Yesterday's sermon was anchored in a familiar verse by Paul. Found in his letter to the Philippians (1:21) it is perhaps his "missional statement," the focus of his life's vocation.
"For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."

Sometimes verses like this seem meaningful, and yet hard to grasp. I found myself yesterday inserting the word "joy" for Christ. I don't think this is irreverent, as Christ comes to give us joy. Perhaps one could also substitute the word "love," another word that Christ embodies.

For to me to live is joy, and to die means even more joy.
For to me to live is love, and to die means even more love.

Playing with the text this way opens it up to more questions, or steps forward. To live in joy might mean that I have to start dancing. (Yesterday I had a distinct sense that my body needs to join my mind for me to experience joy most fully.) To live in love means that my heart continues to expand, that who and what I love continues to broaden, that I grow in my capacity to give, to receive and to creatively companion.

Paul sought to grab onto all that Jesus came to give. His motto is an expression of that commitment, a guiding statement that's worth sharing. It's also a good Monday mantra.
 
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A gnarled tree trunk, nestling leaves...

It's a dreary day, and I must admit I am ready for the weekend, although it is only Thursday. This poem is a comfort, an encouragement that it's OK to settle down, like leaves falling into a welcoming earth. I don't have to be strong enough to hold others; I am not always strong enough to hold myself up. But there are gentle hands, which can hold and calm when it's time to rest.

Autumn
Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are  falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying  high in  space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning "no."

And tonight the  heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We're all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It's in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
 
I talk a lot about connecting with others and with the natural world around me in my blogs. Because, theoretically, theologically and in my gut, I believe that it's true. But when I step back and look at my life, I realize that I have a ways to go in making this a reality. The area I live in is not very diverse, and at the moment my circle of acquaintances not very large. There are reasons for this that I accept, but it does not mean I can't take steps to expand my world.

One way to do this is to consciously choose to listen to other voices, to be open to hearing what "an other" is saying. Suspending judgment and seeking to understand are necessary practices if I believe that choosing joy is for all of us. How can I know how my choices affect you if I don't have a relationship with, or at least an awareness of you and your needs?

Yesterday while perusing my Facebook feeds, I came upon a link posted by "The Great Renewal," a Facebook page seeking to encourage, inform and connect people interested in making the planet a healthier place to live. By posting links to innovative projects all over the world, the group hopes to support paradigm change by focusing on language, policies, laws, institutions, organizations and behaviors. Like many grass roots movements, it is starting small, with a potential to be a conversation and behavior starter. I appreciate being pushed in these directions.

The link that caught my eye described "The Great Green Wall," a project designed to block the growing Sahara Desert by planting a wide belt of greenery across the width of Africa. It's an amazing endeavour and made me feel hopeful about the power of vision and volunteerism in a place so distant from me. When I clicked on the link (you can find the video here) I did a bit of a double-take. It was posted on Al Jazeera, an international media group which began twelve years ago as the "first independent Arabic news channel in the world dedicated to providing comprehensive television news and live debate for the Arab world." (Quote is from the website here.)

Can I be honest? (I find myself saying this more and more these days.) When Al Jazeera showed up on my computer screen, I felt a bit uncomfortable. I was outside my traditional source of info, even farther removed than the BBC, which comprises part of my iGoogle page. There was a good chance that "opinions expressed" concerning politics and economics would be different from those of more mainstream western media that I'm used to hearing, perhaps even from those of NPR. Like most of us when encountering something unfamiliar, I was a bit wary. But neither do I want to insulate myself from the voice of the other, a voice that may have a very different perspective.

I've encountered different perspectives before, first traveling and then living abroad, but  once back in familiar turf, it's easy to slide into comfortable ways of thinking. It requires effort to seek out a voice that's different from mine, to engage in dialogue that may feel uncomfortable, to explore values and insights that are hidden from my sight.  Difficult, to engage with, but essential, if I desire being part of and encouraging a joy-filled community that has no borders.
 
Several weeks ago I started doing yoga for my back. It was bothering me that my range of motion was impeded. Stretches that had been helpful for years brought real discomfort and so I'd stopped doing them; it wasn't a solution as much as a strategic denial of something that needed to be dealt with.

When a friend volunteered her copy of yoga for back care, I thought I would take the plunge and see if there was something I could do to open up my lower back. The first morning I made it about a third of the way through the video before I reached a position that stopped me dead in my tracks. I couldn't move on without doing something else.

The something else seems to be working on some muscles in my lower back that have developed deep knots (sometimes called trigger points). Through massage and the Acuballs I mentioned previously, I am making progress, flowing more easily now through the yoga positions, feeling the tension in my back beginning to release, allowing the sense of breath to flow freely through my spine. In the process I am strengthening and elongating my muscles so that they will be able to support my core.

Focusing on freedom and flexibility in my body right now is key, especially as I'm solidly in midlife. I'm just hitting my stride, and would like to be healthy for at least the next thirty years(!) so I'm taking time to notice what is going on in my body, especially becoming aware of these trigger points that not only cause pain, but also limit my range of motion.

But trigger points don't only exist in the physical realm. They are also common in our emotional selves. Emotional trigger points come to our attention when we can't be open to the people or situations around us.  Instead of moving with competence and grace, we find ourselves tensing up, our heartrate increases, and confidence oozes away. Rather than extending compassion, our face begins to harden, and we put on a false persona, or withdraw altogether.

Noticing emotional trigger points is the first step toward dissolving them. We need to slow down and try to accurately name what is causing our discomfort. Are we angry, afraid, insecure, anxious? Are we stressed by the situation, or the person? Is this a reoccuring problem, or are we walking into new territory?

It's a funny thing. When we stop to notice what is going on, and honestly desire to move beyond the pain and dis-ease, what we need will often come to us. When I needed to work on my back, my friend had already pulled together a box of goodies chosen specifically for back care issues. It's true in other realms as well. We realize we're angry and a friend gives us a book on forgiveness; we struggle with insecurities and a colleague mentions a good therapist; we feel a lack of passion and a sermon speaks directly to our longings.

We are meant to live freely and flexibly, connecting deeply with our world. To choose joy means that we take steps towards attaining that freedom, opening ourselves to love flowing in and through us. And when we feel that love being restricted, it's important that we pay attention to the cause, probe the block, and commit to understanding why it's there, even it if means slowing down to heal.
 
In last week's post "Present to the Presence", I talked about being open to the myriad ways that God comes to companion us. Today's poem by Mary Pratt (reprinted in "At the Still Point:A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time)" is an invocation of the Holy Spirit. The title "Not Like a Dove" gives us a hint that the author imagines the Holy Spirit in some unusual ways. Choosing a new metaphor wakes us up, a bit like brisk air in these autumn mornings. The Spirit as chameleon? gecko? komodo?

Each image deserves some pondering. I'll pause on a few, starting with the Chameleon, well-known for blending into varied environments. Does God, who never changes in essence, change in form, depending on our situation? And why would the change be neessary? I'm reminded of these verses in Psalm 18:

With the kind You show Yourself kind;
         With the blameless You show Yourself blameless; 
With the pure You show Yourself pure,
         And with the crooked You show Yourself astute.

And there's this line: "Come like Komodo parting the ways/with your stinking breath. Come/clear the carrion from this isle." Last autumn I penned a short poem of thanks to the vulture, who though not as "awe-inspiring" as the hawk, provides the necessary the task of clearing the countryside from death and disease. Like a surgeon who does not flinch at the blood and stench, but willingly comes into surgery to remove a cancerous growth, so God does not turn aside from his own cleansing work in our minds and souls.

Spirit as Dragon takes the lizard metaphor and gives it wings, a far cry from the gentle dove, the author chooses not to invoke. But the work of Spirit is not always gentle.  John Donne begins one of his sonnets with this plea: "Batter my heart, three person'd God" and ends by stating " Take me to you, imprison me, for I/ Except you'enthrall me, never shall be free/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

The poem ends with the phrase "burn away all that will burn." With fiery and fearsome breath, the dragon comes, evoking those Hebrew scriptures which liken God to a refining fire. Knowing that there is gold in the ore, the Spirit is not satisfied until the dross is consumed and we are revealed as precious and brought into the community of the Godhead. 

This is the purpose of God, to embrace us, and then to purify  us and make us whole. And so the Spirit will come in whatever means necessary, under cover of night, hidden and unsuspected, fierce and rattling. And when we know the purpose, trust the desire, we embrace the coming of Spirit in whatever way God chooses to enter our lives. 

Not Like a Dove
Mary F. C. Pratt

Come Holy Spirit, come
like a red eft creeping out
from under wet leaves
crossing the traveled highway
at night after rain.
Come like the brown anole comes north
unexpected in bananas or limes;
like a gecko hunting roaches on a walll.
Come like Chameleon;
like Iquana still as deep green death
flittering a cloven tonge.
Come like Komodo parting the ways
with your stinking breath. Come
clear the carrion from the isle.
Come Holy Spirit
come like the Dragon remembered of old
rattling and clanking on golden wings.
Seize our treasures for your glittering hoard.
Burn away all that will burn.

(An eft is a young newt. The photo above is of the red-spotted newt.)
 
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I am the Vine 1 by Janet Vanderhoof
Isn't it interesting that leaves burst into brilliant colors before they swirl from the trees and dance their way to the ground? Fall isn't just about loss and letting go - it's also a celebration of what has been accomplished during the year. Throughout spring and summer, these same leaves have been busy with the process of photosynthesis, and along with the root structure of the tree they've provided all the nourishment necessary to create another ring of life. But unlike roots, leaves aren't constructed to last for more than one season. After doing their job, they gracefully move on.

Each of us go through seasons of life. When we sense we're at a time of transition, it's important to remember what has brought us to this point: the things we've learned, the traits that have made us who we are, the relationships we've developed. Some of these comprise our root system and will remain with us our entire life. Others - roles we've played, jobs we've had, ways of relating we've used, belief systems we've held onto - are like leaves. They've been essential for a time and now are ready to be released.

So before we let what is no longer useful go, let's celebrate where those things have brought us! And then let the wind swirl through our branches, and ready us for what's ahead.

October's Party
George Cooper

"October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came-
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band."

The artist Janet Vanderhoof was featured in the online art magazine "Empty Easel."
 

My middle daughter recently moved in with my husband and me. We're helping her save some money and offering support while she's starting up a new business. I'm benefitting as much as she is from this arrangement, as she's thoughtful, open and (as a dancer) very tuned into her body. Our conversations are always enlightening.

Since we're both on an entrepreneurial path at the moment, it's been key for us to find some guiding questions to help in our decision-making processes. And so, as we sort out how to spend our time and where to focus our energies, we're beginning to ask ourselves two things: first, "Can I afford this?" and second, "Will this help me move toward my goal?"

I love these questions. "Can I afford this?" is not just about money. Nor is it only about time. It's about all different sorts of energy that we expend toward any endeavour. "Will this deplete my bank account?" is a good question, but equally important can be "Will this deplete my present emotional stores?" or "Do I have enough physical capacity to attempt this now?" If I'm low on a resource, I need to be thinking of ways to replenish my stock, not moving on into a deficit mode.

There's also the inversion of this question: "Can I afford NOT to do this?" Saying no to  opportunities for the wrong reasons will, in the long run, be detrimental. All new ventures require investment. Taking out a loan may put one into the red for a period of time, but not doing so may keep a project dead in the water. It may seem like I don't have time in the day to talk to my spouse, but if my desire is a healthy marriage, I can't afford not to make this investment, even if doing so puts me into a sleep deficit.

The second question, "Will this move me toward my goal?" requires that one has a good sense of what they're about. This may be clearly defined: "I want to establish a flourishing dance school and company" (my daughter's goal), or less defined: "I'd like to be more helpful to people in their journeys toward health and joyfully pursuing their vocations" (my goal). Either way, progress requires a sense of whether our choices are helping us gain the experience, knowledge, contacts, etc. to move us along the pathway to these desires.

As I move beyond my own concerns, I realize that these questions could also be helpful for groups, whether in a marriage, a company, a church, a municipality or even a country. Living out of these questions requires articulating (and agreeing on) where we want to head. No doubt, it gets more complicated the larger the community, but there are a larger pool of resources to draw on, not only to help discern, but also to accomplish these goals.

I need questions. I need ways to reflect and direct. And I need people who live out the questions with me. I can't afford not to.
 
Eating seasonally is a good idea. Not only is it cheaper, but you can take advantage of locally grown produce, especially fun if there's a farmer's market or orchard within an easy drive. With cabbage and apples abundant right now, I often whip up this recipe that blends them in a tasty salad (modeled after the Yum Apple Salad at my local Thai restaurant.). Truly yummy!

3 c thinly sliced cabbage
1 c peeled, sliced apple
1/4 c peanuts
red pepper strips (optional)

Dressing:
1/4 c lime juice
4 cloves garlic (2 t crushed garlic)
1 t ginger
1/2 t salt
2 t honey
1/2 c cilantro
1/2 c oil

Blend dressing in food processor. It may make more than you need for the recipe, so add enough so that the salad is well dressed, but not soaking.
 
"If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here..."
"My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."

Before Moses heads down to begin the serious task of bringing the children of Israel into the promised land, he has a heart-to heart with God on Mt Sinai. And no wonder. What he is about to embark upon is not for the faint of heart. Moses asks for God's ways, so that he will find favor in His sight. He asks for the Lord to go with them, and He asks to have a personal experience of God's glory. God graciously answers all these requests.

I find myself these days working hard to be present, to focus on the moment in front of me. And so this morning I ponder again what it means to be present to the presence of the Spirit of God, which is available to me as it was available to Moses and to every person who seeks to know the ways of God, to find favor in God's sight, and to experience the glory of God.

Brother Lawrence, who lived in a French monastery during the 1600s, made it his goal to be aware of and worshipping God throughout the day, whether peeling potatoes or scrubbing pots. His book,  "Practicing the Presence of God" is a collection of letters to inquirers intrigued about his process. But there are other ways of "seeing" God. St Francis saw the presence of God in creation. Mother Teresa in the face of the sick and dying in Calcutta. A new mother sees it in the face of an infant, the artist in the play of harmonics or the glint of light in the autumn afternoon.

We can also recognize the presence of God within ourselves, a heightened awareness in moments when we sense the Spirit getting our attention, notice unusual clarity, participate in inexplicable peace.

Whether outward or inward, through people, animals, nature, language or music, God's presence fills the earth, and wants to fill us. What is left to us is being open, and a commitment to see and be led by a loving, companioning God.
 

Have you had a pumpkin latte yet? Roasted vegetables? Pork stew? Apple Dumplings? As the temperature starts to sink, and our body yearns for some sort of consolation, we often warm our souls through comfort food (or music). In "Buckwheat Cakes," the poem below, Guest insists that "Every  season has its joys/Every day its touch of mirth", gifts to help us celebrate our lives. In this instance, a stack of buckwheat pancakes provides a comforting constant no matter the changes that encroach upon our lives.

The Youtube clip is of Nat King Cole singing "Autumn Leaves." The mellow tones, apt for the sense of loss that fall often brings (and the song specifically addresses), seep into the bones; like a steamy tub at the end of a difficult day, they soothe and relax. And if you're missing the "color," you can feast your eyes as well. So grab yourself a cuppa your favorite, and enjoy.

Buckwheat Cakes
Edgar A. Guest

"Now the frost is in the air.
Blue the haze at  early dawn.
There is color everywhere.
Old and ragged looks the  lawn.
Autumn's resting on the hills.
Harvested are fruit and grain,
And  the home with gladness thrills.
Buckwheat cakes are back again!

Every  season has its joys,
Every day its touch of mirth.
For us all - both girls  and boys -
God has well supplied the earth.
What if care must fall between
Peace and pleasure now and then?
Autumn holds this happy scene:
Buckwheat cakes are back again!

Time and trouble change us all,
Youth gives way to middle age,
One by one our fancies fall
Till we reach life's final stage,
But in spite of aches and panes
And the difference old age makes,
Man devoted still remains
To a stack of buckwheat cakes."