Poem: Cracked Cisterns

The following poem is based on Jeremiah 2:1-13. I wrote my poem based on the New Revised Standard Version of the texts. I chose to write on Jeremiah 2:1-13 as it is the reading for the Second Tuesday of Lent in Year One of the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer.

Cracked Cisterns
Based upon Jeremiah 2:1-13

I recall days of years long since passed:
Singing songs, sharing sodas, and spending time.
Loving life with a pace both furious and fast,
As memories were created beautiful and sublime.

I remember laughter and gladness.
I remember sorrow and sadness.
I can see our steps stretched side by side.

Now we drink from different wells.
Water gushes from a cracked wall.
I watch as dried lives become shells
As the people once so close grow small.

I feel cold rain on far off shoulders.
I feel warm wind on riverside boulders.
I can see where we once were near.

Dry, parched lips seek something new.
In truth, they may need something old.
I stand with an extra cup—no idea what to do,
As hope’s light grows dim—flickering and cold.

Let us Ramble: “Keep watch, dear Lord…”

A peculiar thing happened to me last night. We had company in town to spend the evening, had celebrated with a meal out at a restaurant, and came home to a house full of laughter, happy dogs and a playful cat. I had spent a good half hour rocking my daughter to sleep, had found a cup of coffee, and was sitting down to read at my desk when I made a mistake. I reached down to get my headphones from next to my desk without checking the aquarium that sits directly next to my desk. I glanced up to find Seymour, my albino plecostomus doing his very best b-movie monster impression a couple of inches from my face.

He’s a freaky fish when you’re not prepared.

Yes, I was startled by a fish. In my defense, he’s a freaky looking fish when the light is low, the sun has set, and he is backlit by the blue aquarium light. He’s a scary little monster fish.

I laughed it off, took a picture, shared it on Facebook, and let it go for a while. Later that night, while contemplating life, I came across a prayer found within the compline prayer in Phyllis TIckle’s “The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime.” The prayer is originally from the compline service within “The Book of Common Prayer.” The prayer reads as follows:

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or week this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.”

A part of me recalled the work of Seymour within the fish tank. Seymour scared the daylights out of me last night, but he also was going about his work. Yes, he has work.

Let me be clear on the nature of my pet ownership. I have dogs because I love dogs and they keep me company when my family is away. I have and care for a cat, despite my allergies, because the cat keeps mice out of my house. I have a fish-tank because I find it calming. I have two catfish because they keep the bottom of the tank clean between water-changes. I have and care for Seymour, because Seymour cleans the glass. Seymour is a working fish—he earns that algae wafer when the walls of the aquarium are clean.

Is it wrong of me to think of Seymour falling under the blessing of this prayer? Well, I am betting the Book of Common Prayer was not composed with fish in mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised if dogs weren’t looked upon as worthy of blessing over the centuries as they kept cattle and families safe from predators. I wouldn’t be surprised if God’s blessing weren’t prayed often over livestock and other means of survival. Knowing at least my portion of humanity pretty well, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if remembering this tiny part of God’s creation were not a part of a long tradition of prayer.

Yes, a part of me recalled Seymour’s endless work on the glass of the fish tank, but then wandered towards other parts and places. I remembered the staff at a Nursing Home that had been caring for a church member who passed recently. I thought of the folks who were working the night shift near that bed which used to hold someone dear to the hearts of our congregation. I stopped to pray for those nurses, those aides, and the staff in that facility.

I remembered the staff at nearby Wilson and Lourdes hospitals. I remembered how often I had walked through those parking lots, those parking garages, and those corridors over the past few years. I thought of the doctors, the nurses, and the staff that had blessed so many different families through their ministries over the years. I remembered and prayed.

From there, I thought of the Maine Ambulance workers, the local fire department, the officers that keep the streets safe, and all of the folks resting before tomorrow. I thought of teachers dreaming of lesson plans and children, children resting before going to school to learn and possibly dash the hopes of following a lesson plan for their teachers, and for cafeteria workers who would get up really early to prepare food for hungry children who do not have breakfast at home.

All of this and more came about after reflecting on the work of silly startling Seymour. You can say what you want about the strangeness of praying for a fish who will live his life in a handful of fish tanks, but Seymour blessed me by bringing my thoughts into focus. Seymour led me to pray for others. Thanks Seymour—you have been a blessing to me.

Let us Bake: Holy Smoke!

Today, I’m baking my first loaf of bread while reading through Preston Yancey’s “Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines.” I’ve already let Yancey’s words begin to affect my style of making sandwich bread for my family, but today will be the first time I intentionally set about the 6 hour process of making bread.

I have spent the last few weeks enjoying morsels from Yancey’s book, but this week we are plunging into our study, so the time has come to not only become serious about working with Yancey’s book, but to become serious about baking bread.

This week we’re working through the chapter on “Mise en Place: The Examen.” At the heart of it, mise en place is the most important part of trying a recipe. Yancey summarizes the process (in the first paragraph of the chapter) as “checking in, giving the kitchen and your abilities a once-over to confirm you are able to complete the recipe.”

As a home cook, the process is like the preflight checklist before taking off in an airplane. You might as well try to fly a jet without fuel as try to bake a loaf of bread without the ingredients. Do I have the right equipment? I experimented with trying out the mise en place on the recipe provided by Yancey Preston and realized I didn’t have two of the right bowls for letting the bread proof in the refrigerator! Either Amazon’s mistake or my own actions led to me only having one when I needed two! I had a poor substitute for one of the bowls, but I didn’t have them prepared! I looked further and realized I’d need to pull out my Dutch Oven and check the seasoning.

To be honest, I was a bit shocked that I was so unprepared to make the bread! I cook often in our home and often make bread for my family’s lunches. To be aware that I was completely unprepared for the recipe in the book is something that rarely happens, but as I reflected on the process, I realized how much I have learned to cope, to substitute, and to adjust recipes simply because I forgot to look ahead to see if I had what I needed. As Preston Yancey says: (pg. 39)

“The practice of mise en place is essential but often skipped. We assume a lot in this life, and we are no different in our kitchens. We plunge ahead because we’ve made x or y before so surely this is like all those times before. Often it is, until the dreadful moment it is not and we are affronted once more by the sickly quality of presumption.”

The concept of reading through directions, collecting ingredients, and even double checking that I have enough of those ingredients should be second nature as I cook a lot in our home, but for some reason it is not a regular part of my practice in the kitchen. I know for a fact that I am a better cook when I double check that I have what I need before I begin my time cooking in the kitchen. I still find myself often ignoring my better judgment and relying on my ability to substitute or make do with what I have on hand.

So, am I alone in the pattern of ignoring my better judgment? I somehow doubt that I am alone in this bad pattern of behavior. What’s worse, I know that this behavior is clearly not restricted to the kitchen. I often go rushing off into things without thinking about the long run. Sometimes it is something like a new Bible study program for personal growth or an extreme exercise routine to help my body get healthier. I start off with the best of intentions, but find myself suddenly in a situation far above my skill level or capability. Occasionally I do not check in with someone else who needs to be a part of something, I assume that everything is in place, or I just decide I will go with the flow without proper preparation. I sometimes believe that I am a master at not properly planning!

I think there are two things I have learned from this week’s attempt at mise en place. First, I need to do my homework, check off my list, and simply be more aware of what I am doing. Second, I need to intentionally be more prepared for my own journey in the kitchen and through life.

Part of the mise en place, as previously mentioned, was to prepare my dutch oven for the stove. The stove was going to be heated to 500 degrees. The cast iron dutch oven is seasoned with shortening. Looking ahead should have warned me to be prepared for smoke. What happened? Was I prepared? Take a guess…

Thankfully, my nearly three month old found the puff of smoke amusing, the fact that I rushed into the next room with a magazine to wave at the chirping smoke alarm to be funny, and was perfectly alright with my need to be distracted for a moment. She was just as giggly after the smoke cleared.

The very first loaf of the bread from the book. A bit overly brown, the slashes weren’t deep enough on top, and it is definitely a good reminder that everything can be seen as a work in progress! If at first you don’t succeed (in doing it perfectly), obsess  endlessly over the next loaf!”

Part of the mise en place that I need to enact in my own life is the ability to roll with the punches with grace. I need to prepare myself for when things don’t go perfect every single time I bake, especially as I do have blind spots in how I often prepare. I need to learn to let some expectations go and to have the capacity to replace my frustration with amusement. That’s a preparation that needs to happen deep in my heart. It is also a preparation that goes beyond my cooking.

When I wake up in the morning, do I prepare my heart for things going wrong in my day? Do I tell God that I want today to be a wonderful day even if things go sideways? Do I seek to find places not only to feel gratitude but to foster gratitude in my life? Do I practice the mise en place to be ready for my life?


You see, now that’s a little bit better!

I think Preston Yancey is correct that disciplines like the examen can help us to be prepared for the turmoils of life, but I also believe there is something powerful about the discipline of asking God to give us what we need for a given day or a given hour. Do we prepare ourselves for the kitchen of life? If nothing else comes out of this week’s study, I am grateful I now have that question to ponder.

How about you? Do you have a favorite practice for preparing for a day of life in the real world? Do you have some sort of pattern or practice that helps you to be ready for whatever comes in your path?

Let us Ramble: On Giving “Kine”

Today has been an ordinary day of ministry in New York State. The snow has been falling at a constant rate for a couple of hours, the kids are home from school due to the weather, and the mood around the house has been a bit cranky as both parents have had their plans of getting extraordinary amounts of good things done abandoned and thrown to the wind. Meetings were cancelled, plans postponed, and ideas adjusted. In case you had not realized it yet, life still happens to people who live a life in ministry—there is no magical “Get out of jail free” card handed out to ministers when they agree to serve a church.

Before the snow began to accumulate heavily, I went out to visit a member of my church on comfort care. Their identity is known to God and the most I will say is that the individual has had a long period of being seasoned by life. I spoke with the family, agreed to sit with the individual for a while so they could get some rest, and settled down into a chair with Bible and Kindle.

I read a little scripture, prayed some prayers for the individual, lifted up the family in my prayers, spoke for a few minutes about the memories I shared with the individual, and then sat still. After a few minutes of silence, I found myself drawn to my Kindle and the copy I keep on my Kindle of the Carmina Gadelica.

The Carmina Gadelica is a collection of prayers and poems transcribed by Alexander Carmichael after being collected and recorded in the time that crosses the boundary of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Carmina Gadelica is an intriguing book in the fact that it chronicles a blending of cultures between the Celtic traditions that survived and the Christian traditions that took root in the British isles. I find the Carmina Gadelica to be an interesting collection that is very thought provoking.

I was reading through the second volume when the prayer “The Incense” caught my attention. I have come to believe that context affects the way we see the world around us. Sitting by the bedside of this individual as they breathed beneath closed eyes that saw the world when I had visited the day before and that had been bright before pneumonia came to visit in my absence, I read “The Incense” differently than I had read it before.

The translation of the following poem comes from the “Carmina Gadelica: Volume II” as translated by Alexander Carmichael. The poem is entitled “The Incense”

“In the day of thy health,
thou wilt not give devotion,
thou wilt not give kine,
Nor wilt thou offer incense.

Head of haughtiness,
Heart of greediness,
Mouth unhemmed,
Nor ashamed art thou.

But thy winter wilt come,
And the hardness of thy distress,
And thy head shall be as
The clod in the earth.

Thy strength having failed,
Thine aspect having gone,
And thou a thrall,
On thy two knees.”

I looked up the word “kine” in the dictionary. “Cattle.” Kine is another word for cattle. What does it mean to give cattle in the context of days of health? What do cows have to do with incense or devotion? As a student of religion, my first thought is sacrifice. Sacrifice was once one of the ways how a person expressed regret, fealty, or even respect to God.

This cow is kine of a big deal…

The subject in “The Incense” refuses to give kine. They have no sense of devotion, no desire to sacrifice, and seemingly no reason to burn those herbs and fragrant plans which have been burnt in countless traditions to symbolize a drawing near to the divine. The person is haughty, greedy, unrestrained in their speech, and without shame in their time of strength, health, and well-being.

Yet, the poem goes on. Winter will come. They will come under the power of time, age, and weakness in time. Indeed, the person will one day find their life on earth equivalent to a clod of earth in the ground. The poem is bleak in many ways. The poem paints a picture of a person who does not understand their need in the days of their strength.

Sitting by a bedside, watching someone breathe breaths that might be some of their last in this life, and contemplating this poem was a different contemplation than many contemplations that I have had over the years. Am I wise enough to give kine in the days of my strength? Do I have the wisdom to realize that there will come a day when my choices have been removed from my path? If I do understand, do I let that wisdom affect the way that I live my life?

Can I live with gratitude for the gifts I have been given? Can I let that gratitude guide my choices? Can I choose to deny the parts of myself that want to be haughty, that live in greedy places, or that wish to live unhemmed by matters like compassion, empathy, or grace? Can I live a life marked by devotion and prayer? Can I live a life where kine are not for amassing into a giant herd for my profit, but instead exist in my life as a source of life and blessing for those around me? Can I live out my life in faith in such a way that I will one day find myself on my knees in a place marked by trust in God rather than the frailty that comes from regret?

Sitting with someone who reached an age where they were well seasoned affected the way I read the poem. I am not concerned by the individual I was sitting with while reading. The person I was visiting had a life that seemed marked by faith, hope, and love. The person’s presence was enough to remind me that, unless Jesus comes back in their lifetime, even the most righteous person will age and find themselves at a place on the threshold between one life and the next.

I pray that I have the wisdom in my own journey to find the humility the subject of “The Incense” seemed to miss. I pray that when I reach a place where I find myself on my knees, I will find myself enthralled by faith, hope, and love, but not fear.

Let us Ramble: Diving Inside

It has been no secret that I have been attending the Academy for Spiritual Formation through Upper Room Ministries over the past 9 months. Once a season, I have travelled to Malvern, Pennsylvania to meet with holy conversation partners and teachers about a variety of spiritual traditions and how they can affect the way we approach spirituality. As much as there is an academic side to the studies, I have found the program to be highly practical and personal.

For our upcoming session, we are looking at both the (w)holiness of the relationship between our physical bodies and our spiritual selves as well as Orthodox spirituality. By Orthodox I mean literally Orthodox Church spirituality—there has not been a ton of lectures teaching heretical matters or anything of that nature.

On a side note, the Academy has actually been a great place to have open discussions on spirituality from a great range of Christian (and Jewish!) traditions without a need for those kinds of arguments, which has been really refreshing after a long traditional education where argument and counter-argument sometimes seemed to be at the heart of the formative process. To put it simply, the Academy is more about discipleship than conversion, which is why I adore my time at the Academy and recommend it highly for people who are tired of argument and long for personal formation. Yes, by the way, it is open to clergy and laity—both are welcome and appreciated in my experience.

While I will admit that a lot of the Academy preparation for the next session makes me nervous as my back has been acting up and I understand that things like yoga might challenge it during the next session, I find myself coming back again and again to the readings for the Orthodox spirituality section of the Academy. In particular, I am working my way through “The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology” as compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, edited by Timothy Ware, and translated by E. Kadloubovsky and F. M. Palmer.

My copy of “The Art of Prayer” along with a subtle suggestion of another cool book filled with very cool resources for next month for all of my Irish loving friends.

A quote has stuck out to me in the introduction by Timothy Ware. Ware quotes Theophan the Recluse as saying “The principal things is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before [God] unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” Related to the depth of this idea, on the sixty third page of the anthology (which is where the quote Ware was citing in the introduction resides in the anthology) Theophan writes: “Every prayer must come from the heart, and any other prayer is no prayer at all. Prayer-book prayers, your own prayers, and very short prayers, all must issue forth from the heart to God, seen before you.”

In our church we have been in a lot of deep conversations lately. I personally have been in several conversations where we have had deep debate over leadership from the heart and leadership from the head. Does compassion rule the day when making decisions? Does regulation designed to protect us have the final word in conversation? Does the advice of wise denominational officials have weight equal to the advice of our hearts?

The conversations have been deep, thoughtful, and often stressful in nature. To some extent, some of these conversations have had a depth and thoughtfulness I have not seen since some of those deep lunch table debates in seminary which took place between impassioned people with differing knowledge, tradition, and convictions.

I continue to find myself drawn back to these Orthodox Spirituality concepts in these conversations. Ware connects all parts of the self (identified in his worldview as body, soul, and spirit) through the combining connector known as the heart. The heart is intertwined with the body, the soul, and the spirit in a way that is uniting. On the eighteenth page, Ware says:

“The term ‘heart’ is of particular significance in the Orthodox doctrine of man. When people in the west today speak of the heart, they usually mean the emotions and affections. But in the Bible, as in most ascetic texts of the Orthodox Church, the heart has a far wider connotation. It is the primary organ of [a human’s] being, whether physical or spiritual; it is the centre of life, the determining principle of all of our activities and aspirations…it embraces in effect everything that goes to comprise what we call a ‘person.’”

Today’s post is called “diving inside.” I titled the post this way due to the fact that I have been spending much of the past week diving inside of myself in the midst of these deep conversations and asking questions of myself. If I led (or lived) only from the head, could I stand before God with a soul and spirit that has gone ignored? If I led (or lived) only from the heart, could I stand before God with soul and a body that had been ignored? How could a soul even survive before God without that spirit of courage tended by Jesus or that head full of knowledge that has formed me into who I am today? In short, diving into my life’s conversations lately, I wondered if in any circumstance or path I chose, could I possibly stand before God in my heart without my conviction shattering me into a thousand little pieces?

I do not find it coincidental that the Jesus prayer rests deeply within Orthodox spirituality. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Pondering these matters, I have regularly found myself praying this prayer over the past few weeks, but not solely this prayer.

For me, this prayer is held in contrast with the Lord’s prayer. I am making an audacious or possibly even a (forgive me, but this is literally the right word for the situation) bodacious request when I ask God to lead me besides still waters (Psalm 23 runs through my mind when I see God’s reign and God’s will being done in heaven—I am aware it is technically not in the prayer), when I ask God’s will to be done on earth despite the fact that I need forgiveness for my trespasses, or even when I ask God for daily bread. There’s a sense of an almost arrogant familiarity and assurance in the Lord’s prayer that stands at odds with the pure humility found in the Jesus prayer. The two prayers speak from two very different places.

As I have been diving into these deep conversations and into my own spirit, soul, mind, and especially my heart, I found myself grateful for both prayers. There have been times during these conversations when I have felt the only thing I could reasonably ask of God for myself was the mercy that comes from a place of pure and utter prostration before God’s throne. There have also been times when I have had the assurance to know that the daily bread I needed was the ability to extend compassion from a place of confidence, eyes wise enough to look past fear towards the brightest possible outcome while others struggled with fear and anxiety, and even at time to find hope in Christ’s provision even as the conversation needed insight far beyond the wisdom held by mere mortals like me.

I am reminded of the words our ordination class responded with at Annual Conference when asked “Wesley’s Historic Questions” (which are asked of every United Methodist minister). Every time we were asked a “Will you…” question, we responded “With God’s help, I will.”

In many cases, daily life is like answering those questions. Do I know the answer to every difficult question I face in ministry? Heavens, no. Do I make mistakes? Most assuredly I have made mistakes and will likely continue to make mistakes in the future. Do I have faith in Jesus Christ? Yes. Will I continue to seek after Christ? With God’s help, I will. Will I do my best to live my life from a place of peace where all parts of me can coexist? With God’s help, I will. With all this in mind, will I live my life in such a way that I can stand before God in my heart in prayer? With God’s help, I will.

In the end, I believe that Theophan the Recluse was correct. Every prayer must come from the heart. Since that is true, I must not only guard my heart. I must tend my heart like a garden, After all, in Matthew 15:10-20, the gospels record that Jesus taught that it is not what we eat that defiles us, but what comes comes out of the heart. If I am to stand before God, I must tend my heart zealously. To quote the New International Version of Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” If the Orthodox spirituality of Ware is correct, that guarding and tending of my heart means caring for what exists within me, in my body, in my spirit, and in my soul. With God’s help, I will.