure with grace, stand with grace, and walk at the pace of grace—with others – who see me as. I. am. – see you as. you. are. And isn’t that exactly what Jesus made right at the cross?

Faithful Fifties – Day Two

faithful fifties

You may have heard of this resource called Google? Apparently, all the kids are using it these days. I jest, of course, but cannot restrain a groan when my kids lament the lack of speed with which their search tab opens and employ the term ‘google’ as a verb, and I recall those early days when we were among the first to make it our default search engine even as others clung to aol and yahoo. Those were the days…

Everything changes. Nothing changes.

So, back to Google. If you opened the homepage you might have noticed today’s #googledoodle dedicated to Esther Afua Ocloo. A remarkable Ghanaian woman, she accomplished far more before the age of 50 than I could even dream. She started a food processing business promoting Ghanaian industry and supporting local goods; became the first President of the Federation of Ghana Industries; was the first Ghanaian female Executive Chairman of the National Food and Nutrition Board of Ghana; and expanded her activity to the textile business.

It wasn’t until after Ocloo turned 50, however, that she began to work at the national and international levels to promote the economic empowerment of women. In the years that followed, she advised on a number of international boards to continue the work of supporting women’s economic autonomy worldwide, culminating in the co-founding and chairmanship of the Women’s World Banking. If that wasn’t enough, she also founded the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Madina and the Unity Group of Practical Christianity of Ghana. Oh, and she was mother to four children.

While I do not aspire to expand my sphere of influence internationally and don’t have the wherewithal to found entire industries, I am inspired by this remarkable woman to press on. When I am weary and only want to throw in the towel ruminating on how my age limits my possibilities for further substantial work, the life of Esther Afua Ocloo is a reminder to me that God holds no interest in my age—only that I remain faithful. And even when I am not, God remains faithful because God cannot deny God’s own self. (2Tm2:13) Timothy, Jeremiah, Malala Yousafzai, were young for all their work toward making things right in the world. Moses, Abraham and Sarah, and Jane Addams didn’t gain (public) traction until much later in life.

As I write this I recall the words of Susan Sontag who beautifully observes, “Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.” God is not bound by time and yet God pierces time to be present with us—helping us be more ourselves—more like Jesus, making things right between us and all creation. How can I be more myself today, faithful? Jesus, help my unbelief.