Wednesday, March 31, 2010

There's Pansies

I had never given much thought to pansies.  Someone suggested they would add color to my yard through the winter, so I planted them.  Now I cannot imagine my garden without them, and dread the day summer demands they retire.

The heart-shape of pansies and their petals once led people to believe a pansy could cure a broken heart, giving the flower the nickname Heart's Ease. They also stood for pensiveness, especially if one is thinking about a true love, because their little faces resemble the face of a person deep in thought.

Heart's ease! One could look for half a day
Upon this flower and shape in fancy out
Full twenty different tales of love and sorrow
That gave this gentle name.  Mary Howitt

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Practice Makes Imperfect

"Can you knit three versions of a scarf?" the drama teacher asked a few weeks ago. "We need it for the play.  Can you make one that looks just started, another that is about halfway through, and another that is almost done?"

"Sure," I told him without hesitation.  Since I work at the school, too, I wondered if I could knit it and count it as work.  What do you think?  Maybe a row here or there?

"Can you make it look like a child is knitting it, you know, full of mistakes?" he went on to ask.

"Ummm," I replied.  I didn't see why not.  What permission, what freedom, what encouragement to knit without a care in the world!  The play is The Diary of Anne Frank; for Hanukkah, Anne gives her father a scarf she has knitted out of bits of yarn.  "Crudely knit, narrow in the center, huge on the ends," read the stage directions.  She knitted it in the dark, late at night, after writing in her diary.

I picked out big needles (size 15) and chunky yarn (Lion Brand Wool-Ease) that promises on the label, "Thick and Quick".  No problem.  I can knit these up in no time.

Except that it turns out I don't now how to make mistakes.  Well, not on purpose, anyway.  I tried a yarn over, but the hole it made wasn't very big.  I tried a triple yarn over, and knit a few rows before undoing it (slipping the yarned-over stitches each time), but that hole wasn't much bigger.  Ummm...

I could drop a stitch somewhere, but I'm worried about how far it will go, and whether a dropped stitch in one version can be exactly duplicated in the second and third version.  I can definitely make a narrow middle and huge ends, but I'm not sure it looks crudely knit.

I don't know if it's good thing or a bad thing to not be able to make convincing mistakes.  Perfection is appealing to me, but has generally proven unattainable.  I make mistakes every day - today I was late for a meeting, said the wrong thing at the wrong time in chapel, and ate more celebratory ice cream (someone got all A's on his report card!) than I meant to.  And while I may feel bad that I kept someone waiting, or embarrassed that I mislead four hundred people in prayer, or guilty that I ate so much dessert, the world has not ended.  In fact, it may be an easier place to live.  The meeting went well.  The students got to laugh with me when I discovered my mistake.  The ice cream was yummy and I'm proud of my son for his own hard work.

Maybe I'll go drop that stitch after all...knit a little loosely...make a nice big mistake!


Thursday, March 25, 2010


Luke 1:26-38

I find the sights and smells of spring breathtaking.  In some ways the fresh colors seem contrary to the stillness and darkness of Lent; perhaps, though, there is no better image of the Lenten journey than the slow stretching of a seed toward the sun.

There is one very special flowering, in fact, that nearly always falls within the season of Lent.  It is a breathtaking scene of an angel, an invitation, and a young girl who said yes, here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

Today is March 25th, nine months to the day before Christmas.  It is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day when heaven and earth mingled in Mary's yes, when a seed was planted in deep darkness and began at once to grow.  The life Mary bore was as new as that spring morning, and yet was the very Creator of every spring that ever was.  Literally full of grace, Mary became theotokos, which is Greek for God-bearer.

How often in her life would Mary breathlessly wonder if she had made the right choice?  Her yes could have cost her marriage, even her life.  The child she loved so dearly would leave her home.  How the air itself must have trembled as Mary was filled with the sights and sounds of his death on a cross when spring, for a time, turned dark and still.

Being a God-bearer, it seems, does not make life easy or vanish pain.  But Gabriel's words always echoed in Mary's pierced and wondering heart - Favored One, he had said, Favored One, God is with you.  And so, though it made her tremble, Mary whispered yes again and again.

Death and darkness would not be the final word.  God would shout a glorious no!  Love would be stronger than fear, life stronger than death, and so it is that now the risen Son stretches his arms toward us with a breathtaking invitation that we become God-bearers.  You, favored one.  You, full of grace.  You, me, all of us, God-bearers.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem comparing Mary to the air we breathe.  "Wild air," he wrote, "World-mothering air...of her flesh he took flesh: He does take...though much mystery how, not flesh but spirit now, and makes, O marvelous! new Nazareths in us, where she shall yet conceive Him, morning, noon and eve..."

What a lovely annunciation, this time ours, our invitation to allow heaven and earth to mingle in us, to bear Christ in the world in our own unique and marvelous ways.  In the season of Lent, we are called to come to terms with the ways in which we have said no to God's invitations.  Trembling, we take all our no's to the cross where Jesus, full of grace, replaces them with perfect, forgiving, transforming, life-stretching Love, God's eternal yes.  Amen.

Artwork: "Annunciation," by Daniel Bonnell; "Annunciation," by Macha Chmakoff; "Annuncation," by Ruth Tietjen Councell. 

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Blazing in Gold, Drenching in Purple

Blazing in gold and drenching in purple... Emily Dickinson uses these luscious words to describe the setting sun.

I've used the prolific purple petals of our tulip tree as a backdrop for knitting projects before; perhaps Miss Dickinson wouldn't mind my using her poetry to describe the Citron Shawl nestled in these tree branches.

The Citron pattern, designed by Hillary Smith Callis, is free on Knitty.  It's the first real shawl pattern I've ever tried - other things I've called shawls are really more like wraps, long and rectangular.  Citron will be more like a crescent shape when it is finished, so that the straight edge wraps around the neck and the rounded edge drapes over the shoulders.  You could also scrunch it up a little and wear it as a scarf.  To start, you cast on three stitches; the last row will have more than five hundred!  The pattern rows all involve either increasing or decreasing; the ruched sections have double the number of stitches as the flat sections.  That is a lot, a lot, a lot of stitches.

I made one little error design modification and have fewer flat rows between the ruched sections.  I may add an additional section of ruching for a total of six (the pattern calls for five), just to make sure the finished piece is long enough from end to end.

I found the yarn on deep discount at Tuesday Morning.  It is Inca Sportlace, spun in Turkey from wool and polyamide, and hand-painted by local artisans in South America.  I can't find anything about it on-line, except for picture of things other Tuesday Morning shoppers have knitted, so either this must be a really incredible too-good-to-advertise yarn or really awful.  It probably is a little too scratchy to wear against bare skin, but perfectly cozy if you're wearing something with a collar and sleeves.  Maybe it will soften with washing.  And love the way the hues of gold change from darker to lighter every here and there.

This shawl will be donated to the silent auction at this year's Bishop's Barbeque, a fundraiser for Gray Center.  I like the pattern enough to do it again, though, and wouldn't mind having my own Citron next fall!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Noticing Purple

My big daffodil and the smaller ones are still yellow and sunny, but starting to fade just as other colors are beginning to fill the yard with spring.  I was especially struck by the number of purple-y things that are growing.

Okay, the wisteria isn't purple yet, but will be soon!

These berries were bright green all winter, and are just now starting to turn.  The birds are as interested in watching them as I am!

An iris adopted from the school yard (since taking this picture yesterday, I'm thinking it may turn out to be more white than purple).

I had given up on my pansies, but they're back for an encore performance!  Someone's been enjoying the lighter purple one, and I didn't notice the little visitor below the petals until I cropped the picture.

A tiny violet is growing and gathering friends at the edge of the driveway.

These little weeds dotted our yard (until a few hours ago, when I mowed for the first of a billion times between now and next winter).  I do not say this about many growing things, but I hate the little white flowers underneath the purple ones.  They look dainty and sweet but in reality are monstrous devourers of the grass in my yard.  The battle is on.

The tulip tree, nearly taken out by the tornado two years ago, is filled with blossoms.

Of course, later this spring and early summer, I'll be planting heather and lavender again, and every once in a while something like a little shamrock blooms purple at our front door.  I've never really thought of purple being a favorite color of mine, but there sure is lots of it growing in my yard!

A google search for poems about purple turned up all sorts of references to Prince and old women and God's desire that we notice purple fields...and this little invitation to write one's own poem using one's senses.  What a lovely idea in this new season of spring, so delightful to our winter-weariness from months of cold, brown, drab... Here's my attempt:

Purple looks like...shade on a hot summer day
Purple sounds invitingly deep sigh
Purple tastes like...freshness
Purple smells like...lavender-infused chocolate
Purple feels like...a thin place

What would your poem be?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lent 4C

Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I always think of home around this time of year.  Not my home in Jackson, Mississippi, but my family home in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  There, I know, the daffodils are blossoming bright and yellow, as through the sun were rising right in your own front yard.  The dogwoods will flower just in time for Easter, just in time for other children to learn, as I did, of Jesus' passion and death from its storybook petals.  And the azaleas...the azaleas are what set springtime in Spartanburg apart from anywhere else I've ever called home.  There are azaleas everywhere, each overflowing with blooms, each drenched in impossibly saturated shades of pink or purple or red or white.  Of course there are daffodils and dogwoods and azaleas in Jackson, too; for me, though, in the springtime, there's no place like home!

The appearance of these flowers, like familiar old friends, always announces the end of the winter season and the beginning of spring.  In the church, though, where we measure time a little bit differently, we're still right in the middle of the season of Lent.  And although we tend not to bring those flowers into our Lenten worship spaces, preferring at this time of year a spareness that helps us turn the eyes of our hearts inward, there is something to be said for the way in which the journey from seed to blossom resembles our Lenten journeys.  In fact, our word Lent is related to an old Dutch word that means spring.  The two seasons have a great deal in common - both are a time for opening up, clearing out, making space, planting seeds, and anticipating new life.

Perhaps the people who decide our lectionary were also thinking of home around this time of year, for in the scriptures they invite us to read today, fondness for home flowers in the hearts of those who have wandered through a winter of discontent.  Forty years' worth of wandering in the case of the Hebrew people, who have just crossed the Jordan River with Joshua and are about to enter the promised land full of milk and honey and the covenants and bones of their ancient ancestors.  The psalmist has made God a hiding-place and home after wandering in sin and guilt.  Paul describes a springtime of the soul for those who are in Jesus Christ - everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  Even Jesus speaks of going home, in one of his most beloved and familiar and in every way prodigious parables.

Indeed, familiarity is part of what makes this parable so effective.  It is easy for us to find ourselves and our experiences somewhere or another within the story.  We all know something about feeling rebellious, about the allure of far-off places, about running away, and about yearning for home.  We all know something about feeling alienated, facing the consequences of foolishness, and awakening to sober truths.  We all know the joy of reunion, the feeling of "it's not fair," and the struggle to understand what it means to be judged by love rather than merit.  It's not so uncommon for kids to leave home, and, especially these days, it's not so uncommon for them to return.  It's not so strange to struggle with siblings or fathers (literal or figurative), or with the expectations of communities.

Yes, it is easy to find ourselves within the parable, and so to believe that this parable has something to do with ourselves.  Listen, though, as Jesus begins his story: There was a man who had two sons... The character at the center of the parable is the father, and it is only in their relationship to the father that we understand anything at all about the two sons.  Perhaps we see ourselves in one or another of them - somewhere in the recklessness or repentance, in the righteousness or indignation, in the alienation or embrace, in the coming home or in the refusal to come home.

We may very well be characters in this familiar story, even as the scribes and Pharisees who listened to its first telling undoubtedly heard their own places in it, but it is not a story about us.  Instead, Jesus is telling a story about God, the gracious Father whose arms ache to welcome us home no matter how far off we've gone, the Mother Hen who spreads her protective wings over us and draws us close.  Jesus is telling a story about God, whose prodigious love far exceeds any recklessness you or I could ever commit.  Prodigal can mean wasteful, and perhaps that is how it came to describe the younger son in the story.  But prodigal can also mean extravagant to the point of seeming wastefulness, and how better to describe the love of God that would go to any length, that would cross any boundary, that would reach across any distance to invite even tax collectors and sinners home?

Our 21st century Mississippian (and South Carolinian) sensibilities are not familiar with some of the ways in which all of the characters - even the father - in this parable would have scandalized 1st century Jews.  In the South we do know something of the significance of family names and family land, but for those who listened to Jesus tell his story, family and land were everything.  When the younger son asked for his inheritance, he was declaring his father dead and dividing the family farm.  Selling his share and leaving the country further divided him from those who should have been able to depend upon him.  His actions would have brought shame not only upon himself but upon the rest of his family as well.  By all rights, his father should have turned him away at the gate when he came crawling back.  Surely that's what the older son believed.  But then, he was no saint either.  His faithfulness to his father faltered when he heard the sounds of celebration and learned that the party was for his good-for-nothing brother.  The older son refused to go inside the house, a shameful violation of the honor he owed his father.

And so the father is faced with not one but two sons who have brought disgrace upon him.  What would an honorable 1st century Jewish head-of-household do?  He would not hike up his robes and run down the road - it was considered undignified for an adult man to run.  He would not embrace the son who had declared him dead - that son would have been dead to him.  He would not up and leave his guests at the dinner table - he would have waited until after dinner to berate the son who sulked outside.  He would not forgo imposing punishment and demanding penance as a prerequisite for forgiveness.  He would certainly not be reckless, wasteful, extravagant, prodigious in his display of love and mercy, rolling away the disgrace of his children like a stone from a tomb...

This is the perfect story to tell now, deep in the heart of the season of Lent, itself a season of finding our way home to God.  In the parable we learn from Jesus that God is waiting eagerly for us all to come to ourselves, to make even the slightest turn from believing that our lives are about our own desires and realizing instead that our lives are about God's deep desire for us.  For in the very moment we say to ourselves, as the younger son did, I will arise and that very moment, we will find ourselves in God's embrace.  In that very moment we have come home to a love so prodigal, so eagerly spent, so lavishly given that we may fear it has been wasted on us.

But in that very moment, in Christ Jesus, we are a new creation, spring-ing, becoming, growing, stretching, blooming, drenched in impossibly drenched shades of love and mercy and forgiveness.  In that very moment we are given the ministry of reconciliation, of rising above our grudges and fears and disappointments and welcoming others home even as we have been welcomed.  Until we can embrace that ministry, we are stuck on the front porch while the feast goes on inside.  What might it mean for us to be prodigal Christians, loving recklessly, welcoming all of God's children (which is to say, all children everywhere) home, inviting them to share in a feast of biblical proportions?  What might it means for there to be a wideness in our mercy, as there is in God's, like the wideness of the sea?

Halfway through the season of Lent, it may seem as though we are still a long way off from the day of Resurrection.  But as surely as the dogwoods will bloom, we are on our way home to Easter, when we will find that even though we have behaved shamefully God loves us enough to go to any length, to cross any boundary, to reach across any distance - even across the valley of the shadow of death - to make all things new for us.  God choose to love us lavishly; our choice is to believe that we are who God says we are - children of God, and sisters and brothers of one another.  Our choice is to take our place at the table and join the great thanksgiving, the feast that has been prepared for us because it is God's delight to prepare it, for the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind, and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind; if our lives were but more faithful, we would take him at his word, and our lives would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord.*  There is welcome for the sinner.  There's no place like home.  Amen.

*Hymn text by Frederick Faber.

Artwork: "The Azalea Way II," by Diane Johnson; "The Prodigal Son," by Jesus Mafa; "The Father and His Two Sons," by Elmer Yazzie; "The Prodigal Son," by He Qi; "The Parable of the Lost Son," by a 10-year-old in the 3rd class of Hoejby skole; "The Prodigal Son: Forgiveness," by Edgar Boeve.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hello, World!

Friday, March 05, 2010

A Little Lent 3C

Luke 13:1-9

There have been tiny little daffodils blooming in my yard for the past week or so.  The delicate yellow blossoms are perfect miniatures of the real thing, as though they were planted by dolls.

The real thing is getting to bloom outside my kitchen window.  I think.  I thought the lone bud (the first of many, I hope!) would bloom last week.  Then I thought it would bloom over the weekend.  Then I thought surely, after being gone for most of this week, I would return to find its yellow cup and saucer drinking in the early spring sunlight.

But no, my daffodil remains a bud.  I feel certain that it will, in the end, burst out in a blaze of beautiful petals.  I will admit, though, to some frustration on my part - bloom already!

For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none, said the man in Jesus' parable.  Cut it down!  Why should it be wasting the soil?  The gardener replied, Sir, give it one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it...

Parables, like seeds, will grow in us if we dig around them, tend them, water them, and spread a little fertilizer of prayer and patience around them.  Perhaps we are like the man who is frustrated by a life bearing no fruit.  Perhaps we are like the gardener, eager for one more chance, ready to recommit to care.  Perhaps we are like the fig tree, desiring nothing more than to be who we were made to be.  Perhaps we are like the dirt, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, that just needs a little more tilling, a little more digging, a little more help to be fertile and creative and generative.

It often took time for parables to bear fruit in the disciples' lives.  The season of Lent allows us to take that time, to dig around, to practice prayer and patience, to look forward in hope to the promise of spring returning where there seemed to be only winter, of life returning where there seemed to be only death.  For even more surely than I know my daffodil will bloom, God knows that we, too, will soon burst out in a blaze of beautiful new life, our faces turned to the risen Son.  Amen.

Artwork: Photos from my yard; "Fig Tree," by Paul Klee.