Friday, September 19, 2014

The shape of my soul.

This week I was asked 'What does your soul look like? What is an image for that place of connection between you and God?'

The image that came unbidden into my mind surprised me.

A jigsaw.

As I've sat with it over the past few days I've felt a connection to it. I remember solving jigsaws in my youth. Find the corners first, then build up the edges. Next sort the interior pieces by color and then match to the box image and slowly complete the puzzle.

In my teens and early twenties I had a fairly good idea not only of the dimensions of the jigsaw of my soul, but also of the image on it. And then, when I started building it, I discovered that the shape was not a simple rectangle like I expected. I found extra corners and edge pieces that didn't meet my expectations. I found corners that were not 90 degrees. I found small pieces that were beautiful unique shapes in themselves and I would pause to reflect on them. The picture was more different and varied than I could have ever imagined, and at times I've begun to wonder if this jigsaw is double sided or even 3 dimensional.

There is something beautiful to me about encountering God in the midst of something incomplete.Of knowing that I am partnering with God building something that is a beautiful mystery, that I will always be surprised by colors, and corners. Knowing that I will not have the jigsaw finished this side of Heaven adds a sense of relief and a release of pressure....

.....and every encounter has an opportunity to reveal a new piece of the puzzle.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Openness and Authenticity

(notes for this Sunday's Contemplative Service)

Two weeks ago in the Contemplative Service we handed out cards with names on them. The names were drawn randomly from various sources, all the names were real people from  around the world. We were encouraged to pray for these people. We did not know them, did not know how to pray for them, and would not ever know how our prayers were answered.

Why did we do this? So many of us pray our own agendas when we pray. We tell God exactly what He should do and how He should do it. This exercise removed that possibility. All I could do was hold my two people out to God and pray that He would be with them in some way.

So Tom and Tam became my companions for a while, and I learned about openness and mystery in prayer. I surrendered my agendas and even allowed the way I pray for them to change how I pray for myself.

That same week my friend's five year old son Arthur had open heart surgery.

I tried to pray in the same way, to be open to the mystery of prayer and pray without expectations and agendas....and I couldn't do it. I got angry with the whole exercise. I told God in no uncertain terms exactly how I wanted Him to be with Arthur and how I wanted Him to make sure that Arthur's surgery was a success. Anything else felt like lying, I couldn't, wouldn't surrender the outcome of the surgery to God.

Arthur came through the surgery wonderfully well and is already back home.

I'm so grateful to God for that.....and I still find myself getting angry even imagining any other outcome.
I'm still wrestling with this issue of authenticity and openness.

How do I pray honestly for what I feel and still be open to the mystery of God and not become attached to the outcome? How do I pray in a way that feels honest about who I am and what I want, and acknowledges that ultimately I have to hold things loosely?

I've heard talks on the benefits of praying specifically. How articulating what you want to God helps you process and reflect on it. Be authentic to God, He knows when you are not anyway.
I've heard talks on the benefits of praying generally. How you should simply surrender the other person to God and be open to God doing whatever God wants.

In the midst of all this advice and suggestions, I find comfort from Jesus in the Garden.

"....Let this cup pass me by" is specific and authentic
"...not my will but yours be done" is a prayer of openness and surrender.

So this week I've tried to hold onto the tension of Openness and Authenticity. To ask God to help me find the place where they intersect, and when I get angry at the thought of what could have happened to Arthur, I try and place my anger in God's hands as well.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Jesus gets it backwards.

Had I been Jesus' script writer I would have worded the sentence a little differently:

"....where the plants produced thirty, sixty or even a hundred times as much as was scattered!"

Start with the lower number and then increase as you raise your voice, get the listeners really excited about the possibility of a hundredfold return. That's the way to really sell this story Jesus.

But that is not what Jesus does in the Parable of Sower

But a few seeds did fall on good ground where the plants produced a hundred or sixty or thirty times as much as was scattered. - Matthew 13:8

I've lost count of the number of times I've read that parable, but this is the first time I've noticed the word order. I was reading the passage aloud for worship and was putting some emphasis and emotion into the reading to keep people engaged. It was the process of that interpretation that I suddenly noticed the word order in that sentence.

How do I read it aloud? Do I read it getting louder and more excited to make it seem that a thirty fold return is even better than a hundredfold? Or do I allow my voice to trail down after the one hundredfold so that the sixty and thirty fold return sound like a Disclaimer?

Interestingly enough Mark's version of the Parable has the yields listed in ascending order, and Luke's version only lists a hundredfold return. Both of these sit more comfortably with me than Matthew's telling. 

I wonder if my confusion over how to read Matthew aloud displays my Reward Mentality. What do I get out of being planted in good soil? How do I maximize the return on my investment? How do I grow spiritually as quickly and deeply as possible? Mark and Luke are much more inviting in this regard, especially Luke. I'd like the hundredfold only option please.

What if this Reward Mentality that seems so ingrained has me focusing on the wrong thing? Instead of putting my efforts into somehow obtaining a hundredfold return I should instead be focusing on being good soil and leave the volume of growth to the Sower.

This Parable of the Sower (also often called the Parable of the Soils) is one of the few parables that Jesus explains. In Matthew's retelling of the explanation he writes this:

But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. - Matthew 13:23

There it is again, that descending order of numbers that started my problem, and there too is the phrase 'hear the word and understand it'.

Many of us do not hear. We do not listen to our own bodies. We do not hear the cries of the poor and needy. We do not hear people who hold views different to us. We hear only what we want to hear.

Hearing is exhausting. 

Understanding is worse. The more you seek to understand the more you realize that even the simplest concept is complex beneath the surface.

Why bother? 

When I hear and when I seek to understand, a relationship is formed between the Listener/Knower and the person/object/concept/issue. I can no longer view them as separate from myself. There is only one field, one seed. Their growth may look different to mine and their harvest may be lesser or greater, but hearing and understanding leads to acceptance and embrace.

Who do you need to hear and understand today?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Slow Cooker Beef Stew

I love this recipe. It may take a little more time than the average 'throw everything in a slow cooker' recipe, but the taste is definitely worth it....and I definitely suggest buying and cubing your own stew meat as opposed to purchasing the packets of mystery meat (and gristle) that they sell for stew at the store. It does take time to cut up the meat, but you get a better quality of flavor and reduce the amount of fat in the stew. If you can't find chuck eye roast look for something similar.


3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 medium onions, minced
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried)
1 1/2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups low sodium beef broth
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons minute tapioca
2 bay leaves
1 (5-pound) boneless beef chuck eye roast - trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
Ground Black pepper
1 1/2 pounds red potatoes, cut into 1 inch pieces
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
1 pound parsnips (optional), peeled and cut into 1 inch pieces
2 cups frozen peas

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a skillet. Add onions, tomato paste, garlic , thyme and a pinch of salt. Cook stirring often until the onions are softened and lightly browned 10 - 12 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, scraping up any brown bits.

Put the onion mixture into the slow cooker. Stir in beef broth, soy sauce, tapioca, and bay leaves. Season the beef with salt and pepper and add to the cooker.

Toss the potatoes, carrots (parsnips if using) with 1 tablespoon oil and season with salt and pepper.

Using two sheets of foil wrap the vegetables in a large sealed foil packet and and set it on top of the stew in the cooker then put the lid on the top...chances are it is a tight fit, mine usually is, but carefully wrestling with the shape of the foil packet helps. If the foil rips, just add another layer :)

Cover and cook on low for 9 to 11 hours or on high for 5 to 7 hours.

When cooked transfer the vegetable packet to a plate. Turn off the cooker and let the stew rest for 5 minutes and then tilt and scoop off as much fat as you can (this shouldn't be much if you trimmed the meat well).

Remove the bay leaves from the stew then stir in the vegetables and any juice from the packet.

Stir in the peas and let the stew sit for 5 minutes for them to cook through. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.

Enjoy the taste (and the aroma)

How to do the Prep work the night before

Chop the carrots, parsnips (if using) and the onions.

Cook the onion mixture as listed above (up to the point you put it in the slow cooker) and instead store it in an air tight container in the fridge. Store the chopped veggies in another container. Store the cubed meat (unseasoned!) in a third covered container.

The next morning put the onions in the bottom of the slow cooker. Season and then add the meat. Chop up the potatoes (it takes just a moment to do). Then continue from 'Using two sheets of foil.....'

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Rain

(For Sunday's Contemplative Service.)
Take some time to read this slowly, prayerfully and reflectively.

Imagine a field baked by the sun.
The ground dry, cracked, dusty.
The breeze blowing away the topsoil.

A few straggling grasses bleached and wilted by the heat.
The atmosphere feels unrelenting, heavy, oppressive.

I look at my life, for places where I feel like that field.
The dry, forgotten corners.
The areas where growth feels stunted and fragile.
Abandoned projects.
Forgotten dreams.
Cherished resentments.
Closed attitudes.

I allow these places to speak to me,
To let them know that I honor their voices.
I listen without judging, blaming or condemning.....

As I gaze across the field I notice a small cloud,
A promise of shelter and nurture on the distant horizon.

The cloud seems to form a recognizable shape as it comes closer.
It brings a sense of peace along with its relief from the heat.

A gentle mist of rain begins to descend.
Cleansing the atmosphere as it falls on the dry ground.
I remember how it feels to be kissed by the rain,
To feel my thirst being quenched as I stand beneath the spray.....

As the rain continues it forms into mini rivers on the soil.
I notice where the water flows across the field,
How some places receive more nourishment than others.
I reflect on how I feel about that.....

I imagine channeling the water flow to places of my choosing.
I look at where I steer the stream of water,
I name what parts of my life I wish to receive more rain.....

And yet the stream flows where it will.

Finally I consider the other fields connected to mine.
The other people, all with their own thirsts and needs.
I see the rain flowing out to them.
Falling on good and bad,
Righteous and unrighteous.
Those I call worthy and those I call unworthy

It is grace that lets the rain fall on me.
It is grace that lets the rain fall on others.

Loving God, let your river flow...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Whispers and Shouts

(Random thoughts for Easter Sunday's Contemplative Service)

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he called out in a loud voice 'Lazarus, come forth' - John 11:43 Jesus raises his voice and calls out in a shout that reaches all the way beyond the grave. A shout that leaves no question about who holds the keys of death and hell.

When Jesus raised Jairus' daughter from the dead, he simply took her hand and said 'Little girl get up' - Mark 5:41 Jesus tells the mourners and musicians who were weeping and wailing to go away, and in a scene of quiet intimacy he whispers life back into the girl.

Resurrections happen in our lives in shouts and whispers.

There are parts of my life that need to loudly raise my voice and proclaim the ancient Easter greeting 'Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.' I need to shout resurrection at a volume louder than my fears. I need to shout out in a voice that reaches into the dead places in my life and declares their resurrection through the power of God. I need a shout that resounds in my ears when faith fades away, a shout that keeps echoing through the gaping canyons of my soul.

Other parts of me need to whisper the resurrection. A loud shout sends me scurrying away in fear like wild deer. I need to whisper as a gentle invitation that I will not be met with condemnation. I need to whisper so I know I will be greeted with understanding. I need to whisper because at times that is all I I can do, and therefore if resurrection can only be shouted I am excluded. I need to whisper because parts of me are so fragile that a shout would destroy them and I would crumble like the walls of Jericho. I need to whisper because God is a God who speaks in whispers as well as shouts.

An honest whispered 'Help me' can contain more resurrection than a fake shouted 'Hallelujah!'There is loud exuberant praise in Heaven, and there is also intimate silence.

When you reflect on your life right now, do you need to whisper or shout?

Friday, April 04, 2014

I Am a Platypus

I've posted on this theme before (see this post on ice cream) but I found myself reflecting again this week.

In 1799 the naturalist George Shaw, Keeper of the Department of Natural History at the British Museum, received a truly bizarre animal specimen from Captain John Hunter in Australia. It appeared to be the bill of a duck attached to the skin of a mole. Shaw dutifully examined the specimen and wrote up a description of it in a scientific journal known as the Naturalist's Miscellany, but he couldn't help confessing that it was "impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practiced some arts of deception in its structure."

Despite Shaw's doubts about the reality of the animal, he gave it a name: Platypus anatinus, or flatfoot duck. The scientific name was later changed to Ornithorhynchus anatinus, but it popularly remained known as the Duckbilled Platypus.

Other naturalists were equally suspicious that the creature was just a hoax. The surgeon Robert Knox later explained that because the specimens arrived in England via the Indian Ocean, naturalists suspected that Chinese sailors, who were well known for their skill at stitching together hybrid creatures, might have been playing some kind of joke upon them. "Aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practiced on European adventurers," Knox noted, "the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art."
It was only when more platypus specimens arrived in England that naturalists finally, grudgingly, granted that the creature was real. This made the platypus one of the more famous instances of a hoax that proved not to be a hoax after all.

(taken from the website Museum of Hoaxes)

George Shaw did not want to believe the Platypus was real, even when presented with the evidence in front of him. His belief system of what a mammal should be, combined with his scepticism born of fear of falling for a hoax made him unable to see the evidence before him. I could imagine him saying "They don't fit my paradigm of what an animal should look like, therefore I refuse to believe they exist."

The Christianity of my youth was very narrow and rigid. I had a tightly controlled set of beliefs and practices and if you didn't fit into them you weren't a 'true christian'...which to be honest was a coded way of saying you weren't a christian at all.

I remember the first time I encountered a practicing catholic - Mike. Up until that point Catholics had existed in my life only as a category - a group of people who (in my thinking at the time) belonged to the false church as mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Mike didn't fit in my box labeled 'Catholic'. He had a thick Brummie accent (in my mind all Catholics were Irish or foreign), and an obvious deep abiding spiritual life. He and I were touring in a musical together, he played Jesus and I played St. John the Divine. So here I was onstage most nights having to act like he was part of the Godhead while wrestling with having been taught that Catholics were only one step up from satanists.

My interaction with Mike caused me to throw out my definitions of Catholic.

Mike was a platypus.

The way we react to someone whose theology is different to ours is crucial. One denomination ordains women, another asks them to worship in silent submission....and both are doing so because they believe it is biblical. Calvinists, Arminianists, Creationists, Theistic Evolutionists. Those who affirm gay relationships, those who oppose - Everyone believes their way is biblical...and someone exists who believes being biblical means believing the opposite.

We are all a platypus to someone else.

(As a side note I find it strangely hilarious that their is no consensus on the plural form of Platypus. Options include Platypus, Platypuses and Platypodes. Apparently the only incorrect one is the one that is most common Platypi.

We all need to learn to respond to the platypuses we encounter with grace.