Put Yourself in the Way of Beauty

The intended impulse behind Miracles in the Mundane is to look for God in my everyday life of family, work, and friendship and encourage others to do the same.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that a series of essays on using the sense of sight to see God would move me to experience God in new places, in new sights.

And yet it did, because I get so caught up in life’s everyday-ness that even when I think I’m being contemplative, I’m still obtuse. Anyone relate?

Bit-by-precious-bit this book is guiding me to deeper insight:

[More info here]

A few weeks ago it led me to consider each taste of food or drink I put in my mouth as a way to experience God. Let me tell you, God can taste exhilarating – tart like a green apple, tangy like a ripe grapefruit. But God should NOT taste like a well-intentioned but terrible smoothie made with over-the-edge fruits, including kumquats. Out of guilt for overbuying gorgeous produce I choked down the bitter citrus sludge but my stomach hurt all day, convincing me yet again that I need to get serious about meal planning so I won’t eat barely-justifiable compost.

On to sight: “If I want to see God present in the ordinary, in the daily gifts I’m given, I want to move beyond seeing and into perceiving…. Attentive vision opens us to the extraordinary presence of God blessing us in the amazing ordinary…. the art of spiritual sight…teaches us to sense God at work and play all around us” (pp60-62).

Yes!

I have written previously about my “one word” for 2015 here and here: “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” I don’t mean primarily those things that have physical beauty, but anything that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction, things that point in some way to God.

My word at the ready and this book’s fresh reminder as encouragement, I have opened my eyes and my heart again to look for God, and I am grateful for the ways He has revealed Himself.

*I am choosing hiking trails over sidewalks, sidewalks over treadmills, and treadmills over the couch. Even when allergies make me want to claw out my eyes, I am grateful for the beauty of blooming spring-in-winter: the various stages of bud and bloom, the spectrum of colors, from barely blushing pink to plummy magenta, peachy coral and bluish-purple, spring green, kelly green, and forest green.

*I noticed God at play during my early walks around the neighborhood as my eye caught the iridescent glisten of Fairy Queen dewdrops crowning each blade of grass.

*I memorized Psalm 46:10 –

“Be still and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth”

and I saw God exalted in the earth when we took a family field trip to Ano Nuevo State Park. Tween wanted to see the elephant seals and Teen wanted to see the San Francisco garter snake, both of which populate this area. We saw both, among other beauties.

stones

A flower as ordinary as a dandelion can be spectacular if you have eyes to see.

An ordinary dandelion can be spectacular if you have eyes to see.

Wide and deep fields of yellow wildflowers stretched from the roadside in both directions as we drove to and from Ano Nuevo. Guy pulled over so I could photograph the boys in a field, but you’ll just have to imagine two darling boys kneeling in fields of yellow, since I won’t post their faces here.

*I had a dream in which my whole focus centered on my hand held by Teen’s hand, remarkable because Teen isn’t about to hold my hand. Not wanting to embarrass him, I didn’t mention my dream. A day or two later he noticed my rising frustration in a situation with Tween, so like situations only a few years ago in which I was frustrated with a younger version of Teen, and without saying a word he patted me, hugged me, even gave me a kiss or two on the cheek. We both knew he understood my frustration and was doing something he knew I would appreciate. Seriously, friends, self-recognition and empathy from a teenager? That’s a miracle!

The sun through the trees caught my eye. Our backyard isn't Middle Earth, but in this picture, the trees remind me of Ents.

Our backyard isn’t Middle Earth but, in this picture, the trees remind me of Ents.

This one-of-a-kind beauty in our front yard opens and closes throughout the day.

This front yard beauty opens and closes throughout the day.

Those are just a few of my beautiful moments over the last couple of weeks. “Wonder is the fuel that sustains vision” (Awaken Your Senses, p64). May wonder so fill our hearts that our vision overflows with God’s beauty!

Meatless Monday – Leek & Potato Soup

My sweet friend is pregnant with Baby #2. Her Baby #1 is now a high school freshman, so we are over-the-moon excited!

A week or so ago, she posted on Facebook that 1st trimester cravings (Thai food) had been easy to satisfy locally, but 3rd trimester cravings (leek & potato soup) was slim pickings in our neck of the woods. She’d called all the best places, and no one had it nor had plans to serve it.

Lo and behold, I have a leek & potato soup recipe, and one of my favorite things is to bring soup to friends in need!

Mama-Friend is now on bed rest so tomorrow for lunch we will enjoy soup and time together. I have extra to stick in her fridge to satisfy cravings. And I’m happy to make more, especially because it’s an easy recipe given the right amount of time.

Leeks are whimsical veggie beauties

Leeks are whimsical veggie beauties

Leek & Potato Soup
Serves 8

4 Tbsp olive oil
6 medium leeks, white and pale-green parts only, coarsely chopped & washed well
3 cloves garlic
6-8 medium Yukon gold potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
8 c veggie broth
3/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2 bay leaf
2 c packed coarsely chopped fresh spinach leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large pot, heat oil over medium-low heat. Add leeks and garlic and cook, stirring, until the leeks are tender, about 15 minutes.

Add potatoes and cook another 5 minutes. Add broth, nutmeg, and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove bay leaves.

With an immersion blender, purée the soup until smooth and creamy. Add spinach and pulse to blend.

Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Tween felt hesitant, but declared it, "Dang good!" In fact, "Amazing!"

Tween felt hesitant, but declared it, “Dang good!” In fact, “Amazing!”

You could skip the spinach, but really, why would you? Spinach adds an extra dose of nutrition – iron and calcium – and you won’t taste a difference. And it adds some beautiful green color/speckles: character, right?

Curb Your Appetite

As the day began, I didn’t intend to fast.

Hustling the kids off to school, I rushed out the door to meet a friend for coffee and conversation. Heading on to work, I realized I hadn’t packed lunch. “It’s Ash Wednesday,” the Spirit nudged. “Do without. Spend time with me.”

One of the spiritual practices ideas I’d provided for our church included skipping a meal and spending time in prayer. I hadn’t thought God would mean it for me. Apparently He did.

When I was more directly involved in leading youth ministries, I used to fast once a year for World Vision‘s 30 Hour Famine. Adults and students together raised support for World Vision’s work around the world and then went without food for 30 hours while we also engaged in learning and service activities. We broke the fast with a simple meal together and communion. It was one of my favorite ministry events of the year.

More recently I have taken on different kinds of fasts during Lent, giving up sweets or alcohol or Facebook. But not food, because I like food and one of my primary Mom-jobs is providing food for my guys.

So yes, I was surprised that God called me back to a food fast, albeit a pretty short one. I skipped lunch on Ash Wednesday. Just long enough to feel hungry and pray instead of eat.

7 - a great book on what fasting can look like

7 – a great book on what fasting can look like

Jen Hatmaker defines a fast this way: “…an intentional reduction, a deliberate abstinence to summon God’s movement in my life. A fast creates margin for God to move. Temporarily changing our routine of comfort jars us off high center” (7: an experimental mutiny against excess, p4).

I wasn’t fasting to ask God to move mountains. I fasted because I felt like God asked me to and I want to listen and obey.

All in all the day went surprisingly well. In our staff meeting devotion, during prayer time, honestly, Jesus and I got close. Like the end of An Affair to Remember, when the lovers realize their separation has mostly been a misunderstanding (not that sin is a misunderstanding, but go with me) and they fall into each other’s arms, embracing and mushy-gushy kissing, that was me and Jesus. We’re having a steamy affair. It’s hot.

Typically, fasting is supposed to be “in secret” (Matthew 6:16-18) but my stomach dramatically declared its emptiness to two co-workers who giggled. Oh well. Extra temptation presented itself when Guy called to offer me take-out from one of my favorite local joints. Ouch, but no thanks.

What surprised me most were the conversations God and I had throughout the day. Hatmaker quotes Richard Rohr: “The point of emptiness is to get ourselves out of the way so that Christ can fill us up” (7, p43). Earlier in the week I had solidified Psalm 46:10 in my memory: “Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” When I got hungry I repeated those words to still myself before God so He could fill me up.

Each time I prayed, I became extremely conscious of my physical body. On the one hand that makes perfect sense: I denied my body the food it wanted and I felt it. But this was different. I have at best an uncomfortable relationship with the physical shell that houses my mind/spirit, but instead of feeling the usual criticism, God impressed upon me that He gave me my body as His gift to me. I know that to be true, but I don’t always feel it. That day I felt it, and it was good.

I might even try fasting again this Lent, but I’m not telling.

One more thing: the gal who read Scripture in church this morning mispronounced “stones” in the following passage as “stories.” Go ahead, read it both ways.

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones [stories] to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:1-4)

She went back and corrected her mistake, but I think it was a divine mispronunciation. Yes, Lord, may these stories become bread, the stories of Scripture and the stories of our lives. A final Hatmaker quote: “Our stories affect one another whether we know it or not. Sometimes obedience isn’t for us at all, but for another. …the story of God’s people comprises a billion little moments when an average believer pressed on, carried through, stepped up” (7, p114).

So here we go, people, pressing on, carrying through, stepping up, and along the way, sharing our stories of God’s faithfulness. Amen!

Connect
Reflect on an experience when you denied yourself something you really wanted.

Study
Read Matthew 4:1-4.
How did God’s Word sustain Jesus in the desert? How is this like/unlike the sustenance of food?
Read Matthew 6:16-18.
What does Jesus expect His followers to do/not do when they fast, and why?
Read Isaiah 58:3-7.
What was wrong with the way the people approached fasting (vv. 3-5)?
What do vv. 6-7 mean? Is this a different kind of fasting or fasting with a different attitude or outcome?

Live
How is fasting different from dieting?
Reflect on your past experiences (if any) with fasting.
How does fasting focus your prayers and help you to seek God’s face?
What practical considerations would you need to take into account in order to implement a discipline of fasting?
Which Faith Training Exercises might God call you to this week, and why? Reflect on joys and struggles with any Faith Training Exercises you’ve tried so far.
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that God will use your spiritual training to make you fit in new ways for Christ.

Be a Good Sport

I stopped playing Monopoly in college.

Guy and I and another couple spent a weekend together at his parents’ home in Santa Cruz. Late Saturday afternoon I witnessed a game of Monopoly transform my kind and generous friends into greedy Wall Street sharks.

And that was it. I quit playing mid-game and tried to disguise my disgust as they each played hard to amass wealth while bankrupting each other. I tell you this not because I’m anti-capitalism (I’m not), but to demonstrate that competition doesn’t motivate me like it does others.

ballWinning is the goal of game playing. Of course. But I support my kids playing sports for reasons more important than winning:

1. Exercise.
2. Learn to play a game.
3. Be a good teammate.
4. Practice a good attitude.

Winning is a bonus, but those four goals are essential.

About a year ago Teen played a rugby match against a team notorious for their unsportsmanlike conduct. A year prior the club had been fined when it came out that adults paid players per injury inflicted (concussions, particularly) on their opponents. The coaching staff was competitive to a fault and fostered bad attitudes in the club.

Those bad attitudes manned the field and the sidelines. Players and parents alike shouted at their opponents (Teen’s team), at the coaches and the ref. They played angrily and hurled invective as viciously as they stomped the pitch. When I commented to a friend, “It’s just a game!” one of their players standing nearby vomited curse words all over me.

The ref finally called the game when the other team’s parents stormed the field in protest over a call. For the rest of the day I felt dirty. There’s no excuse for that kind of bad behavior over a game played by teenagers. Fortunately, the league agreed and disbanded the team altogether.

Tween plays on a basketball team. Only in his second season, he’s not the team’s strongest player but he enjoys it and has definitely shown improvement. The team, however, is remarkable. They look like misfits but have won all but one game which they lost by one penalty shot. Watching this team learn to work together and play hard – and then win week after week – has been a highlight of my Saturdays this winter.

A dad of one of the kids on Tween’s team keeps up a steady commentary of mostly negative remarks throughout each game. It’s bugged me all season, especially when I see his kid, a pretty good player, glance to him for approval and look away again, crestfallen.

Today I snapped. Seated one bleacher behind me and slightly to my left, with no one between us, he shouted: “Oh No! DON’T give the ball to Tween!”

I surprised myself when I spun towards him and said, “Can you please stop?”

He looked as if I’d slapped him. “What?” he asked.

“That’s my kid. You don’t have to say unkind things.”

And get this response, people: “I just want to win the game.”

Did he really tell me that if my kids’ hands touch the ball the team will lose? Yes, that’s exactly what he meant. And let’s be clear, AS IF your snarky remarks in the bleachers are going to have any effect whatsoever on the court. How rude!

I responded more politely than I felt: “So do I. So does he! But your unkind words don’t do anyone any good.”

He didn’t shut up completely, but he sure didn’t mention Tween again. And we won the game, a hard-fought 28-24.

Children’s sports should be a safe place to learn, to experiment, to exercise, and to grow as positive human beings. And children, like the rest of us, need encouragement. Truth be told, I cheered today for the great baskets shot by the opposing team as well as our own. When a kid makes a great shot, it’s a great shot worthy of praise.

Winning isn’t everything, attitude is. On the field and in the stands, win or lose, I pray my kids will always exhibit grace and kindness.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava LavenderThe Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Are you a bird, an angel, or what?”
…I didn’t have the answer. I certainly wasn’t a bird, as far as I could tell. But in the same breath, I couldn’t say I was human. What did it mean to be human anyway? I knew I was different, but didn’t that make me as human as anyone, or was I something else? I didn’t know. And at only eight years old, I hadn’t the time, the energy, or the mental capacity to form a more adequate response than “I think I’m just a girl.” Which is what I said (128).

I had been reading another book, but felt an uncomfortable voyeuristic gnawing in my gut as I read. I didn’t care for the characters and the way they lived.

So I picked up this enchanting book.

Ava’s story begins in Manhattan generations earlier with her great-grandparents and their very unique children, Ava’s grandmother and her sisters and brother. Before her own mother arrives, Ava’s grandmother moves to Seattle, where the rest of the story plays out.

This is a very human fairy tale, strange and beautiful indeed, with odd and exceptional characters doing curiously interesting things. Despite the hardships the unusual must endure, they love – and seek and reject love. Like the rest of us, ordinary as we may be, they pursue meaning purpose and connection despite their remarkable abilities and circumstances.

The novel could have benefited from one more solid editorial pass, but stands as an extraordinary first novel. I look forward to Leslye Walton’s next book.

Faith Training

A few sessions of childhood swim, ice skating, dance, gymnastics, and tennis lessons hardly qualify me as an athlete. I may be the only person you know who has never participated in a team/competitive sport. I once asked my parents if I could join a soccer league. My mom said no, citing scarred knees as unattractive on a girl; I’m pretty sure it had more to do with life’s chaos – me as the oldest of four kids, her job in real estate, and her travelling husband, last thing she needed was to spend hours field-side with a decidedly non-athletic kid.

I did, however, take piano lessons from age five to eighteen. Like most kids enrolled in music lessons, I didn’t love to practice but I did like to play well. The older I got, and the better I got, the more I enjoyed it. In high school and especially as I anticipated a recital date, I played for hours, working the music into my fingers, into my heart and soul. My favorite practice time (surprisingly, my parents didn’t complain – how did they not complain?) took place between 10pm and 2am, even on school nights.

The more I practiced and the better I knew a piece of music, the more the music had the power to take me out of myself, into what Madeleine L’Engle calls a kairos experience. I lost track of time, I lost my sense of self, as the music itself became all that mattered. “I am outside time, outside self, in play, in joy. When we can play with the unself-conscious concentration of a child, this is: art: prayer: love” (Circle of Quiet, p13).

I’ve heard runners talk about a similar experience, once you move past the first phase of muscle fatigue (the “I don’t like to run, I don’t want to run, I can’t take one more step” feeling, because you keep going anyway), and then, apparently, some get to a euphoric state, a runner’s endorphin high.

Faith training can have similar results, yet even better as training our faith helps us to draw near to God on high.

At the gym there are so many different pieces of equipment, each with a different purpose but all with the purpose of increased physical fitness. Similarly, there are many different ways to exercise one’s faith, all with the purpose of drawing near to our beloved Jesus.

Commonly called “spiritual disciplines,” well, that just doesn’t sound all that fun, does it? But they can be. Even when they’re strenuous, they can lead to great joy.

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day focused on repentance and identifying with Jesus in His sufferings as we begin a 40-day season of giving up or taking on spiritual disciplines. In our church staff meeting this morning, we read this:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love… Joel 2:12-13

I get that today’s focus should center on fasting, weeping, and mourning, but I’ve been thinking about and practicing to varying degrees different disciplines over the last few weeks. I have returned to the Lord, so to speak, and this morning I felt overwhelming joy. God drew my focus to His gracious, compassionate, slow-to-anger love. And the joy bubbling up in my heart. I almost giggled (inappropriately?).

Once a week or so during this Lenten season, from now til Easter, I will post a Bible study focused on one spiritual discipline; there are more disciplines than we can name, but we’ll cover fasting, solitude, prayer, simplicity, confession, and celebration. I’ll also include suggestions for practicing each discipline.

I encourage you to ask God to direct you to the exercises He’d like you to try. And don’t give up just because it’s uncomfortable at first (think sore muscles after physical exercise). You could try one exercise for all of Lent, or different ways of exercising one practice (i.e., different prayer method each day), or sample different practices throughout the season – ask God for direction and stick with it until He asks you to stop.

Here we go with an introductory study!

Connect
What practices or routines do you do to keep physically healthy?

Study
Read aloud 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.
How would you explain the metaphor of physical and spiritual training to someone who hadn’t read this passage?
What is “the prize” for spiritual runners (v. 24)?
What might “running aimlessly” look like in one’s spiritual life?
How could Paul have been “disqualified for the prize” (v. 27)?

Live
On a spectrum from aimless running/air boxing to marathon champion, which physical activity might describe your spiritual life and why?
When have you experienced a connection between physical and spiritual discipline?
Reflect on your experience with any of these practices: fasting, solitude, prayer, simplicity, confession, and celebration. Which do/don’t sound appealing to you, and why?
Which of the Week 1 Faith Training Exercises (see below) might God call you to, and why?
What is Jesus saying to you through this passage and how will you respond?

Pray
Pray that God will use your spiritual training to make you fit in new ways for Christ.

Faith Training Exercises
Fasting: Skip one meal and spend time in prayer.
Solitude: Memorize Psalm 46:10 and use it as a reminder throughout the day to be still before God.
Prayer: Set aside a regular time and place to pray every day.
Simplicity: Set a timer (20 minutes or less) and clear off one cluttered space, e.g., a junk drawer or desk top.
Confession: Invite the Holy Spirit to bring to mind sins you’ve committed. Confess them to the Lord and ask for His forgiveness.
Celebration: Do at least one thing each day that brings you joy: sing loudly, dance freely, laugh heartily, live boldly.

Fat Tuesday

I didn’t grow up in a church that observed a Lenten tradition. As an adult, however, I have come to appreciate the tradition of giving up or taking on spiritual practices as a way of drawing near to Jesus.

I came to Fat Tuesday even later, and mostly because I like to cook.

Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday in French. Fat Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday; Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. So Fat Tuesday is the final hip-hip-hurrah Day of Indulgence before one abstains for 40 days until Easter.

I’ve seen Facebook posts today about pancakes and just learned why: pancakes are a traditional Mardi Gras food as families use up the household’s fat, eggs, and dairy before Lent.

I don’t try to clean out the kitchen for Lent. Nope, no way I’m gonna try to eat through the leftover holiday candy, or worse, drink through the liquor cabinet! When discipline takes me along that route, I simply ignore the stash on hand for the time being.

But I do enjoy a good excuse to make a tasty meal, and Mardi Gras has its fair share of options. My vegan jambalaya also happens to be one of my favorite meals. It’s taken a while to get it down, mostly because it’s similar to risotto with a long cooking time. And because it takes a while, I only make it a couple of times a year. But it’s good!

Before I scare you off, let me say this: I don’t do complicated food. I like things simple and straight-forward. This isn’t a 30 Minute Meal, which makes it seem complicated. But it’s as simple as tasting as you go to see if the rice has cooked. And who doesn’t mind a sample along the way? Pour a glass of something refreshing and lean in to the cooking process.

vegan jambalaya - a Mardi Gras party in your mouth

vegan jambalaya – a Mardi Gras party in your mouth

Seasoning Mix
1/4 tsp each cayenne, thyme, basil and no-salt veggie/herb spice (like Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute)
1/2 tsp each sage and black pepper

3+ c veggie stock, divided use
1+ Tbsp olive oil, divided use
1/2 c diced onion
1/2 c diced bell pepper
1/2 c diced celery
3 links vegan sausage, halved and diced (I used one chorizo & 2 Italian)
1/2 c diced fresh tomatoes (in a pinch you can use canned, and if so, use the juice too)
1/2 c tomato sauce
3/4 c brown basmati rice (I prefer Trader Joe’s brand)
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 15-oz can kidney beans
1 Tbsp finely chopped Italian parsley
3 Tbsp finely sliced green onions

Combine seasoning mixture. Chop onion, celery, bell pepper. Chop tomatoes and sausage.

Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add 1/2 of the onion, celery, and pepper mix and cook until vegetables are tender. Add diced tomatoes and cook for 30 seconds. Add tomato sauce and cook for 1 minute. Add rice and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 1 ½ c veggie stock and seasonings and simmer uncovered for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, add more stock by the 1/2 cup and stir occasionally until rice has cooked – similar to cooking risotto.

In another pan, fry sausage and remaining veggies. Just before rice has cooked, add sausage-veggie mix, beans, Worcestershire and garlic; taste and adjust with salt if needed. Before serving, add parsley and green onions and stir to combine.

Serve with crusty bread and your favorite beer.

Note: Traditional jambalaya includes shrimp. I really like Field Roast vegan sausage and though I don’t use it much, this is one dish in which I always use it. However, the idea of vegan shrimp turns my stomach. If you like it, go ahead and add 1 1/2 cups of cooked shrimp. Alternatively, if you’re cooking for meat-eaters you could cook shrimp separately and add it to individual bowls.

We’re a family of four and this recipe typically feeds us with maybe enough leftover for the lucky devil (or saint!) who gets to the fridge first the next day. As a result, I often bump up the ingredients a smidge to have enough leftover for Guy and I to each have for next day’s lunch – you know, add an extra dash of each spice, one more sausage link, just a little more of each veggie. If you’re going to the effort to make this meal, you want to enjoy it more than once.

The broth: I say 3+ cups, and it might just be more on the plus side of things. You just keep adding broth, stirring, and tasting to see if the rice has cooked. Using brown rice does make things take longer and requires more broth, which is why I suggest adding salt only at the very end. I use low-sodium veggie broth, but as this recipe can require 3+ cups of broth for only 3/4 cup of rice, it already has enough salt for our taste.

One more Mardi Gras fact – New Orlean’s official Mardi Gras colors were chosen in 1837 for their traditional Catholic symbolism: purple represents justice, green for faith, and gold for power. While their current cultural connotation means One Hecka’ Big Fun Party, may we, in faith, seek God’s justice in His power.