Jeremiah, The Inner Landscape

Do not decrease

These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, NRSV)

I preached last Sunday about how coming to Maine to live felt like going into exile, so far away from my accustomed flora and seasons that it might as well have been Antarctica or Timbuktu or Caprica. 23 years later, the way the seasons change here is simply the way they change. I've given up grieving for the lovely early springs of my Virginia childhood and reconciled myself to mud season. I don't think there's any question I managed to bloom where God transplanted me. 

That's not to say everything has gone smoothly. At the moment, my personal life is rough and unsettled, at the same time I am experiencing the natural bumps and joggles of learning a new church family, its ways and its history and its needs and its expectations. It's not the first time in my life I've had a lot to handle, and I look back on those times and I am trying to remember what helped and what I lacked to remain upright, to keep breathing, to hold onto hope.  I remember how after the end of my first marriage I could not seem to organize myself to fix dinner, and how hard that made life with three children. Right now every meal I prepare, even one reheated and originally cooked by someone else, feels like an accomplishment.

7wonders-hanging_gardens_of_babylon Babylon, the city whose welfare God asked the exiled Israelites to seek, contained one of the seven wonders of the world, the Hanging Gardens. And it occurs to me that wonder matters because it reminds us that not everything is easily achieved or explained, and that's okay. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Maybe some days it's okay that our purpose simply be to gaze in awe at a beautiful sight in nature, or to ponder the effort put in by a master gardener. The act of wonder makes us right-sized, gives us perspective on our own place in the world and perhaps inspires us to create beauty at our own level.

I'm not that successful at planting gardens. A few years ago I put a lot of effort, with help from stronger arms and backs, into a bulb garden and a few perennials and shrubs in front of my house. I waited eagerly for spring and was rewarded, but the next two years, instead of naturalizing, the daffodils grew thinner and sadder. Earlier in the year, when I thought I might relocate, I put those flower beds on my mental list of failures. No point trying to fix it now, I thought. I'm just a failure at gardening.

But I'm staying, and when spring comes next year, I want to see more flowers. So today I asked a certified Master Gardener in my new congregation what he would suggest to a person who had a major Daffodil Fail in a place where yews and rhododendrons used to thrive?

Lime, he said. You need lots of lime. 

The soil retained too much acid. I suppose it burned the bulbs.

A Google search tells me that fall is the appropriate time to lime the soil. I can find instructions about what sort of lime to use and how to apply it. I'm sure the Israelites figured out the way to plant their gardens in the foreign land, to feed themselves and the families they not only brought with them but continued to make anew. I'll be doing the same, in a sense, seeking the way back to center, to balance, despite the burn I feel today, seeking the increase and not the decrease of love and faith and hope.

Psalms, The Inner Landscape

From the Snare of the Fowler

It was a long night, with little sleep, and after trying fruitlessly to Facebook or Twitter myself to unconsciousness with my iPhone, I looked up this week's Lectionary passages. Not that I hadn't seen them before. Yesterday morning I met with my study group, and I read them ahead of time. Well, I skimmed Jeremiah. But I read the others, I thought.

In the night, a Psalm seems right. After all, they are the prayers and songs of people just like us, trying to put into ritual form the human experience: joy, anger, fear, disappointment, repentance, praise and even a thirst for revenge.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation. (Psalm 91:1-6,14-16)

And there it was, what I needed to read and hear as I struggled in the night. God will deliver you–us! me!!–from the snare of the fowler. 

Fowler's snare I'm not a bird-watcher. I like birds, I think they are beautiful, but I'm not a student of birds. I dream of flying, often. The resonance of Songbird as a nickname, a name that goes back to the late 1990s for me, really comes from a pitiful source. In Ibsen's play, "A Doll's House," Torvald refers to Nora as a bird, and when I saw the play in the winter of 1999, I felt like Nora. I was divorced, hoping to meet someone again, confused about what I wanted in life, but lonely. I had made a not-so-good choice about dating someone and wanted to duck him on AOL IM. So I needed a new identity, not just my first initial and last name. Thus, Songbird, which has reappeared in various forms for close to a dozen years now, on my license plate and on my blog and in sundry email addresses.

This poor bird is caught in the fowler's snare, and as my previous blog, Set Free, implied, I knew I was the one holding myself in a cage of some kind. I spent years trying to define it so I could get out of it. But that became a sort of cage, too.

I changed blogs, hoping that would help. I even gave up the nickname, partly, but that makes no difference. It's a cute name. The name is not the problem.

I'm inclined to get tangled up, to be perplexed by human beings in my life, really more in my personal life than in my ministry, though it happens there, too! But especially in my personal life I have been a bird, like Nora, or I have tried to be, at the same time I claimed I wanted to fly free. 

Bird_180 Somehow, in the middle of the night, reading this Psalm, I got a different message. 

God wants me to be free. God will free me from the fowler's snare.



Let's give that a fly.



Bearnaise Sauce Dogs, Ministry, The Inner Landscape

Visibly. Invisibly.

Invisible Illness Awareness Week, or something along those lines, just ended, and I am thinking a lot about the things that show and the things that don't. When I got home tonight, after a pretty long Sunday at church–a very good day, but long–I wanted to take Sam for a walk. LP had given him dinner, and the window of opportunity for being outside before dark was narrowing. He seemed excited to go with me, but when he realized I planned a neighborhood walk instead of a ride in the car to more exciting places, he balked.

This happens often. It's got nothing to do with his cancer. 

But my desire to stay in the neighborhood had to do with my invisible illness, Rheumatoid Arthritis. After a long day, and sometimes after a regular day, I have joints that complain. My right rotator cuff is the worst, so I did not want to get back in the car and take the kind of short car ride that involves a lot of turns. 

I find it sort of hilarious, in an awful way, that the joint I find most bothersome is one I never knew anything about, except in other people's stories. I'm not sure I even knew exactly where it was.  A friend refers to it as my "old football injury," and that entertains me. It's surely true that the only throws I make now are gentle, underhand slow pitches of a cookie into Sam's mouth. 

But to look at me, you wouldn't know anything was the matter. 

Sam, on the other paw, now has a big lump on his back leg. It was invisible, at first, because black and rust-colored fur covered it. I found myself talking about his diagnosis at the Farmer's Market the other day, and then hearing someone else repeat it to the person she was with, pointing out the tumor as if I could not hear her though we were only a few feet apart.

A histiocytic sarcoma is pretty awful. The sarcoma interferes with limb function, so when it appears in the extremities, the limb needs to come off, which was not really an option for Sam in the opinion of our vets or, frankly, our family. He's 7-and-a-half, which is beyond the average life span for a Berner, and he has arthritis in both elbows and one wrist, and it all sounds like too much trauma when there is no guarantee it will extend his life. 

Though of course it might.

But then he's left with one adult in the house to rehab him after surgery, one adult whose invisible illness makes her less able to help a big dog who might require if not lifting then support for walking. 

This makes me sad and not a little angry. I felt the same way as Molly declined, and we discussed her care and recognized that as she needed to be lifted in and out of the car and had trouble even with the ramp, I would not be able to manage her by myself. It was a hard, hard situation as we got ready for my husband to go away for work and weighed her enthusiasm for life against her increasingly crippling arthritis in three legs. 

Her visible illness, my invisible one.

My tendency to take the blame for everything, to take full responsibility, probably sounds a lot like what my own illness does. In Rheumatoid Arthritis, your immune system attacks your joints. Because it's a disease found primarily in women, books are written that speak the self-blaming, self-attacking language in ways that hurt even more. The medicines that are effective suppress immune response, so the system stops freaking out.

As the person for whom The Onion headline "Area Mom Freaking Out Again for No Reason" may have been coined in the first place according to my kids, I get this. 

When the groundwork has been laid so effectively, so deeply, so invisibly, how do you stop blaming and attacking yourself for everything?

I'm going to say that one of the biggest growth steps for me has been working as a pastor. Somehow in my pastoral life, I can see the difference between things that are actually my responsibility or fault, and things that are not. I may not be able to do it 100% of the time, but it's a vastly larger percentage than the one in my personal life. Over the past eight years, I've experienced a slow-growing understanding of the distinctions, and maybe someday I'll be able to apply the recognition, visibly, to heal the invisible wounds long since scarred over, the wounds of self-blame.