Gradual Progress

Gradual Progress (#53)

Weeds shoot up and multiply, but they are easily pulled from the earth. A tree that stands strong on a mountain will last and last. A tree pushes up through the soil and down through the earth with equal force. Because of its steady and certain progress, it is not uprooted easily. It firmly clasps the ground.

All progress from here will be steady and gradual, like the growth of a tree. This is not a time for agitation or revolution. Impulsive gestures will be ignored or will irritate like weeds. Though impatience at this time is understandable, nothing of lasting value can come from it. Do not try and push things ahead of their time. You may have to wait longer than you’d like for the changes you hope will occur. Work, therefore, gradually, not expecting any quick success. The time for harvesting will come, but it has not come yet.

You have been given a certain place in this world. Your culture and its traditions are not a separate thing from you. The people around you who live by its structures and values are not so different from you. You all feel the same things. You have collectively chosen to act in certain ways, which is what creates a society. You are a real part of this society. Progress involves respect for it, as its laws are part of who you are, and you are more a part of it than you realize. Understand your place within it; progress will spring from its values, and from living within them now. Then, from within your current conditions, you will advance.

If you are rooted in what is virtuous and right, so will your ends be virtuous and right. Do not try to dominate situations. Instead, turn your focus to steadily refining your inner self. There are no shortcuts ahead.

by Sheila Heti from “How to be a good When You’re Lost”, found in “Mini Ching”, Harper’s Magazine, July 2013*

Flickr photo:   Ross Griff

Flickr photo: Ross Griff

New York City is not a place that reflects any sort of faith in gradual progress. It is a fast moving culture. People work long hours trying to get ahead and succeed. People hurry to catch a subway. They take a second job. I fit right in. Like other times in my life, I overcommitted myself and succeeded. I studied in school, worked, and worked some more. I saw friends. I invested in family. I was busy, and I thrived at it.

For the last two years, I studied writing in a graduate program. My professors, all of them in one way or another, told me to slow down. Gradual progress is the only way.

“Writing is a slow art. “

“Doing nothing is part of the creative process.”

“Books take years to write.”

“How much time did you sit and think before you started writing?”

“Write one sentence. Read it. Sit with it. What does the next sentence want to be?”

I have not been historically a person you would describe as slow moving. After two years of mentorship, however, I finally heard them. There are no shortcuts ahead.

Upon graduating, I met with a career counselor about what my next steps toward a new job might entail. After talking quickly, as I do, for about fifteen minutes straight about who I am and what I am good at and what I have been thinking about, she asked me to stop. “Okay,” she said. “If I could sum up the last fifteen minutes in one word, I would use the word intense.” Intense. Fierce. A force. These are ways people describe me. As a child gymnast, if I wasn’t intense, I got hurt. Then I grew to love intensity- the speed, the momentum, the productivity.

But she then asked me to describe my ideal day fifteen years from now. When I finished, she said, “Well, that day does not sound intense at all. It sounds slow and balanced. So are you going to let go of intense, or are you going to let go of your perfect day?” She was right. I just figured a day would come when I would be too old or too tired to be intense. But the longer I walk quickly and talk quickly and fill my days full to the brim, the better I get at it. The more I think my worth depends on it.

When I found this passage in Harper’s Magazine, it became my prayer.

“All progress from here will be steady and gradual, like the growth of a tree.”

“The time for harvesting will come, but it has not come yet.”

“Do not try to dominate situations. Instead, turn your focus to steadily refining your inner self. “

Turning points are great opportunity to do a spiritual check in. I graduated. I quit my job. I am moving. I will start a new job. What I found inside of me during this middle time of waiting and transition was a whisper from God to slow down and believe in gradual progress. It is my struggle. My lesson.

For students, summer can be a turning point. One school year is over. It is hot. We move slowly. We take deep breaths. Another year will begin soon, and we can be a refined version of ourselves at the outset. Maybe, for you, it is time for revolution or impulsivity, intensity or speed. For me, it is time to work on gradual progress, to be a tree that is not easily uprooted. It is a time for me to grow up and down, refining my inner self slowly.

By Sheila Heti, from “How to Be Good When You’re Lost,” in the anthology Where We Are, to be published this fall by Visual Editions. Heti’s contribution, illustrated by Ted Mineo, interprets six of the sixty-four hexagrams comprising the I Ching; a traditional method of consulting the text is to pose a question and then toss coins to determine which hexagram to read.

Ask, Knock, Seek

“Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. What father among you would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or hand him a snake instead of a fish? Or hand him a scorpion if he asked for an egg? If you then know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

The Gospel this Sunday from Luke 11 address prayer. If you think about it, prayer takes some courage! It is hard to approach God. It is hard for us to ask for help. We live in a society that values strength, independence and individualism. Prayer requires the humility to thank God for goodness and ask God for help in times of struggle. Prayer is bold and counter-cultural! Yet Jesus urges us to dare to ask. What can be intimidating about prayer is that we think there is a right way to pray. We don’t want to make a mistake or offend God. Luke 11 reminds us that it doesn’t matter how we ask, we just have to ask. Little kids don’t always prepare the perfect pitch to parents (babies just cry!), and neither do we with God. Here are a few simple things I have been thinking about prayer lately:

  1. Help, Thanks, Wow. Anne Lamott wrote a book titled Help, Thanks, Wow about these three simple prayers. This is a good place to start! I like trying to say each of these prayers once a day. One day, I may say Help in the morning (Help me be kind and patient today), Thanks in the afternoon (Thanks for the love of this friend who crossed my path), and Wow at night (Wow, what a spectacular day!). Another day I may say Thanks in the morning (Thanks for the gift of this new day), Wow in the afternoon (Wow is this rainbow is gorgeous), and Help at night (Help me do better tomorrow). It is a good way to offer a simple prayer to God throughout the day and keep me connected.
  1. Use your body. Words matter and are important to utter, but our bodies matter too. I like to think about changing my body shape when I pray. Just like in worship, at times we stand, other times we kneel or sit. Standing up tall and at attention sends a much different energy to God in prayer than when I am curled up in a ball on the floor. They are both appropriate at different times to express different things to God. Closed eyes affect prayer in one way, and open eyes in another. Palms open is different than hands folded. God wants us to ask in a way that feels authentic, even if that means a prayer of punching a pillow or laying flat on the ground and slipping into sleep.
  1. Use props. Praying to a God who we don’t see can feel difficult or strange. That is where small ritual or objects can help facilitate the process. The church uses incense as a symbol of our prayers wafting to heaven for God to hear. Blowing bubbles on a windy summer day can work, too, to symbolize handing our worries over to God! I like to use my jewelry. I have a big ring from Haiti that I wear often. When I am laughing with friends, I knock it on the table as an extension of my joy. Knock and the door will be opened for you. I knock a little prayer of thanks for the gift of laughter and fellowship without having to say a word. I recently suffered a second miscarriage and a great friend said to me, “I believe your two children rest in the arms of Mary and will always be a part of you.” As a grief prayer, I purchased a delicate necklace with two little squares on it. One for each child. I touch it throughout the day as a continued prayer to Mary for help and an acknowledgement of my grief. Like jewelry for me, tangible objects can help ground our prayer in symbols we can see. Symbols can incorporate ideas and emotions that are hard to express to God through words.
  2. Share prayer with friends you trust. Jesus tells us not to flaunt our prayer, but it has been meaningful for me that some people in my life know that I pray. Students will come tell me of difficult things by leading with, “I know you pray, so can you pray for…?” I have friends who do the same. Praying for one another invites us outside of ourselves and connects us to each other through God. Maybe there will come a time in your life when you will be too sad to even pray. This is when it is a comfort to know that others are praying for you while you work up your strength and courage to approach God again. And you can do the same for them.God is seeking a relationship with us, which requires action on our part, too. We cannot sit on the couch and expect God to do all the work. Luke reminds us that God is there, waiting to give, to open the door, to answer. God is a loving parent who does want God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. We must dig deep inside to find the audacity, the courage to ask, to knock, to seek. Our movement does not need to be sure or graceful or perfect. God’s answers may not look like what we expect them to look like, but they will be good and true and just.

God is seeking a relationship with us, which requires action on our part, too. We cannot sit on the couch and expect God to do all the work. Luke reminds us that God is there, waiting to give, to open the door, to answer. God is a loving parent who does want God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. We must dig deep inside to find the audacity, the courage to ask, to knock, to seek. Our movement does not need to be sure or graceful or perfect. God’s answers may not look like what we expect them to look like, but they will be good and true and just.

Death is a Doorway

Please take a few moments to watch this short video about a man who makes coffins:

In addition to it being beautifully shot, this video strikes me for a few reasons:

As I briefly mentioned in last week’s post, I think the act of creation is a holy act. It takes time and care to create something that did not exist before. His work is holy because he is creating something beautiful to honor someone else that aids very important grief ritual. Some would say the distinguishing characteristic of human beings from animals is that we bury our dead. The ritual and work, the time and care that goes into burial is important. He reminds us here that carrying someone you love is helpful in grieving. That work signifies the fact that we are shouldering a burden.

The CoffinmakerThere is a strong element in this video of the dignity in work. We can see it in his movements and how he speaks about his work. The coffin maker is proud of his craft. The work takes time, it cannot be rushed. It may have been easier to buy a coffin or urn for the baby he lost in the miscarriage, but easy isn’t the point. Convenience is not the goal. He believes that the work brings with it inherent dignity. “Work is love made visible,” he says.

While he works, he prays. His work becomes his prayer. Our work, too, becomes our prayer. We do not need to stop moving to pray. We can pray by moving our feet, and hands. Our actions can be a prayer to God.

Finally, I love how the coffin maker reminds us that death is not the end, but a doorway. He must contemplate death in his daily work more than some of us, and the fact that he can see a coffin in a hopeful way give me hope. It strikes me that I need to be reminded on a daily basis of God’s love. I have to be reminded that we are not yet home. That this is the beginning. The coffin is not the end. It is good news. It is good.

What struck you about the video?

Have you had someone close to you die? Was the burial important for you?

What work do you do that you are proud of?

If we remembered that death is a doorway, how would we live our lives here differently? How can we remember?

Advice to Young Creators

I recently completed teaching a two week summer Creative Writing course to twenty lovely, witty 7th-12th graders. On their last day, I read to them these passages by poet Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet. I love some of the things he shares so much that I would like to share them, as well, with you.rilke

If you trust in nature, in what is simple in nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge.”

Every moment I have dedicated to trusting nature, watching simple and small things have been moments well spent. Holding a leaf to the sun to see its veins, taking a moment to watch a bird fly or an ant carry a meal on its back, small things become immeasurable. God the creator becomes great in the tiniest of gestures. Nature, simple nature has so much to teach us about the strength of humility. Instead of striving to be huge, rich and powerful, we will find reconciliation in winning the confidence of what seems poor. I do think faith is about awakeness.

You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

I love this opening visual of being before beginnings. When we believe that death is a doorway, that God’s mercy is great and leads to everlasting life, then we are all before so many beginnings no matter how old we are. When I get stressed about the future, when I forget to be excited about being before beginnings, a friend tells me, “More will be revealed.” It is this patience that Rainer Maria Rilke calls us to. To sit in the questions, to be comfortable with being unresolved. There is something for us to live today, to really dwell in. We cannot rush past the gift of today in order to get to the answers.

Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train yourself for that but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don’t hate anything.”

My students created something out of nothing. They looked at blank screens and created poems, stories and essays. I believe that act of creating something out of nothing is a holy act. You, too, have the possibility of creating and forming. It does not need to be poetry like Rainer or my students. What do you sense is a need of your innermost self? What do you feel God calling you to in this world?

What has nature taught you?

What big questions do you hold in your heart today?

What have you created in your life?

Follow Me: Simple, but not easy

In a recent poll, nearly 80% of Americans reported that they identify as Christian. That is a lot of people! Yet in the United States, we still struggle with poverty and injustice. Imagine what would happen if all of the people, myself included, who identify as Christian came together to work toward Jesus’ vision of how the world should be. In the Gospel, Jesus does not call us to be Christian. He does not urge us to go to church or fill our homes with crosses to identify our religious affiliation. He calls us only by saying, “Follow me.” It is a simple request, but not an easy one. When pushed, he expands the call by telling us to love our neighbor as ourselves and to give all our riches to the poor. We are quick to call ourselves Christian and fill our time becoming a good Christian. We can be so busy being Christian that we forget to follow Jesus. Jesus asks that we advocate for the poor, the widows and the orphans. To put down our nets and follow. People in Jesus’ circle had a difficult time following him, as we still do today. Don Evert articulates it well in Jesus with Dirty Feet:

Jesus was not a Christian.

He never asked anyone to become Christian,

never built a steepled building,

never drew up a theological treatise,

never took an offering,

never wore religious garments,

never incorporated for tax purposes.

He simply called people to follow him.

That’s it.

That, despite its simplicity, is it.

He called people to follow him…

It is never more

than Jesus’ call: “Follow me”

and a response: dropping familiar nets

and following, in faith

this sandaled Jewish man.

It is never more than that.

Two thousand years of words can do nothing

to the simple, basic reality of Christianity:

Those first steps

taken by two brothers.

Peter and Andrew’s theology

was as pure as it gets:

Jesus said, “Follow me.” And we did.

As Don Evert points out, following Jesus starts with putting down the net and taking one single step. Jesus’ call is a difficult one. Advocating for those most vulnerable around us can get overwhelming. Today I will try to start by putting down my net and taking one step. Instead of putting my focus on being Christian, I will focus my energy on the life of Jesus who is calling to me to follow.

How do you think it felt for Andrew and Peter to put down their nets and follow Jesus?

What net do you hold onto?

What does it looks like in your life today to follow Jesus?

When you look around, how do you see people focused on being Christian instead of focused on following Jesus?

Lord as Home

There is a sense of diaspora in this Sunday’s readings.

Elisha leaves home to follow Elijah:

The LORD said to Elijah:
“You shall anoint Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah,
as prophet to succeed you.”

Elijah set out and came upon Elisha, son of Shaphat,
as he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen;
he was following the twelfth.
Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak over him.
Elisha left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said,
“Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,
and I will follow you.”
Elijah answered, “Go back!
Have I done anything to you?”
Elisha left him, and taking the yoke of oxen, slaughtered them;
he used the plowing equipment for fuel to boil their flesh,
and gave it to his people to eat.
Then Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.

The Psalmist finds comfort, a path, a home, and inheritance in the Lord:

You are my inheritance, O Lord.
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence
because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
You are my inheritance, O Lord.
You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in your presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.
You are my inheritance, O Lord.

The opening to the letter of the Galatians reminds them of their days of slavery and wandering:

Brothers and sisters:
For freedom Christ set us free;
so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
Then the Gospel story from Luke shows Jesus wandering on the journey:

When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem,
and he sent messengers ahead of him.
On the way they entered a Samaritan village
to prepare for his reception there,
but they would not welcome him
because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem.
When the disciples James and John saw this they asked,
“Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven
to consume them?”
Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him,
“I will follow you wherever you go.”
Jesus answered him,
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

And to another he said, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.”
But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
And another said, “I will follow you, Lord,
but first let me say farewell to my family at home.”
To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

audioericThe readings come as a welcome reminder to me this week. I am living out of a suitcase, away from my apartment, my spouse and my schedule. I feel a bit like I am floating. When we are wandering, we can call on the story of the Israelites, led from slavery, through the desert, to freedom. We can call on stories of John the Baptist and Jesus retreating to the wilderness. We are reminded that the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. We must find rest and inheritance in the Lord when we are feeling ungrounded and far from home. We are reminded that even when we have a sense of home on earth, this is not our dwelling place for eternity. We will be home, but we are not home yet. Our bodies are gifts from God, temporary homes to learn and love. Yet our roots must be in the Lord. We are called to be agile, light on our feet, ready to follow the Lord at a moment’s notice. It is a good challenge to work this week to ground ourselves not in comfort, but in the Lord.

When have you felt far away from home, ungrounded, wandering?

What or who gives you a sense of grounding, consistency and home?

How do you find your inheritance in the Lord?

Fingers Under the Door

God is God, and we are not. So then, the problem becomes, that we only have our limited, human minds to think about the non-human God. We only have our human perceptions of what power and love look like from a God who has power and expresses love in a very not-like-us sort of way. Bumping into our own limitations drives us crazy as we seek God. We continue to try to apply human words and human emotions to our ideas of what God might be.

Anne Lamott is a writer who does this with grace and humility in her writing. She takes a story that she senses to be true, and she tells it to point toward, possibly, something that might be in the direction of being true about God. Take this passage from her Operating Instructions:

“I have a friend name Anne, this woman I’ve known my entire life, who took her two-year-old up to Tahoe during the summer. They were staying in a rented condominium by the lake. And of course, it’s such a hotbed of gambling that all the rooms are equipped with these curtains and shades that block out every speck of light so you can stay up all night in the casinos and then sleep all morning. One afternoon she put the baby to bed in his playpen in one of these rooms, in the pitch-dark, and went to do some work. A few minutes later she heard her baby knocking on the door from inside the room, and she got up, knowing he’d crawled out of his playpen. She went to put him down again, but when she got to the door, she found he’d locked it. He had somehow managed to push in the little button on the doorknob. So he was calling to her, “Mommy, Mommy,” and she was saying to him, “Jiggle the doorknob, darling,” and of course he didn’t speak much English—mostly he seemed to speak Urdu. After a moment, it became clear to him that his mother couldn’t open the door, and the panic set in. He began sobbing. So my friend ran around like crazy trying everything possible, like trying to get the front door key to work, calling the rental agency where she left a message on the machine, calling the manager of the condominium where she left another message, and running back to check in with her son every minute or so. And there he was in the dark, this terrified little child. Finally she did the only thing she could, which was to slide her fingers underneath the door, where there was a one-inch space. She kept telling him over and over to bend down and find her fingers. Finally somehow he did. So they stayed like that for a really long time, on the floor, him holding onto her fingers in the dark. He stopped crying. She kept wanting to call the fire department or something, but she felt that contact was the most important thing. She started saying, “Why don’t you lie down, darling, and take a little nap on the floor?” and he was obviously like, “Yeah, right, Mom, that’s a great idea, I’m feeling so nice and relaxed.” So she kept saying, “Open the door now,” and every so often he’d jiggle the knob, and eventually, after maybe half an hour, it popped open.Fingers from Bethan

I keep thinking of that story, how much it feels like I’m the two-year-old in the dark and God is the mother and I don’t speak the language. She could break down the door if that struck her as being the best way, and ride off with me on her charger. But instead, via my friends and my church and my shabby faith, I can just hold onto her fingers underneath the door. It isn’t enough, and it is.”

I know this is a human and limited vision of how God loves, but I find it to be true and helpful. I know what it feels like to be scared and alone, sobbing in the darkness. Not speaking much English. Not understanding the calm suggestions from behind the closed door. Not being able to find the peace of rest. In these moments, I do wish for a God who is powerful enough to knock down the door that I have locked. But almost always, after a bit of time of confusion, I find the fingers of my mother-God under the door. Like Anne Lamott says, “It isn’t enough, and it is.”

Describe a time when you felt like the two-year old: alone, in the dark, scared, and God seemed inaccessible.

Did God break down the door or offer you a few fingertips to touch?

Did the door open eventually? Did you feel God’s love? Was it enough?