Reflection On Lent, Day 12

Day number 12 of my Lent reflections.  You’d think that I would run out of things to reflect on.  I certainly would think so!  I mean, how complicated are our lives that we can come up with something new of a spiritual nature every day?  Of course pastors and theologians can do such things at the drop of a hat, but that comes as no surprise; that’s their job and they trained for it and get paid to do it (sometimes too much but usually not enough).  I’m not a pastor and I am definitely not a theologian, so it is most unlikely that these reflections come entirely from me.

That leaves us with the conclusion that they come at least in part from somewhere else.  Now, my wife is not feeding me these topics and themes and neither are my son, my daughter, my brother, nor any other living material being on this planet.  That narrows it down even more to a supernatural source for these many thoughts, and there are only two choices which can be made as to which side of the cosmic supernatural war might be feeding me the ideas that I write about which are wrapped up in my own real personal experiences and written out of my own perceptions of reality.  I will let you, reader, decide from whence my inspiration arises.

Today I write about a mixed bag sort of day.  Have you ever had one of those?  Part of the day causes you to walk on air while the other part has you grinding down the street wearing iron boots.  You feel divided; guilty if you are reveling in the joy that one part of your day is giving you and guilty if you are wallowing in your downer when you have so much to feel good about.  I’m not at all certain how to proceed, so I will just let the Holy Spirit guide me if S/He will, and share my struggle a little bit with you all today.

On the downer side, I have an illness in my extended family.  I will be vague about this because that is my nature and training.  I work in the health care business and we live and die by a code of discretion and caution concerning other people’s medical issues, and even though the family members most closely connected to the party in difficulty are not at all reticent to talk about it, I am.  So you’ll have to take my word for it that I’m worried.  This has been a cloud over my head since I woke up this morning, and it’s been hard to not think about it.

And then there is the day that God has given us today!  The sun is out and I am sitting in a chair with my feet propped up on the hood of my truck in the sunshine.  I pulled a gob of weeds today and I love little more than getting my fingers into the dirt.  I’m even wearing shorts, although that’s causing a strain on the relationship with my neighbors.  They’re all wearing shades to prevent blindness from the sunlight reflecting off of my white, knobby legs!  On days like this I can hardly let anything get me down, and all of this is what feeds my problem.  Am I dissing God by allowing myself to be down on such a day?  Am I dissing my family to be sitting comfortable and warm in flood of sunshine that really shouldn’t be here for one, two, or even three more months?

Trying to work my way through this I am reminded of a story that I once read, I remember not where.  A very saintly woman – we’ll call her “Agnes” because that name sounds so very spiritual – who was known for her spirituality and relationship with God, and especially for her prowess as a prayer warrior for the cause of God, was traveling through the countryside one day and stopped at a monastery along the way where she hoped to find a bed and a meal.  The Grand Poobah of the monastery invited her in with a flourish of hospitality, and threw a great feast to welcome her.  The meal consisted of bread, cheeses, beer and partridges, and Sister Agnes wasted no time tearing into the food and drink with unreserved gusto.  As she began to slam down her fourth bird the Grand Poobah became concerned and gently chided her on her appetite.  “Sister Agnes,” he said, “don’t you think that you should slow down for appearances’ sake?  This could tarnish your fine reputation as a moderate woman of God”.  The Sister lowered the bird for a moment and replied:  “Brother Poobah.  When it’s time to pray, pray.  But when it’s time to partridge, partridge.”

Well, I think God’s telling me something like that today.  When it’s time to engage my family and support them in their difficulty, pray and support.  But when it’s time to sit in the sun or run my fingers through the moist, warm dirt, sit and run my fingers and be thankful for the opportunity.

So that’s what I’ll do.  Pray a prayer of petition and also one of thanks.  God can multitask.  He can chew gum and walk.  He can handle it all just fine.  So I’ll quit cluttering up my life trying to find the ‘right’ response to every situation and just enjoy God’s blessing when everything’s fine and lean into Him when the storms hit.  Thanks God.

Reflections On Lent, Day 11

No, you didn’t miss something.  I did not post a Reflection on day 10.  Some days are so full that you cannot squeeze one more thing into it.  Yesterday was one of those.  Today I was able to get to the task, and here goes:

The sun broke over the eastern horizon with an almost summertime brilliance today.  I know this because even though it was a Saturday morning I was awake at my usual 5 AM.  I could not go back to sleep and so tried my favorite method for catching a few more winks.  I stretched out on the living room sofa and plugged in an old black and white science fiction movie from the 1950’s, closed my eyes and tried to imagine the scenes from the dialogue.  This is a strategy that works nearly all of the time.

No dice today, so I gave up at about seven and began to read Joshua Ryan Butler’s “Skeletons In God’s Closet”.  By nine I was finished, my wife was stirring, and it was clearly time for some kitchen action.  Soon we were feasting on bacon, potatoes andchard, and eggs for me, and as we ate I could only stare out of the window at the deep blue sky and sparkling sunlight that washed the landscape that spread out before us.  I knew that this was a day to be outside, and after cleaning up I put on my gardening shoes and grabbed my shovel, hoe, foam kneeling pad and an old Craftsman screwdriver with the business end rounded off into an oval shape by the decades that I have used it exclusively as a weeding tool.

Soon I was kneeling in one of my raised beds pulling weeds.  The soil is wet and loose, and the roots came up with relative ease in most cases.  In other cases I had to work just a little bit harder.  In no time at all I had a rhythm going and the weeds were literally flying into and old trash can that I have kept for just that purpose.

While I was thusly engaged, face to the dirt and fingers actually in the soil, I remembered the Lent project of spending more purposeful thought and time in the things of God.  My mind had been racing from subject to subject; work and its complexities, plans for the spring, projects which needed to be completed at home, and so on.  Now I tried to corral my mind and focus it on God and His ways, and it was not easy.

I think that if I had been born in these times I would have been saddled with the diagnosis of ADD.  I have always had a struggle concentrating on one thing only for any length of time, and today was no exception.  Eventually however I did manage to get my thoughts flying in formation, and this is what I think God told me today.

The dirt the earth, for me, is a reset button.  As the screwdriver blade rooted out tenacious weeds and as the shovel head bit deep into the wet soil I was reminded that the soil is what God made my ancestor Adam out of and soil is what we all will eventually return to, except for Jesus, Enoch, Elijah and V.I. Lenin.  I am not at all sure how they keep that latter guy looking so fresh; seems like some sort of dark art to me.

Anyway, all of the rest of us have dirt in our futures, and as I worked in that dirt today, especially with an eye to coaxing vegetables out of it that would cost me a pretty penny at Whole Foods, I reflected on how God has given us the tools and now we just have to squeeze our sustenance out of the soil.  Even more than that, I felt a weird sort of kinship with the soil.  Yeah, I know:  “Tree Hugger Gone Wild”.  It’s not like that.  I don’t think of that dirt clod as my cousin.  I cannot help but reflect though that we we share the same creator, and that my loving work with the soil will be responded to by an outpouring of sweet, healthy organic and cheap vegetables which will nourish my body as well as my soul.  This is a blessing indeed.

What also struck me was the permanence and stability of the soil.  I have had that dirt back there for at least fifteen years.  I know that dirt well because I carried all twenty cubic yards or so of it back there one wheelbarrow load at a time.  A walking path is the only access that I have to my back yard.  I have no idea where that dirt came from either; it could have come from the Love Canal for all I know or Hanford, which would be more likely.

But every year I return to that soil in the spring and turn under by hand the cover crop that grew over winter and fixed either nitrogen or potassium in its roots, and also turn under the compost that I have been cooking since the previous spring.  Several overpriced bags of compost from Shorty’s Garden Center also find their way into the beds that I prepare for my cold weather crop that I begin my garden with, and then the tomatoes and cucumbers, onions and carrots and green beans that are the crown jewels of my summer and fall dining room table.

I tend this garden the way that God tends me.  I have to have my weeds pulled daily, and some are rooted deep and require a sharp metal point at times to get the job done.  I am good with producing manure.  But God takes that manure, which would burn and kill my soul garden the way that fresh chicken or steer manure would burn my vegetable garden, and he cures it, composts it, and when it is ready He uses it to produce fruit in my own life.  Pests invade my garden and I plant flowers which draw insects that prey on those pests.  In like manner, God plants human flowers in my life which strengthen me to resist the nasty, Screwtapesque pests that would challenge my soul in its relation to the Gardener.

For many it would seem that the garden is a metaphor for my relationship with God, but for me it is deeper than that.  The garden IS my relationship with God in microcosm.  As long as I am able to I will spend the warm – more or less – months of the year out there relating to God in my own way.  I hope and pray that all of you find your own “garden” and allow God to nurture you through it.

The Sound of Silence

“Hello darkness my old friend.  I’ve come to talk with you again…”  So begins the Simon and Garfunkle song “The Sound of Silence”.  They go on to sing “…within the sound of silence; And touched the sound of silence; Disturb the sound of silence; And echoed in the wells of silence; And whispered in the sound of silence.”  I loved that song.  I haven’t got a clue what in the world the artists were trying to say with it, but the beauty and harmony that they produced was haunting, and continues to inspire me over four decades since I first heard it.  For the last twenty seven years my own sounds of silence have made some different impressions on me, and those would be frustration, anxiety, and melancholy among others.  That is because for that period of time I have never enjoyed the blessing of hearing silence.

I have tinnitus.  Tinnitus is a disorder which manifests itself as any of a number of noises in your ears, or to be more accurate in your head.  My sound is a high-pitched ringing, but roaring, clicking, humming or a sound like rushing wind are only some of the sounds that a person with tinnitus might hear.  The causes of tinnitus are known in some cases, such as hearing loss or trauma, and in many cases unknown.  I fall into the latter category.  I was not in the artillery, did not work on a flight line, nor played guitar for a rock band while standing in front of two story speakers.  I simply awoke one night at 2 AM with the most annoying ringing in my ears that refused to go away.  I managed to get back to sleep, but when I awoke later in the morning to go to work the ringing was still there.  It still is.

I went to an ear, nose and throat specialist and he ruled out any observable physical reason for the sound which was now my constant companion.  There was little that he could do for me and referred me to a research clinic at a fancy university hospital nearby.  They added nothing other than to put me in touch with a tinnitus support group.  I attended two meetings of that group and never went back.  I have never been in the company of a more depressed and depressing group of people in my life.  Tinnitus will do that to you.

Being a Christian, I prayed often and fervently for God to lift this load off of me, but as He did with the apostle Paul, God demurred and has chosen to let me continue to deal with this thorn in my flesh.  At one point I followed the instructions of the apostle James and asked the elders of my church to pray over me and anoint me with oil.  The result was the same; no let up in the ringing.  A short while later I was sitting in a chair in my pastor’s office whining about God’s lack of responsiveness to my problem.  “Have you asked God to give you the grace to endure it?” he asked.  “Hadn’t thought of that” was my reply.  We dropped to our knees on the spot and prayed as my pastor suggested, and the oppressive weight of my mental response to my affliction was lifted instantly, although the sound remained.  This I could live with.

And so it went until last year, when the noise began to ramp up.  I noticed while walking one day that I could hear the ringing over the ambient noise, and it has slowly built up to a veritable crescendo which assaults my ears as I sit and write this story.  Once again I felt the mix of anxiety and fear rising in my gut, and this time it was while I was trying to control my blood pressure using natural methods after a heart attack and bypass surgery five months earlier.  The stress was not making that job any easier.

The solution to my tinnitus problem came to me in the most unexpected fashion.  One night I was lying in my bed trying to meditate and I realized that the sound was only in my ears; it was not in the majority of my head.  Then I began to search around my body and found to my delight that I couldn’t hear any sound in my chest, my arms, legs, feet; anything other than the very small space of my two ears.  The next thing that I discovered was that I could hear the silence in those parts of my body that were not ringing!  As crazy as it sounds, the revelation was to me stunning.  I reveled in a silence that had been there all along but which I had been missing because I focused on the bad and annoying part and overlooked the good.

None of this is to say that I wouldn’t do almost anything to be free of that horribly annoying sound which never leaves my ears and probably won’t until the minute that I draw my last breath.  I would do it in a heartbeat.  What I do have to offer to fellow sufferers of tinnitus is that by staying with it and finding out how to mentally manage my tinnitus in my own way I am able to live with it and operate more or less in a normal manner.  Maybe this was God once again giving me the grace to live well with the thorn in my flesh that He just refuses to remove.  I hope that God will give His grace to anyone else who reads this who suffers with tinnitus as I do.  Hang in there.  It can be survived with joy.