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“Cultivation”…

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My life is full of a lot of very good things right now. After I count down from my husband and three vibrant children, there is an elementary school musical, my writing (that is just humming along), and my job. I count myself fortunate that I get to call my job, my ministry, too, and the stellar team of people who are my coworkers, my close friends.

You can find one of my coworker’s blog at aslanslibrary.wordpress.com. (Sarah, can you see me?)

She’s rather brilliant and we share an ambition for creating new beautiful things. If we can’t find something we like our mantra is “write our own”! Over Christmas we created our own Jesse Tree devotional. She wrote the words and I drew the icons to go on the twenty-four paper ornaments leading up to Christmas.

For Lent we are working on a prayer booklet. Praying together as a church, everything we do tries to cover the broad range between families and singles, children and adults. For adults, the booklet alone, for families we printed the prayers on dark purple strips of paper for children to make chains with over the forty days.

The cover of the prayer booklet has been a conundrum. I had contacted a friend that has some amazing stations of the cross prints, but he couldn’t scan them in time. Words alone would work. It would be fine. But I love images. And I had already staunchly stated that I would NOT be doing any artwork for it.

But, as I was proofreading our Children’s Ministry newsletter, I read Sarah’s beautiful words:

“Many of us find prayer difficult or downright discouraging: are we doing it right? How do you find time, anyway? It doesn’t feel like anything is happening! My children are wiggling, I’m distracted, and honestly it feels more productive to get up and empty the dishwasher. And yet: it is in prayer — the messy, uncomfortable, imperfect spaces we carve out and share with God — that the Creator of the universe settles in close and breathes new life into us. When we pray, we remember again that we are creatures, dependent on the one who made us. Prayer is the fertile ground out of which all of our action grows.”

Perhaps it was the word “carve” or the image of “fertile ground”, at any rate, I began to consider this print. I drew it over and over until I understood it. And then I managed to find a couple of hours in this crazy long weekend to carve it out.

Here is “Cultivation”. It is six layers of soil, like the six Sundays of Lent, laid out on top of each other in preparation for the new life of Eastertide. It is also the desert of Jesus’ forty days of prayer (see the five stones?) before the action of ministry. Together in Lent we will journey with Jesus to Jerusalem (see Jerusalem up there in the corner?) accompanying God’s “upside-down king — who says NO to power and glory, who helps lost people find their way home, who surrounds himself with people who are humble and unimportant” (more of Sarah’s words!) to claim a cross that looks nothing like the throne we would want or expect.

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Full Mind, Full Heart…

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There are a lot of things in my head right now. The song is “I Can Her the Bells” from “Hairspray Jr.” which we saw at the middle school four blocks from our house on Friday. Several alum from our elementary school plays were there and in good form. The steps under my feet and in my head are for “Make ‘em Laugh” which we will choreograph this week.

I’m rereading Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, a fantastic novel that throws together everything that interests me into a lovely disastrous science fiction salad, languages, medicine, with some alien life forms thrown in. I am emotionally tired from our community group’s project on Saturday to feed breakfast to seventy five people through City Hope, our church’s community center in the tenderloin district of San Francisco.

I met a young lady named Ari. When I had talked her inside off the wet street she left moments later with tears in her eyes. She had been looking at my kids. Out of prison for five days, her seven-year-old son is with his father in Alabama, her two-year-old daughter is in Petaluma with friends. We talked about being mothers, she talked about the weight of the family she was raised in, the weight of caring for children on her own, the weight of her addiction that led her straight back here to the streets of San Francisco.

She came in again, she ate, she met my children, I connected her to our pastor there. We found out where she could get clothes. She went to use the bathroom. I sat with her bag.

When she came back she said, “I’m glad you watched my bag. It would’ve been too hard not to — if I had had it with me.”

“You have drugs in there right now?” I asked.

“No,” she said after the slightest pause.

And this is how far I’ve come, I’m still naive enough to be surprised that a drug addict has drugs on their person. But, as it turns out, I’m not naive enough that I didn’t recognize that she was lying to me in the second instance. So, that’s something.

The emotional response in my body brought to mind another instance of similar discordant realization. We were in Manila on a mission trip. We were touring lots of areas and different ministries. One night we went down to the slums to meet some of the thousands of orphans left on their own to form families. We had a group of about twenty boys, six to ten year-olds. We told them Bible stories, learned their names, fed them. We had been there for hours when I began noticing that they were leaving one by one and coming back after a while. They would come back a little happier, red eyes, a little less attentive, distant.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked one.

“He’s high,” the boy answered succinctly.

As it turns out these beautiful brown boys were taking turns leaving to huff glue out of discarded glass jars.

One of our set up guys at church has been clean for two years. He posted on Facebook. “Two years off the needle by the grace of God.”

Another time in college a young man, long blonde hair in a ponytail, a smattering of tattoos, was a friend of a friend of someone in En Christo, our ministry to the poor and homeless in Spokane, Washington. He showed up for a month of Saturdays, handing out bagged lunches to the residents of the hotels we had established relationships with. He gave a powerful testimony of God’s saving grace to release him from his addiction to heroine. He was witness, it could be done. He didn’t show up one Saturday. We heard the next week, through a friend of a friend, he had died of an overdose. I don’t remember his name. I remember thinking he was cool.

I am thinking of the second grader, a little brother, who told me he has begun reading the Bible when he’s bored at home, mostly the story of David and Goliath.

I am thinking of my volunteer who has rekindled her years of ASL and is practicing the story for this next week so she can communicate with two deaf boys who have been coming to our program.

I am thinking of two third grade girls who haven’t had a friend in their all-boy children’s worship class. Two Sundays ago they finally found each other and told their mothers about their new friend.

I am thinking about the two first grade boys who are a little intimidated about transitioning out of their comfortable Kindergarten class where their little brothers are. One is autistic and finally yesterday didn’t look like a caged animal when I gave him another tour of the “big kid” room.

I am thinking about all the slogans I have read off the posters of all my friends who went to many women’s marches all across the country. I didn’t think about going. I served breakfast with my community group to seventy-five inhabitants of the tenderloin and met Ari and was tired and went home and thanked the Lord for whatever combination of grace, provision, chance, will, or wisdom that has allowed me to have a house and the right to mother my children.

I thanked the Lord for a rug to vacuum, dishes to do, so many bananas that they had gotten old, and the baking space, that no SRO hotel room has, to make banana bread. There was so much joy in making banana bread for my people, so much flour, so much sugar. I thanked the Lord for the bathroom I had to clean even though I swore on Tuesday that anybody but me was going to be scouring it this weekend. I was grateful for the fridge full, the laundry basket full, the arms full of my children.

I realized that I was being domestic even while I was admiring signs, even while City Hall was lit up pink. I laughed at myself.

My favorite quote, the last sentences of Middlemarch by George Eliot. The great heroin Dorothea, who is described as having the energy and righteous ambition of another Joan of Arc, spreading out her energies into domesticity like the delta of the river Cyrus. “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

I think about how distasteful it is sometimes to my ambition to rest in the small things, how difficult to be satisfied in diffusion.

I think of the one hundred sixty-nine kids in the school play that I get to know and encourage. I think of the eighty-five to one-hundred fifteen kids that we have in children’s worship on Sundays that we get to know and welcome. I think of the three who I kissed awake this morning with many kisses, the little one’s cheek smelling like his sweet mouth from falling asleep sucking his thumb.

This morning I don’t feel so far away from every other woman in the world. This morning I see more parallels than differences between me and Ari who is somewhere just outside this coffee shop window, maybe still trying to find her cell phone so she can see that last picture she took of her little girl. I feel my energies splitting and irrigating many tiny fields, for each of which I am very grateful.

Two Illustrations from Nature…

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It is the weekend my Dad died nine years ago. It is the week a dear friend died one year ago. A coworker just had a miscarriage. A close friend is going through a divorce.

Illustration number one: This week I was at a work retreat up the coast. There was pine, dry grass, and dirt that acts like chalk on your shoes. The sunrise was obscured by a heavy fog being blown over the hill. As I climbed the hill I stepped into a copse of pine. I turned my head into the breeze to catch the wind in my ears and I caught another sound. It was so loud I looked around for what could cause this “pat pat pat”. Droplets had formed on the tip of every needle of every pine. I thought of the fog, how like grief, heavy, pervasive, and obscuring the view at three feet. And I thought of the trees, every day reaching out and into; by will and persistence making tangible something good and life-giving, watering themselves.

Illustration number two: Today we drove down the coast. We stopped just south of Linda Mar at a battery held aloft still by a truculent chunk of granite. High above the water and rocks, the walkway around seemed to drop out of sight with a certainty that made me hold my three-year-old’s hand tighter. Surely it would mean death to ever step past that edge. And yet, as we walked closer, we were surprised to find slopes, not gentle, but like many things in life, surprisingly survivable.

 

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Glenn’s Plan to Shake Things Up…

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I came into the coffee shop to write, walking past a homeless black man holding a sign asking for change. I didn’t make eye contact; I read the sign surreptitiously. A few minutes after I walked by, Glenn came in. A large middle aged black man, he was loud and happy. He greeted the baristas by name. He mentioned his friend Reggie sitting outside with the sign.

“I’m sorry for being so boisterous this morning,” he smiled broadly to me.

“Not at all, I love it!” I said.

We began a conversation. He was a man who didn’t believe in negativity.

“You do look like you pumped yourself up before coming out this morning,” I said.

“You know it,” he chuckled.

“Do you really know him? Reggie?” I asked.

“I try to talk to every black man I see on the street,” he said, “find out what their story is, what they’re doing. Because they can’t stay on the street.”

“They can’t,” I repeated back.

“No. The street’s not a place to be. ‘Cause the cops are going to come. You think they’re going to say, ‘You want some coffee and a donut?’ They’re not. They got a job to do. My uncle was a cop. They got to do their job.”

“Do you give them resources, tell them where to go?”

“The black muslim temple’ll take him in anytime any day. But you can’t be on the street.”

He talked about race. I listened. I opened my mouth to confirm one of his viewpoints once. His head tipped and the polite look he gave me was chastening. It wasn’t mine to affirm. It was my turn to listen.

He talked about Colin Kaepernick and his comments about the flag.

“I’m gonna have Colin come out and talk to Reggie,” he said, “right here on Post and VanNess. ‘Cause this is who he’s talking about. And maybe he doesn’t know. There’s BlackLivesMatter, the new black panthers, and this guy you may have heard about, Barack Hussein Obama. I mean Barack Hussein Obama! You know where he is, right? He’s not a senator. He’s in the white house.”

He shook his head, “You gotta love this country. How is the black man supposed to accomplish anything in America if they hate America? We need to love America like Barack and Michelle. We gotta have their mindset.”

We talked about generational messages of negativity and oppression.

“How do you break chains of generational messaging like that?” he asked, quizzing me.

“Little by little, one generation at a time?” I asked.

He chuckled, “I’m afraid it’s gonna take something a little more drastic than that. Let me tell you. You want to hear my plan to shake things up?”

“Yes.”

He leaned in and locked eyes. I had no idea what I would hear.

After a long pause he said, “We abolish the NBA.”

“The NBA?”

“The NBA.”

He continued, “We take all these fine African American men and put them in college and see what they can do.”

“By taking away options?” I said.

“Options?! There’s Google right here. The world doesn’t need another LeBron! We need a black Mark Zuckerberg!”

He called himself a social engineer. I found out he was a writer, self-published author, and Christian. I told him about my kids. He told me I needed to self-publish my book.

It wasn’t a long conversation. In the time I could’ve read an article and share it on Facebook, Glenn and I did the work of two strangers reading each other. In the time it would’ve taken me to click through a link and read Colin K’s comments, we shared a conversation.

Land’s End Landscape…

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I have been coming to Land’s End Trail of mornings. I sit on a bench in the chill and mist and watch the grey ocean spread beneath me like the dull side of a piece of aluminum foil crumpled and pressed smooth. It rolls out to the wide Pacific on my left, and on my right under the bridge and between the fingertips of reclining landmasses. My nose threatens to run and my shoe grinds a bit of sandy dirt as I settle.

The fog is thick and heavy just above the water, a single stanchion of the Golden Gate Bridge visible as if I am under Lady San Francisco’s skirts catching a glimpse of a sacred ankle. The shoulders of Marin are a curve more sensual today, the tops and less modest tips hugged by the lacy undergarment of fog.

Two lights, one standing on the last rock before the ocean, the other midway between that and the bridge blink on and off slowly, conserving energy for their eternal task. A fog horn sounds from somewhere, its own little joke, since visibility is perfect on the water. Small dots of light scratch white lines into the grey past the point. If the law would have these craft leave their lights on until an hour or two past sunrise it would be hard to know by the filtered light exactly when that was. A single fishing boat is in front of me, a red light at the top of its mast, deciding to rest inside the arms of the bay, comfortable to sit here with me.

To my right I can see where the ocean is making the shore, the never-ending group project of seven seas. Black rocks and blurs of darker textures spill across the sand here and there as it curves to meet the red bridge. The bridge swallows it all into its width or expectorates it, possibly the initial seed of fruit from which the earth springs forth. The road to the top is a perfect Bob Ross zig of paint scraped between the darker green of Presidio trees and descending speckle of beach shrubs. The road looks from this angle to curve straight down to the bridge, but I know it disappears over the hill, taking a turn and under a damp stone underpass before drawing its line of red light to join the others who for some reason are leaving the city at this hour.

Behind me to my left the grit trail runs straight disappearing abruptly into the cypress forests, standing on long stems, all looking like they have been treacherously betrayed by their hair product and a sudden gust of wind. Small dark birds bounce or zip, its hard to tell, across the path. And I can hear the incessant hiccough of a sprinkler on the golf course. I cannot tell if the smell of humidity is coming from there or from above. Occasional strings of birds indistinguishable from each other at this height fly low across the water until they complete a picture of a zipper with their reflection, unzipping and zipping as they ever alter altitude. The much larger pelicans fly closer so that I can make out colors and single indignant feathers.

I dab at my nose and shift my weight on the wooden bench to the other buttock. I wonder how long I’ve been sitting here. It’s grown warmer maybe; but I’ve gotten colder as my blood has cooled down from walking.

The lights are going out on the cars driving over the hill. My fishing boat has turned off its red light and is pulling out into open water. Lady San francisco has hiked up her skirts past her knees, and the view is a bowl in front of me, so much, with rivulets spilling out to the west and east and into my lap.