Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
“It is because of this tender love that I need not ask anything of God for you. All I need to do is lift you up before his face.”
Many years ago, I came upon this truth that changed how I prayed for my children. They were becoming young adults and for me, their mother, they were in my circle of concern but not necessarily under my influence. They were forging their own ways in the world and I realize now how little I actually understood about their “inside stories.”
Those inside stories are how we interpret our experiences, form ways of seeing the world around us, and, yes, our mysterious imagining about how and what we become and do. We might be aware of this inner weaving or not. We don’t think our way into becoming ourselves, and that is true.
Prayer is another curious thing—particularly praying for those we love up close, like our children.
Perhaps Catherine of Genoa’s way of praying has always been with me—when I held those two precious lives as infants and knew they belonged to God and I couldn’t control their entrance and way in this world.
I imagined as a parent, many times that I did know what was best, but I didn’t really know. Now that my children are adults, a saint from centuries ago reminds me, again, that I don’t have to know. All I need to do is lift you up before his face. I don’t need to read God the dire news of the day or circumstances as I see them. I simply see my beloved ones as whole.
And so, I come to what Eugene Peterson says, “prayer is not a tool for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.”
“A shovel is a prayer to the farmer’s foot when he steps down and the soft earth gives way,” Carrie Newcomer sings. Prayer is fleshed out in many individual expressions. My writing and reading in God’s presence are a way of prayer as I listen for God’s voice in the unfolding of my life each day. Prayer summons my own “living” water.
In this kind of prayerful becoming, I learn to hold my adult children in a new light. I am not asking or suggesting or fixing or trying to change the people they are or their circumstances. Although, I do wish I could soothe their own learning and becoming. I can only open myself to seeing my children as God sees them, whether they recognize that presence or not.
I open myself to see the glimmers of grace and goodness that sit alongside the challenges, I too often envision. Love binds these things together and redresses them with new strength to draw upon for whatever lies ahead.
Now I must confess, I have prayed for my children all their lives, and who knows how that has impacted those lives. However, I am learning how praying for them is an act of my faithfulness, quelling my anxiousness about the details of our lives. Like the farmer’s foot on the shovel, prayer is my surrendering to a possibility that is out of my control or management.
Prayer is a doorway, an opening for another voice to spea.
“… to the person that is joined to all living things there is hope…” Ecclesiastes 9:4
This seems to be a story I write again and again—being caught by wonder in the middle of an ordinary day. This time I have my friend Darcy to thank. You have to be paying attention or you will pass on by living instead of joining alongside.
Darcy walks with me every Sunday in her neighbourhood which is very different than my own. Her’s has an expansive ocean view from on high. In my neighbourhood the walk to the water is easy going and the water isn’t visible until you are there. Getting from Darcy’s view to the water involves a long steep descent that is almost as hard on my shins as the climb back up. We haven’t been down that literal road in a long while.
Darcy and I stick to the trails through the woods and the other cut-throughs in her neighbourhood. Some of those paths are steep too, but they are quick bridges between the streets that snake up the hill to offer a spacious view. On a clear day, we are smitten with snowy Mount Baker in Washington, 120 km across the Haro Strait. Yet on this day, I am smitten by a miniature view of our path that turns away from the sea.
Right before the deep descent down Sea Ridge Drive, we take a wide paved shortcut, accessible only to walkers and bikers. We walk between the houses and the path brings Darcy and me back to Amblewood Drive, a switch-back away from where we began. It is a flat walkway, bordered on either side by a fence and hedges that keep those yards private. Part of the fence is hidden, too, by the dense foliage. You see, I hardly notice that fence; it is a nondescript structure to walk by, a worn-out wooden fence, not a place to discover wonder or encounter mystery.
So, I have Darcy to thank for what happened. Darcy stays close to the ground and while her pace is much more lively than my own, she regularly pauses to explore a “spot” that interests her. In other words, Darcy is open to the wonder of a seemingly regular patch of grass. Darcy’s instinct caused me to notice a spot I could have easily missed, especially if I’d been walking with Liz or Stacy or any number of friends whose conversations would distract me.
Right above the patch of earth that captured Darcy’s attention was that old fence. What caught my attention was a laid-flat two-by-four, the top rail between a double set of pickets. Another world drew me out of the complacency of my control of the world I was carrying along with me.
The miracle here is not only what I saw but that I was able to pause and look at something ordinary to see something extra ordinary. I am already awed by mosses that cast a green shadow on our driveway right now and clothe the bark of the tree stump in our backyard and the lichen that drips from our little apple trees. So, I wasn’t surprised to see the lush green resting on the top rail of that old fence.
What caught me was the wonder of lives—the green mosses, white lichen, and the tiny flowers on the backdrop of weathered wood. The first picture I took on January 8th seemed like a micro, barefoot-worthy patch of green; but, what about those tiny red blooms?
As with any good story, context expands the truth. On another Sunday, I took a picture of that fence from another angle. I wanted to record the ordinariness of the path, the worn-out place that couldn’t possibly announce something newsworthy.
Wonder is a place in the real world along the paths we always travel. A destination we must discover. My experience of worry and fear, the what if’s, is only one view of my world. There is another reality that boasts the intricacies of life that offer possibilities beyond my everyday view. Darcy helped me get there; that’s a friend indeed.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor tells that she was invited to speak at a church in the Southern United States. She asked her host, “What do you want me to talk about?”
“Come tell us what is saving your life now,” was the priest’s reply.
“It was as if he had swept his arm across a dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. I did not have to try to say correct things that were true for everyone. I did not have to try to use theological language that conformed to the historical teachings of the church. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on. All I had to do was figure out how I stayed as close to that reality as I could, and then find some way to talk about it that helped my listeners figure out those same things for themselves.”
What is saving my life now?
Today my answer might not be the same as yesterday and some practices or promises that save me endure. Yet, some circumstances challenge those answers and there is nothing I can do except pray and trust— but what happens when my what if’s drown out those prayers. The things that are saving me often are quotidian rather than those traditionally held notions.
Yesterday, anxious and worried, I cleaned the bathroom. I mean I really cleaned in the full knowledge that it won’t stay that way. I will not change the cycle of soap scum and aging grout. Faithfully, I cared for what I could affect. I gave my whole body and mind to the transformation of tub and tile.
My cleaning is a prayerful act. My fears and anxiousness were taken over by scrubbing and rinsing away the grit and grime. I know all too well the cycle of worry that has to be cleared away again and again. That physical devotion didn’t change my troubling circumstances but the mindful work allowed me to “let go and let God” as the saying goes—even for an hour or so.
I can rest in the familiarity and the comfort that comes from doing something with clear focus and maybe even love. What is saving my life right now harks back to an open ear—to listen for God in everything I do; for where God is, in spite of and in the midst of our most quotidian of lives.
I am encouraged when I wake up to the wonder of my world. On the edge of the morning light, I know too well the things that are worrisome but somehow, in this quiet, I sense something more. Perhaps in those moments, I am more open to the mystery of what is alongside what I have experienced in the dark.
I am comforted by what I can’t explain. I am still drawn to the Garry Oak at Camosun College, where my old dog Hunter and I used to walk every day. I would sit under that tree, stand still beside it, and simply place my hand on that huge branch that seems precariously low and heavy with life.
Other people seemed to glimpse the mystery, too. We would watch children swing from that low branch on a sweatshirt they’d flung over it to hang onto as they lifted themselves from the solid ground. We watched bigger people hoist themselves up and hang their feet or hammock over that branch and rest in the grandeur. My secret and not-so-secret fears were met there with awe, to experience that life force and the presence of grace that surrounded that tree.
In Psalm 40, hidden between the Psalmist’s woe and God’s goodness, the text says that God has “given me an open ear.” Between remembered miracles, what God has done in the past, and anticipated miracles, my hope that God will address my new fear, is an open ear. The Psalmist writes, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.” That opened ear meets my fears and what if’s if I am in a position to listen.
I’ve been particularly aware these past weeks of being between all the miraculous ways I’ve gotten through some painful times. I have remembered what it is like to be on the other side of that woe. I am aware of the loving relationships that both are the cause and result of such love.
How do I create a life where my doubts and fears exist alongside grace and wonder? Often, especially in the dark, my mind goes to the what-ifs, the conversations I might have, and the conversations I did have that I would like to rewrite. It is as if I continue to doubt that I won’t fall into the cold ocean of my fears and will not be able to get out.
Maybe, I can at least hang on to the scraps of wishful listening that may not square up with my made-up story of how things could turn out. I will keep an ear open for those bits of hope and let the others go. Keep an open ear for where God is instead of listening to the doubts and fears that seem louder.
God is approached more nearly in that which is indefinite than in that which is definite and distinct. F.W. Robinson, Ten Sermons
“New Year is like riding a train into the unknown.” That was the headline of “Faith Forum” in the New Year’s Times Columnist, our local newspaper. I noted that Nancy Ford, the writer, was “newly retired.” I thought it was significant since, for me, “retired” still feels indefinite.
Actually, I was thinking that my whole life has bordered on indefinite, especially when it is disrupted like my job loss several years ago. When I accepted that job and we moved to Bristol, I imagined that the place was a final “home”—definite and distinct—that signalled my abiding connection to the Appalachian Mountains and a nourishing academia—a break from cornfields, and a large state institution. Maybe that was one of the problems with that place, the sense that it was sure, but I don’t want to think of that time as a problem.
As far as my search for being home and settled was concerned, I did think we’d arrived. Our house seemed idyllic and we did welcome many friends, family, and people we’d just met into our home for a meal or to stay a night or a few. After we left, I reflected that the place was simply a respite, a time in between.
I believe it is true, as the 19th-century preacher said, “God is approached more nearly in that which is indefinite”—which is all of our lives but we don’t seem to grasp that truth when our routines appear knowable.
I made a quick list of all the cities I’ve lived in over 44 years of my life with Mitch. The places, like the New Year, are easy markers of change. Our time in Bristol, like the cities at the beginning of our marriage, was a short 2 years. As I looked back on this list, none of our moves seemed predictable except the one when Mitch finished seminary and my career was easily relocated. In each place we landed, I guess we had our routines and time went by. Our lives in each of those nine distinct locations weathered the unexpected that marked our journey.
In his memoir Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner considers the course of his life. He reflects,
…as I wrote…I found myself remembering small events as far back as early childhood which were even then leading me in something like that direction but so subtly and almost imperceptibly that it wasn’t until decades had passed that I saw them for what they were—or thought I did because you can never be sure whether you are discovering that kind of truth or inventing it. The events were often so small that I was surprised to remember them, yet they turned out to have been road markers on a journey I didn’t even know I was taking.
So as a New Year begins again, I wonder what will be next because whether we feel settled or home or somewhere in between, there is always a rupture in what is—even if it is in our own mind. That restlessness I’ve felt many times seems to crop up anew and I wonder if that is a call to reflect and pay attention. Victoria is where we live, a place of challenge and refuge in breathtaking surroundings that keeps me now. Yet, I am reminded that God is the promise keeper who provides me with a good place to be on the journey I don’t even know I am taking.
Indefinite, as God directed Abram, “the land I will show you,” seems to me where we should always be.
Advent is over—Jesus is born. But, The Christ was already here. So, what did I wait for?
Perhaps, it is human awareness that comes again and again or comes into being when we are open to see. Perhaps, it is what we do while we wait that matters. After a disarray of readings and experiences during the last few weeks, I wonder: how am I feeding a life that is being blessed and blessing in the same motion?
The winter solstice has passed, and each day will bend a little farther toward the light. Our recent unexpected weather event made me more aware of the subtleties and energy of being open to wonder.
Almost 40 cm of snow fell here in Victoria. That is a lot of snow for this city which is known for the warmest climate in Canada. Winter is supposed to be a rainy season with just enough snow to remind us what it is. This snow changed the way we lived for a few days.
The plumber we expected at 9:00 a.m. phoned to say he wouldn’t be coming. Visitors we expected to drop by that afternoon also reported they couldn’t get out of their dead-end street. I didn’t have to clean up the kitchen early or wrap the gifts I had. I didn’t feel compelled to consider that “one more thing” I might need before Christmas. Our collective sense of what are “have to’s” shifted.
Bundled-up families and pets replaced cars on the streets. I saw new sights: a man skied past my house and our neighbour’s dog sported a festive sweater with matching knitted leggings. My friend reported that she wore her sunglasses in her house; the light reflected off the snow was so bright. All of our spirits seemed lighter, too, on this curiously quiet week before Christmas.
I had been given three cards to deliver for the church and the sunny snow made the task an adventure. I didn’t really know two of the three recipients but I knew that personal delivery would amplify the care and connection with their church community.
A purpose for reaching out to someone can be both a solution and a problem for me. I would have to muster up a bit of courage to ring their doorbells. The risk, after all, was very small—they wouldn’t know me—I was just delivering this card for the church. I had that greater purpose to hide behind.
Wrapped in layers and long johns, I set out and made the first footprints in what was the driveway. My first stop was Rosamond’s house near the park. I noticed that her walk and driveway were already cleared of snow and a green de-icer was strategically placed. I don’t really know her and I gathered that she was being taken care of—that’s good.
I easily made my way up the steps to her door. I didn’t see a doorbell so I knocked. No one came. I decided not to try again; after all, I would look like a stranger. I felt a little hesitation, should I try harder? I placed the card in her mailbox and continued my walk down the snow-covered side street.
My next stop was several blocks away and I took my time, awed by the brightness of the day. I passed people shovelling their sidewalks and kids trying out scooters and wagons in the snow and more dog walkers. The snow was too deep to move easily off the sidewalk to let another person pass which I’d become accustomed to doing to keep a distance. Most greeted me with a nod and a smile.
Turning onto Oliver Street, I crossed to the other side and came upon a gentleman chatting with a young couple who were clearing their driveway. It was obvious they knew each other and were catching up. There was no way to get around so I waited. I heard the woman ask, “Ian, is this the most snow you’ve seen in Victoria?”
I realized the man I was following was my destination. These people were Ian’s next-door neighbours. His house, where I think he’s lived his whole life, was my next stop.
We had a pleasant conversation when I offered the card. I don’t remember meeting Ian myself, but my husband has tea with him occasionally. He remembered that I had been liturgist on Sunday and told me how much he liked “the Reverend.” This conversation was comfortably familiar and I was reassured to go beyond putting a face with his name.
My next visit was a familiar one. I meandered a bit and discovered new sights on my way to Bev’s house. When she learned I’d come from Oliver Street, she reminded me that block is where her late husband grew up, too. She shared some of her own adventures growing up in the majesty of mountains and lakes in the southern interior of British Columbia. She is attuned to the wonder of days like today.
As I headed back home, I was on my own again. Yet, I felt accompanied by the people I’d met along my way. There was an openness to each other that was hastened by our shared awe of the extraordinary weather. There was a shift in how we navigated our paths, depending on others to shovel out the way or to find someone else’s footprint that had gone before to lessen our struggle.
I had waited to see again the wonder and goodness of One who never tires of coming into my world. Blessed and being blessed in the same motion.
In my last writing, I said I wanted to widen my lens, to wander, to be open, to see what I could see during these weeks of Advent. I knew that would come as I read and prayed and pondered each day.
However, I was a little disappointed. The words I tried to read just seemed like a schooled assignment. I expected I would be challenged by the insight that would appear on the page. Maybe, I was trying too hard to pay attention to the wrong thing. It is easy to say I am going to be open to whatever comes, but most often, what happens catches me unaware.
And that is what happened on Tuesday. In the middle of the day, the unexpected unfolded. In the midst of the ordinariness, I guess I did open up just enough to receive the lesson of trust, but it did not come from my own trusting.
Driving home, I answered my phone because it was my daughter and she doesn’t usually call me often. After she asked the question she had called to ask, she followed with, “Do you have a few minutes?”
Usually, that question means “I have something important to discuss.” So, of course, I said yes and I parked so I could listen. I am not good at attentively listening and attentively driving at the same time.
“Would you pray for me tomorrow?”
“Yes, I pray for you every day, but I’ll pray extra tomorrow.”
“I’m on overnight call for the first time since before Stella was born.”
Ahhh, her mind goes to the “what if’s,” just like me. She continued to describe her mind’s race, She concluded that she knew her husband would care for their daughter and her brother and it was more than that.
She was sad. Every morning and every evening for all of her life, Stella wakes up and goes to bed breastfeeding. This would be the first time that wouldn’t be possible. I thought about the sacredness of that bond. I thought about how hard it is for a mother to let go, even when her children aren’t even children any more. I hope I listened.
My daughter trusted me with her sadness. She didn’t want my advice or the stories of my days with young children. She didn’t want me to fix her problem or assuage her feelings. It wasn’t easy for me to not give solutions or worse, to say it will be all right. I just hope I listened.
My daughter wanted me to hear her sorrow, to share her grief. She trusted me to do that. She trusted that her husband would soothe Stella in his own way, in those moments before sleep the next night. She trusted Stella to be satisfied with the cup of cold milk she’d be offered the next morning. Being able to trust, even for one moment, changes the way we see one another.
Being trusted is a gift we do not earn, despite the popular notion that many mothers repeat. Trust is a gift we give because that is what has been given to us. Mostly, the gift has to be given over and over until we learn to give it back ourselves.
Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.
John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
It’s so easy to look through my own peephole, the one that fuels and is fuelled by my doubts and fears. The one that sees mostly what I judge to be lacking. The one that doesn’t trust—trust myself, trust other people, or the universe—all the places God is.
I fear that things won’t work out. I doubt that others are capable of figuring out what is right. The bottom line is that I tell myself a story of woe instead of living the story of grace.
So, for today, I want to widen my lens. To wander a bit…
Today is the first day of Advent, a time of being open and waiting to see. Once again, I will begin this journey.
In the lectionary passages for today (Isaiah 2:1-5 & Matthew 24:37-44), I was guided to see that those people, the Israelites and the disciples, were waiting, too. And just like me, they were looking around through their fear and uncertainty. I like to think that the message that the Prophet Isaiah and Jesus taught them was to wait and watch through another peephole.
Four years ago at the beginning of Advent, I wrote that I’d asked God for guidance to let go of the fear that undergirded the subtle things I did and said in my desperation to manage how I saw others. That way of seeing tears down people and relationships rather than build them. What keeps me from looking through that other peephole?
I’ve been writing this story for eight weeks. You see, I didn’t understand what put me over the edge.
Perhaps, it was that all of my excuses weren’t working. Perhaps, it was the time I’d spent watching others doing what I wanted to do. Perhaps, it was the prospect that I could go beyond my worries that keep me from doing all kinds of things, even less risky things, like making a phone call or speaking to my neighbour. Perhaps, if I knew what held me back, well, I’d probably think of another reason I couldn’t…
I live on the tip of Vancouver Island, surrounded by water. I’ve surrounded myself with images of paddle boarders on note cards, in magazines, and just blocks from my front door there are real-life ones launching their boards at the inlets by the marina. For more than a year, I’ve waded in the seawater most months and, on a few occasions, even dipped my whole body in the colder-than-comfortable chill.
I wasn’t necessarily looking for insight into my experience. I’d wondered plenty about why I held back from doing what I imagined I could do. In an episode of “On Being” podcast, Father James Martin’s words caught my attention. The way of Ignatius was about finding freedom. The episode titled “Finding God in all things,” explored the practices of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I kept listening.
Fr. Martin said that Ignatius wanted us to be free of anything that keeps us from following God. He mentioned those things as “disordered attachments.” I’m not sure what that means or if my longing for the water sport that has consumed imaginative energy over the years, counts as an attachment or as following God.
I have vivid visions of myself on a stand-up paddleboard, my bare feet skimming the water as I consume the spaciousness and wonder that would surely envelop me. That particular dream doesn’t seem like an attachment that would hinder my relationship with the divine. What holds me back? Maybe, there is more to uncover.
Father Martin explained freedom in a way that kept me wondering. He said that I might need to let go of some things—things that prevent me from doing my ministry. I suppose I don’t think I have a clear “ministry,” since that was defined by my job and now I am let loose from that identity. However, there are things—inside and outside me—that keep me from connecting in my world, that keep me from being open, trusting, and unselfconscious about measuring up and being myself.
One way to let go of something is to experience it, he said.
My desire to stand up on a paddleboard in the Salish Sea may not qualify as “my ministry,” however, I did feel like those words, experience it, were directed my way. But hang with me for a few more minutes; I still had more to learn about why I did not just try it, years before.
I believed it was fear that was disguised in all my excuses. And it wasn’t really fear of the deep, unknown, cold water. When I consider my excuses, “I don’t have anyone to paddle (or learn) with” was one I often used. But the truth is that I didn’t ask. I didn’t know anyone who paddle-boarded and that was technically true. However, I live a few blocks from the marina with a paddle shack. I regularly walk by vehicles adorned with a rack of paddleboards on top and a logo on the door advertising their business to satisfy longing people like me.
It is not fear of cold water or those bobbing seals, but another thing that is open to exposure– my self-consciousness to risk my imagined competent self, to show my vulnerable unsure-ness—that is paralyzing and makes no sense. Maybe, I’m reluctant to show up for something just for the joy of it.
I experienced the same thing when I walked by the “Know Yoga, Know Peace” studio in the town where I lived many years ago. The door was open when I walked by on Saturday mornings on my way to the Farmer’s Market. I confidently read the menu board of the day’s classes wishing I knew what those titles meant.
I’d imagine myself in that serene place instead of standing in front of the yoga instructional video in my living room. I wanted to unlock the secrets of practicing in that candle-lit studio where no chit-chatting was allowed. I only imagined the accomplished version of me, not the one who would learn and grow in that community.
Yet, it was only a few months until I walked through the door with my ten-dollar yoga mat ready to risk my illusion. I showed up in February, committed to something I was reluctant to begin as a Lenten discipline. I went for 30 days and was rewarded with an extra free week for my faithfulness. In that deep-hued room with a picture of Jesus and all the other representatives of major faith traditions on the wall, I made the journey to meet God and myself in new ways.
You’d think I would have remembered that experience and made the connection between my yoga story and my paddling story. I am wrangling these words to sort out why I still hesitate to go against that instinct to protect or even limit myself. That is where the next part of Ignatius’ wisdom cracked my armour.
One way to let go of something is to experience it.
Agere Contra, to act against, is necessary. Sometimes we have to act against our instincts to do what we actually really want to do. Ignatian Spirituality explains that we can deliberately choose to go against what our tendency might be, tenancies like my self-consciousness that protects the illusion of my perfect self, that hold me back.
So, I signed up: Friday, 12:00 pm, on the north end of Willow Beach.
I’d window-shopped the South Island SUP website many times. I’d seen the black vehicle with the logo on the side and paddleboards near the water when I walked the beach or the dog. In mid-February, I stood on the shore of Roberts Bay in my winter coat and followed six dots across the water as they grew to full-sized paddle boarders landing right in front of me. Well, I stood back a little to not seem like a voyeur.
With expert guidance, I did stand up with my bare feet inches from the surface of water that didn’t seem so cold. We headed out to an island of seals that seemed farther than I could imagine—I, too, would have been a dot seen from the shore. But, I didn’t get there. My paddling skill and the strength of the tide returning cancelled my steady progress forward.
I did learn to turn around and paddle back to shore with the tide. I kept my eye on a crab trap buoy to mark my forward progress. We paused to sit down on our boards, look around, and rest in the spaciousness. I slipped off the board to practice getting back on. It didn’t count, though, since I could easily touch the bottom to give myself a lift. It didn’t matter; there would be another time.
My paddling dream is a prayer, opening me to a new way of being in divine relationship with all things and particularly the part of the world I inhabit right now. I see the exact shoreline I walk daily from another view. I experience that newness by letting go, if even for a few hours, of my hold on myself.
Wonder is a divine gift we share—if I allow it. Richard Wagamese wrote in One Drum that when we allow a sense of wonder, something magical happens within us. We believe we can transcend our difficulties and old pain. For me, the gaze is beyond the traditional ways of seeing my longing and belonging in Christ.
God is in all things—even my banged-up toes that skim the surface of the salty water that circles the entire earth.
Mitch took this picture from shore when he waited for me. I AM one of those five dots paddling back after watching the sunset from the water.
If I really keep my eyes peeled and my ears open, if I really pay attention to it, even such a seemingly limited life as the one I live will speak to me. That’s what he showed me, in ways that I couldn’t have envisioned. Frederick Buechner is an extraordinary gift to my life.
The man, Buechner, died this last week. His life will continue to share the vividness of his message that is fleshed out in stories from his own life and the lives he created in his novels. Listen to your life, he explained, is the essence of everything he was trying to say as both a novelist and a preacher. So, I’m listening to my life because he showed me how.
For the past four years, I’ve lived with the beauty of the natural world front and center. The ways this physical place communicates with me are startlingly sensory and have their own pattern of revelation.
I have said many times that living in Victoria is a gift we’ve been given. The abundance of life, masses of rock teeming with substance, shoreline, water, and sky never appear the same. I’ve come to depend upon the unfolding of my generative relationship with this place.
Eudora Welty writes that the events of our lives happen in a sequence of time and find their own order of significance that “is a continuous thread of revelation.” For me, that revelation comes through a pattern of wondering, sensing, experiencing, and noticing that there is something to listen to. Reading and writing weave together the threads.
Usually, well always, I wonder about things. There are a few questions that are perennial: What do I do? What does God do? What just happens? I don’t expect to hear an answer. I suppose a lifetime of measuring keeps me asking. I am sure these are distracting questions. Listening is not an answer but a way of making a place for ourselves to belong.
This summer, we have experienced some of the lowest tides in years and so much of the rock usually below the water is exposed. I’ve walked out a bit farther and observed the life that clings to those rocks. I look closely into the slippery verdant patches where I can’t safely walk. The birds can, though. That blue heron rests on one edge for a time, and then I spot the four oystercatchers.
The birds’ black bodies show off those long red beaks and fleshy legs and feet. I hadn’t seen them for a couple of months. I suppose they were taking advantage of the bounty the exposure provided so they lingered. I took time, too, to watch them.
At first, I wasn’t certain the sound I heard was coming from those shorebirds. The sharp loud cry hung in the air. I looked up, expecting to see a crow flying overhead. The oystercatcher’s beak was indeed opening into the air. I sat down to listen and take in the spectacle.
Oh do you have time to linger…
Little did I know how it would take me a few more days to remember; to remember again the gift of persisting in that moment. How could I not sit down on that rock and listen? That’s also the day I read Mary Oliver’s poem “The Invitation.”
Savouring Mary’s insight, I heard that my own flamboyant birds, those oystercatchers, did not strut and call for my sake or the man near me who also stopped to wonder about the birds. They did it for the sheer delight and gratitude for the snacks the sea left them when the water changed course.
There is a pattern, dare I say, to how God speaks through my questions, experiences of each place, and, yes, other people’s words that open me beyond my limited way of seeing the world.
The birds and rocks and water teach me how to live in thisworld—to soak up this place in delight and gratitude.
Believe us, they say, it is a serious thing just to be alive on this fresh morning in this broken world. (from ‘The Invitation” by Mary Oliver)