A Dwelling Place

Welcome back to Lent.  I’m feeling a bit different this year.  I’m still tired, overcommitted, buried (yet again) in construction dust.  Still homeschooling my children in fits of exuberance marked by moments of sheer panic and exhaustion.  Still making an attempt to be, if not the “perfect professional’s wife,” at least a companionable partner who makes a good show of respectability (on a good day I brush my hair) and charm when the occasion calls for it.  I can’t tell you exactly what feels different this year.  Maybe I’ll work that out over the course of the season.  We have roughly 6 weeks together.  Maybe we can all learn a little something about ourselves along the way.

As I have mentally rehearsed the return to the blog this year, there is a little word that has been beckoning to me, a word that seems to have fingers, tendrils, movement, fluidity, light, shadow, weight and depth.  A word I need to hear.  A word conspicuous in its absence and breathtaking in its presence.

Grace.

It’s one of those simple words most of us have heard all our lives.  In its voice we name our daughters.  Under its melodies we begin our meals.  It is in the songs we sing, the sacred texts we read.

By grace we are saved.

Amazing grace how sweet the sound.

Say grace.

The whole of the gospel in a tidy package.  So simple and yet…

My moments of (often hard-won and desperate) epiphany this year have led me to this…

Wandering in wonder naturally leads to dwelling in grace.

The last Sunday before we head into Lent, we read the story of the Transfiguration of Christ.  Jesus journeys to the top of a mountain with a few of his disciples.  They see him changed: divinity exposed.  And they decide that it would be good to just hang out there, basking in the glory-moment.  They want to build dwelling places for the prophets and for Jesus.  And you can just hear the exasperation in Jesus’s voice when he tells them “no.”  But Jesus understood what the disciples couldn’t.    Jesus was building something better.  Abide in me.  He tells his followers.  Abide in me.  Abide in my love.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.  God made us, humanity, God’s dwelling place.  A dwelling place whose very air is filled with grace.

We dwell in God.  God dwells in us.  A dwelling fused together by grace and by truth.

Grace is our home.

Come, let’s begin the journey home.

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Perichoretic Dance of the Trinity

So when I think my children can no longer surprise me with the deep spiritual connections they make, they seem to take it to the next level.  Today, Ryan had a practice college application essay as an assignment in his Contemporary Literature/Freshman English class, one of the classes he takes outside of the house this year.  He was supposed to discuss something that makes him unique and he was supposed to do it in a way that would stand out to his reader.  After all, the college application boards see a LOT of essays.  So his teacher wanted them to dig deep to make an impression.

Ryan went at the essay from the standpoint of “balance” and the importance of being well-rounded.  He talked about how his academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits all work together to make him who he is and how each endeavor fuels the others.  As I read his essay, a passing thought entered my mind, What about serving others, or spiritual devotion? Can you really be “balanced” without that?

His closing brought in a comparison to the Trinity, and how each part of who he is cannot be separated from the other.  And while this might have been a bit simplified (and might have gotten him in trouble if he had to defend his analogy with Saint Athanasius?!?), I am amazed to think of how naturally he is able to bring his understanding of theology into play with his everyday life.

After I read his essay, we talked a little more about the Trinity, about how theologians talk about the mutual indwelling, the perichoresis, of the members of the Trinity.  Ryan told me that this is just how he sees the different aspects of his own life, dwelling within one another, supporting each other, morphing in and out of focus, ebbing and flowing, advancing and receding. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dancing one with the other in a beautiful God-waltz of creation, redemption, and manifestation.

Ryan didn’t need to list “church” or “service” or “religion” as one of his main life pursuits because, for Ryan, his spiritual life is his core. To work the analogy, it is the Godhead, the “One” of the Three in One.  All else finds rest in this whole.

Today, I pray that I may see the world through the eyes of a child, my child, who continues to amaze, and surprise, and, yes, teach me, gazing with wide-eyed humility as the perichoretic dance of the Triune God swirls around us, enfolds us, and lifts us up.

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The Best is Yet to Come

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’

We have had quite a weekend in the Jones household.  My daughter went to the annual Girl Scout Daddy-Daughter dance.  This is an event that she looks forward to every year.  I will be so sad when the year finally comes that she decides she is too big for Daddy-Daughter dances.  It is her big night out with Dad.  She had a wonderful time, right up to the point where a couple of girls fell down in front of her, she tripped over them, and her face met an untimely kick from another little girl. Mayhem ensued.

Who knew that one little lip could bleed so much?  She was not a happy Girl Scout.  Even after a half hour drive, she arrived home inconsolable.  She told me that she couldn’t stop thinking about Saving Mr. Banks.  And I couldn’t figure out why.  This is the movie about the making of Mary Poppins. And then it dawned on me (Spoiler Alert – if you haven’t seen Saving Mr. Banks and you are worried about ruining it, skip to the next paragraph!).  She was remembering the flashback where P.L. Travers’s father dies.  After years of alcohol abuse, his health deteriorates and he is coughing up a lot of blood.

Oh my.  My sweet little 8-year-old girl thought that she was experiencing something far more traumatic than a little blood from a cut on her lip.  It broke my heart to think of the fear she must have been carrying around inside of her for the past hour.  After I assured her that her condition was in no way related to what the father in the movie experienced, her panic finally dissipated.

I find that with my children, they often say things that seem totally unrelated to the current situation.  But if I stop to think for just a minute, I can figure out the connection they are making.  With homeschooling, we spend so much of our time together that it often feels like we live in one big conglomeration of inside jokes and references, our own little mini-civilization, that other people can’t readily decipher.  I feel extremely fortunate to have this kind of close relationship with my children.

Nathanael recognized in that very first meeting that Jesus already understood all the quirky, indecipherable things he might say, or think, or feel. He realized that Jesus truly knows him. How wonderful to have the feeling of being truly known by another!

It is hard to tell from this short story just why Nathanael gets this overwhelming feeling of connection. It also seems that Jesus is a bit surprised at the effect of this short conversation. But he takes it as a beginning.  A good beginning, for Jesus recognizes that Nathanael is beginning to believe.  And believing in John’s gospel is seeing.  And seeing is what is important.

If you don’t believe me on this, hang on.  As we continue through John’s gospel, you will recognize this theme over and over and over again.  And pay attention to the order.  It is not that seeing is believing.  It is that believing is seeing.

During this same weekend, my 15-year-old was at a church event for high-schoolers called Happening.  I can’t tell you much about it.  That is part of the fun and impact of the event.  The first-timers, those who are “happening” don’t know much about “happening.”  It is entirely youth-led.  Those who are leading are the youth who have “happened” previously.  There are adults on hand to make sure nothing goes too far awry, but the youth are the ones leading the sessions, leading the music, leading worship.  The knowing, believing, seeing methodology can be experienced live and in action at a Happening. When anyone asks about what is on the agenda, they simply say, “The best is yet to come!”

The youth are expressing the same idea that Jesus did as he told Nathanael, “You will see greater things than these.”

Because God knows us, we can rest in the knowledge that, even when we don’t understand ourselves, God understands us.  Paul writes, regarding prayer, that if we can’t figure out what to say, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  I love that.  Sighs too deep for words.  So when all you can get out in between sobs is “Saving Mr. Banks.”  God knows what you really mean.  God knows.  Believe it.  And you will see greater things than these. The best is yet to come.

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The Servants who Drew the Water

A meditation on The Wedding at Cana

The servants knew.
The ones who drew the water.
Knew that it was water.
The wine, that is.
What must they have thought?
Fine wine indeed.  The finest.
“Ha!” they say, “The steward has lost his mind!”

“See how the Emperor is wearing no clothes.”
But just which Emperor, you ask.
Why, the one who sanctioned the killing of the babies, of course.
In search of the one who would turn the water into wine.
What must the people have thought?
The Emperor is exposed. For what he is.
And the first morsels of Empire begin to crumble.

Water for purification.
The blood of a lamb.
This is my son in whom I am well pleased.
This is my body given for all people.
This is the blood of the new covenant, drink it all of you.
And God said, “It is good.  It is very good.”
And the steward said, “You have kept the good wine until now.”

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Come and See

‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’
He said to them, ‘Come and see.’

If you know me, or if you have read very many of my blog posts, you have probably figured out that two of my passions are spirituality and education.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s versions of the story, Jesus opens his ministry by fulfilling prophecy, preaching, or  working miracles.  In John’s gospel, though, Jesus begins his ministry by teaching. But that’s not the real hook for me.  It is more specifically how Jesus teaches that draws me in.  Just as it draws in his disciples and the crowds of people who follow him from town to town.

Come and See he says.

It strikes me how different that is from the prevalent educational paradigm in the United States.  Notice he doesn’t say please choose one of the following answers:

I am staying…
(a) in an inn
(b) with Aunt Sarah
(c) in a van down by the river
(d) in a fishing hut
(e) none of the above

He also doesn’t turn to them and say, “To ascertain my transitory abode, indicated by the antithesis of my not staying locale, assuming the current price of housing and the direction of the prevailing winds from the Sea of Galilee, write a five paragraph essay of 100-150 words on available architectural domiciles not in the unlocal area.”

No.  He said Come and See.

Jesus taught by immersion, by actions, by careful observation, by investigation, by exploration, by conversation, by storytelling.

Ryan, my 15-year-old, started high school this year.  He signed up for two Advanced Placement classes at a local á la carte style school for homeschoolers.  Since multiple choice constitutes a large portion of the AP exam, we have spent an inordinate amount of time this year replicating that process.  I think he has answered so many multiple choice questions that we could wallpaper every room in my house with the remaining  paper detritus. And the questions are meant to be tricky.  Anybody else remember those types of questions with great loathing?  The ones where one three letter word, or even a single letter, changes the entire meaning of the question?

And, apparently, many colleges won’t even look at the kids if they don’t have the requisite number of classes with the AP designation.  Rigor they say.  The easiest way for them to define rigor with absolutely no work on their own part. Why bother reading the essays these kids write, or looking at the meaningful extracurriculars, or interviewing the kids, if you can just boil each applicant down to a number? As if their worth as a person and the predictability of all future contributions they might make to the university, to their family and friends, to the workforce, or even to society as a whole could be summed up in the tidy little package of GPA, as adjusted, of course, for the number of rigorous AP classes taken prior to application.

As a homeschooler, I have been investigating the idea of teaching AP coursework using a more come and see kind of approach.  It can be done. But I think you have to give up on the idea that you are “teaching for the test.”  You have to trust that the students learn the material so well that they are simply prepared. Or maybe one three hour test, comprised of 60 multiple choice questions and a handful of free response, over an entire year’s worth of material is simply a ludicrous expectation in the first place?!? There are a handful of cutting edge groups working on project-based, exploratory learning. And I know there are great teachers out there.  We have encountered some of those this year, too. That gives me hope.

It seems to me that Jesus’s methodology of immersion, action, investigation, conversation, observation, and storytelling would provide a much more meaningful, lasting paradigm, an alternative to what is so affectionately called the “drill and kill” method of learning.

As Ryan has taken the AP Biology class, I have read each chapter in tandem so that I could be an effective study partner with him.  The material itself is fascinating.

I’ve come across articles in your standard grocery store checkout magazines that talk about, for example, the relationship between mitochondrial counts in muscle cells and a person’s long-term health and fitness. And, because of my reading, I can actually tell you what they are talking about. Without the class, I would never have given mitochondria a second thought!  Every class out there has practical, everyday connections.  Keep your eyes open. Discuss what you find.  Come and see.

When studying genetics, how much better will we remember Huntington’s Disease after listening to the story of one family and the angst they experienced when waiting to find out their test results on This American Life? There are real stories behind the heritable diseases.  These stories are told in television and radio programs on Nova or Discovery Channel or a plethora of other outlets.  Watch them, listen to them, understand that the research is about real people, real stories.  The research matters. Come and see.

Labs, labs, and more labs.  Hands on projects.  Field trips.  Immerse yourself in relevant experiences.  Discuss what you have seen and done. Make stories of your own come to life.  Come and see.

And then keep a journal.  Write a paper.  Give a speech. Craft a lab report.  Create a graph.  Paint a painting.  If we are working off of a Come and See paradigm, naturally, Go and Tell must follow.  Somebody has to write the gospel, after all. Somebody has to be prophetic, speaking tough truths.  And sometimes, if we do our job as educators well, our students might even be a part of creating the good news and unearthing world-changing truths!  And good news and great truths can be found in Biology, and in Human Geography, and in Calculus and Statistics, in Art History and Psychology, in Music Theory and Chemistry and Literature. And the list goes on…

I don’t mind hearing my children complain about how hard their work is.  But I never again want to hear my kids say, “I hate insert school subject here.” And I especially don’t want to hear them say “I hate school.”

And the best way I have found to avoid these phrases in my household is to follow the radical, counter-cultural, simple example set by Jesus.

Come and see.  Go and tell.  

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Crying Out for the Wilderness

The whole notion of Lent being a parallel in some way to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness has always captured my imagination.  We often talk about Lent as a time of deprivation.  You can almost hear the undertone of dread thrumming beneath it. It is a time to give things up, right?  (I’ve learned that the only thing worse than trying to sell Girl Scout cookies on January 2nd is delivering them on the first day of Lent!)  So it seems that this time spent in the wilderness is supposed to be accompanied by a penitent (somber and morose) spirit, right?

But I have to admit that, having an introverted temperament, spending 40 days in the wilderness often sounds really good to me.  It is the 40 days spent in constant contact with the clashing, clanging crowds that are what might tempt me to jump off of the top of the temple.

So there, my first confession of Lent.

In a culture that can’t seem to get enough of “community,” I sometimes feel overwhelmed.  And in Lent, I feel a bit like Br’er Rabbit screaming, “Oh please don’t throw me out into the wilderness!”  And here I am, chuckling under my breath the whole time, knowing the wilderness is right where I am most at home.  I would even consider emulating John the Baptist’s wilder habits, wearing itchy camel hair clothing, and making meals of honey-dipped insects just to get a couple of hours of peace and quiet while the sun was still somewhere above the horizon. ( As a homeschooling mom, I’m not sure I have even gone to the restroom uninterrupted since sometime in 2008!)

I remember first learning about the contemplative traditions.  I have a special affinity for the Desert Fathers and Mothers with their quiet and continuous cycle of work and prayer and for Julian of Norwich with her poetic visions of a God who holds the whole world, like a hazelnut, cradled in the palm of one hand.  Julian’s mantra of “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” helps to keep me grounded on the busiest of my days.

I think, sometimes, that with our American religious cultural infatuation with “community” we may be ignoring a whole tradition, a whole way of being Christian.  Lent seems to help us remember that the Communion of Saints plays by different rules than a pop-culture defined version of community.

Contemplation for Saint Anthony and Saint Julian was an extreme art to say the least.  But they both contributed to life in their contemporary communities.  And they both gave us writings that continue to inspire.  The oldest known writing in English by a woman is Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love!

It is that constant cycle of reflection and action and reflection that allows us to deliberately live out our own calling in the world.  And in the wilderness, we are able to confront our fears, our temptations, our joys, our desires, our sorrows, and all the other blessed messiness of life.  In the wilderness, we can take the time we need, as much or as little as we need, to reflect, to be still and to know the presence of God in the midst of it all.

John’s time in the wilderness (and that of Jesus, too) was a time of preparation, preparation for action, for ministry, for life, for the joys and the pains and the challenges that were to come.

Today, I am thankful for this time in the wilderness.

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The Only

We have seen his glory. The glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Amelia, my 8 year old daughter and my parents’ only granddaughter, has a back-and-forth game that she plays with my parents. It goes something like this:

“Amelia, you are our favorite granddaughter!”

And Amelia’s one word reply, “Only.”

Or, “Amelia, you are our sweetest granddaughter!”

And Amelia’s one word reply, “Only.”

When it comes down to it, though, Amelia knows that even if she were one of ten granddaughters, she would still be her grandparents’ “only” in some way. Their only 8-year-old granddaughter, their only cello-playing granddaughter, their only nose-in-a-book-from-morning-to-night granddaughter.

For a long time, my son Ryan was our “only.” When Amelia came along shortly before Ryan turned 7, he summarily announced that he wanted to throw her in the garbage. All she did was eat and cry. There wasn’t even much sleep in those early days, so we can’t really include that in her list of infant talents. She couldn’t climb the hill behind our house, or play in the creek, or even build with the Duplo baby Legos. What use was she?

8 years later, they adore each other. She is his “only” sister. He is her “only” brother.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.” So says Victor Hugo in Les Miserables. To gaze upon the faces of our children is to glimpse God’s glory.

We have had a difficult school year this year. To call it “challenging” puts a positive light on what, at times, should really be called hyper-academic misery. And we are eclectic homeschoolers, so really, we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess. We can’t blame the administration, or the government, or even the common core.  Like Mike Mulligan and his trusty steam shovel, we dug the hole and didn’t seem to leave ourselves a way out.

In the midst of these moments of misery, I have gazed on the face of my only son, twisted in concentration, set firm with determination, forehead furrowed, communicating the struggle and the exhaustion wrought by the demands of each day. He refuses to quit. And in him, I see the tenacious face of God’s relentless grace and truth. God’s glory manifest in the struggle.

This is how God comes to us. This is the Word made flesh. This is how God’s glory shines.   Truth and grace meet us in the struggle. Truth and grace meet us in our love for one another.

You, too, have seen the glory of God.

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