Sunday, February 28, 2016

Lenten Study: God Hides in Plain Sight

Revised and updated from the Archives....

Back in 2013, my Pine Valley neighbor (hey, in a town this size, we're all neighbors!) Judith Dupree invited me to drive all the way to Saint Paul's Cathedral in downtown San Diego. Dean Nelson, whom Judith has known for years in the San Diego Christian Writers Guild, was going to be leading an adult Sunday School class at the large Episcopal Church next to Balboa Park.

Dean and I go way back as well. Brought into the Literature Department at Point Loma Nazarene University to start a journalism program the same year that I started at PLNU, Dean was my creative writing professor. In addition, a small group of students often skipped chapel to hang out in the faculty lounge and debate theological issues--and Dean was usually at the center of the debates. (And yes, I had to pay $70 in chapel fines after graduation before the registrar would hand over my diploma.) Plus, when I returned to PLNU after earning my Master's in English from the University of San Diego, Dean was kind enough to offer to share his office with me as my classes were first thing in the morning and his were...not. ;) 

Judith and I, along with our beautiful sidekick Kitty, now also an instructor at PLNU, have been faithful attendees at PLNU's annual Writer's Symposium by the Sea, Dean's brilliant brainchild. We've enjoyed hearing from such wonderful and varied writers as Ray Bradbury, Kathleen Norris, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Anne Lamott, Donald Miller, Amy Tan, Eugene Peterson, Calvin Miller, Billy Collins, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more. Dean has also been very kind in trekking up the mountain to lead several workshops for our little Writers' Workshop here in Pine Valley--and  he'll be gracing us with his presence once again on March 19 at our local library.

In 2009 Dean published an amazing little book called God Hides in Plain Sight. The last time Dean came up the mountain to speak to our group, I purchased a copy which he signed: "To Susanne--colleague, fellow writer, office-sharer, friend! Dean Nelson"

But I haven't had time to open the book, and from its place of honor on my desk, it's been staring at me, almost beckoning me to read it. But homeschooling, online classes to teach, essays to grade for co-op classes, etc., have kept me from opening the book and diving in.

Dean Nelson at The Writer's Symposium by the Sea
When Dean spoke about the introduction to the book at Saint Paul's back in 2013, it was to a room of about 60-70 attendees in which I was one of only about five people without white or gray hair. As usual, his humor was disarming and amusing--something I've always loved about Dean's lectures. But for the first time, Dean was speaking about faith and faith alone--unlike his usual talks about writing that I've attended in the past.

And as Judith said to me on our long drive home, "I didn't know that Dean and I had so much in common theologically." And I agree.

The subtitle of God Hides in Plain Sight is "How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World." He lays out this idea of seeing God in the ordinary, daily events of our lives through the seven sacraments in this order: vocation, communion, confession, confirmation, marriage, baptism, last rites, and, adding a new one, service. He quotes from Thomas Merton and Eugene Peterson, from Frederick Buechner to Walker Percy, and while his disarming humor is seen throughout the book, it leads us into a deeper place...a place where we see God not just in mountain top experiences or worship on Sunday mornings, but also in the most ordinary moments, during the most mundane tasks.

Although I haven't yet come across a mention of him (yet), Dean's main point reminds me greatly of Brother Lawrence and his little book, The Practice of the Presence of God, which, after the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, is perhaps the book that has influenced me the most spiritually. Brother Lawrence was a lowly dishwasher in a Carmelite monastery in the 1600's, but while he scrubbed pots, he basked in God's constant presence. He often complained about having to "go to the chapel for prayers" because he was already deeply in prayer whenever the bell rang.

And I was pleased to see several allusions to one of my favorite Christian books, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, which also started for me as a Lenten study many years ago. And then about seven years ago, my neighbor Sheri and I did a wonderful study of Celebration of Discipline together, meeting to discuss the readings and ponder our responses to the study guide questions. It was one of the most spiritually-rich studies I had ever taken part in, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

So back in 2013, I picked up the book but only managed to read to about page 45. I could tell even then that reading this book is going to be huge--perhaps even life-changing. Not to reduce Dean's importance, but the crux of this book isn't about the author although Dean relates a lot of personal anecdotes; it's about how we need to learn to see God differently than we do now. The meaning of this book is not about intellectual knowledge...although it starts there. It's about heart-recognition of God at work in our lives and about spirit-to-Spirit communication.

This quotation is from Dean's introduction to God Hides in Plain Sight:

"Grace pursues and precedes. It bends us toward God.... When we're paying attention, we see that grace is breaking into our everyday moments, making them different--sacred--drawing us into the presence of God. It's not about us getting a hold of the sacred. It's about the sacred getting a hold of us."

Dean's book has been sitting on my desk--the only non-school book there--for three years. So when I was praying about which book to study for Lent this year, Dean's book immediately sprang to mind. And I'm so glad that it did.

Now that God Hides in Plain Sight is off my "back burner" of thought and shifted to the front where it's at full boil, I'm reading 6-7 pages each day and letting it really sink in. In addition, I'm underlining passage after passage and making copious notes in the margins, so I pity anyone who will read my copy after I finish with it. With books of this importance, I tend to hold scribbled conversations with the author in the margins, but at least with this particular book, I may be able to chat with Dean face-to-face.

In fact, I'm rather counting on it...even though I won't have it completely finished by the time he comes up the mountain in March since his next workshop with us is the Saturday preceding Palm Sunday.

God Hides in Plain Sight is exactly the book I need right now as our family is going through a very difficult time and may very well be upending our lives in ways we can hardly imagine, possibly including moving out of state, despite our kids being sixth-generation San Diegans, within the next few months. So I need to see God at work right now...more than ever.

Reading with you,

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Poet Nikki Giovanni at 2016 Writer's Symposium by the Sea

Photo by Susanne Barrett at PLNU
I've attended the Writer's Symposium by the Sea many times over the 21 years since Dr. Dean Nelson, my creative writing professor and later office-mate at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), started inviting some of the most renowned authors to share their thoughts on the art and craft of writing.

Of course, PLNU is a place where I have nestled, heart and soul, since first hearing of the college during my senior year of high school when I escaped from Algebra II with friends to view yet another college presentation. (However, any college presentation was a vast improvement over Mr. Winters' droning on and on about algebraic formulas I'd never see again.) But by the time that the PLNU presentation was over, I knew that I'd be throwing aside my plans for the famous English departments at Dartmouth and UC Santa Cruz (Go, Banana Slugs!) in order to attend this Christian college that was half the population of my high school.

And I adored every moment of my time at PLNU. I cried on graduation day as I didn't want to leave this family of people who loved all things literary as much as I did. So I returned with my Master of Arts and began my teaching career.

That was nearly 24 years ago, and walking on campus this week made me feel as though I had never left.

This year's Writer's Symposium by the Sea featured four writers: sports writer/announcer Dick Enberg, young adult writer Robin Jones Gunn (whose event we attended), African-American poet Nikki Giovanni (we attended two of her events), and Christian feminist blogger/writer Sarah Bessey (whom I really wanted to see, but it just wasn't possible). My lovely friend, poet and author Judith Deem Dupree, kindly purchased my tickets as an early birthday present, and we attended the three sessions together.

(I'm assisting Judith with various aspects of her new book, Sky Mesa Journal, to be published by Wipf and Stock later this year. It's a joy to work with her on this amazing piece of prose-poetry ponderings.)

The talk by Robin Jones Gunn was wonderful, but the two talks we attended with the legendary Nikki Giovanni were amazing! She's a 72 year old black woman who speaks her mind, no matter who her audience may be. On the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, Nikki does not mince words. And she drops the most amazing names: she babysat for Morgan (Freeman)'s kids; she went to Maya (Angelou)'s house, she interviewed Rosa (Parks) in her living room, she entertained the Queen of Ghana with a bottle of Utopia beer ($250/pint), she met with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (at their request), etc.

The afternoon session with Nikki Giovanni, which was supposed to be for faculty and students (but Rachel, the departmental assistant, smuggled Judith and me in) was definitely tamer than the evening session, but it was still memorable. I snapped the above photo just before Nikki began reading some of her poems--and does she ever read her poems in an interesting manner (this reading was posted on YouTube; it's not from the Writer's Symposium, but I will post the interviews and readings as soon as they are available):

In all of the interviews Dean Nelson has done over the 21 years of the Writer's Symposium by the Sea with writers as varied as Garrison Keillor, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Yancey, Anne Lamott, etc., I've never seen him lose control of an interview. Until now. It wasn't a bad thing--it was interesting and rather hilarious to watch Nikki grab onto one random topic and then another so fast that I don't think that anyone could have caught up with her.

She read more poems in the evening session, and Dean started off the interview by teasing her about being mentioned in a Kanye West song, and it happens that Nikki is a very good friend of Kanye's mother. She quickly moved through Downton Abbey, mentioning how hilarious it was that Mr. Carson had to cook in last Sunday's episode, to having a bat named after her, to taking Barack Obama to task for plagiarizing her phrase "We shall overcome."

"Poems have work to do," she says. They are to inform, delight, and leave something with people. When asked about the lack of punctuation in some of her poems, she advised Dean that these poems "work on the breath" like a song. "Poets build bridges," she says next, then applauds Pope Francis for his bridge-building.

Yet she was a history major in college. But she does say about African American feminism, "We want to be part of the ones who forgive, not to be the ones who put Jesus on the cross."

"Very few dumb people quote me," Nikki asserts with a wicked grin before complaining that the Fisk Jubilee Singers should have been on Downton Abbey last season. A professor at Virginia Tech, she glories when her students are successful.

"Poems are right there with good wine and caviar" she advises, but she means red wine only, for earlier in this interview she had asked rhetorically, "Whoever fell in love over white wine?"

"Black women are the best things that ever happened in the world. It's a great thing to be black. I recommend it," she says with another mischievous smile.

In both the afternoon and evening talks, Nikki made this statement: "I married my mother, and she widowed me." She openly describes her mother as a victim of physical abuse...a situation which gave her an innate skepticism about men. "We have to be willing to tell the truth," she says.

Then she's talking about having no interior doors in her house. Not even on the bathroom. "It's my house, and I plan to live in it." She continues, "Doors are stupid. They're a waste of wood."

She advised us at both talks to read something every day. In the afternoon talk, she recommended the comic strip "Zits." Nikki is also a Trekkie, yet in the next moment she says that all of the recent talk about race is "tiresome."

"Life is interesting--why not enjoy it?" she states at the end of the afternoon talk. And she finishes the evening talk by citing the title to one of her books, Chasing Utopia, which wasn't philosophical at all; rather, it was about trying to obtain a bottle of the world's most expensive beer, Utopia, at $250/pint.

The entire evening interview will be shown on UCSD-TV in about six weeks, and then will be posted on their Writer's Symposium site where we can watch all of the previous interviews Dean has conducted since the Symposium began 21 years ago: UCSD-TV Writer's Symposium by the Sea. The interview with Nikki Giovanni and the other speakers will be at the top of the page when they are posted.

So it was a lovely week--especially staying with a dear friend who now works at PLNU in the Literature Department as an adjunct. We spent both evenings chatting while grading essays and preparing lessons for our students. Perhaps we can get together when the pressures of teaching are not quite so manic. Leaving her home after praying together lightened my stress-load considerably.

Wishing you all a wonderful week,

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Keeping a Holy Lent

From multiple posts in the Archives....

Lent is a precious, precious time for me--I look forward to it with even more anticipation than Advent and Christmas.

Don't get me wrong--I adore Advent and Christmas: the family traditions, the Christmas carols (especially the carols!!), the snugness of the house as winter approaches, the scent of cinnamon and baking wafting from the kitchen, and the anticipation of unveiling the secrets wrapped under the tree.

But while Christmas is an amazing time of year, I admit that the excessive busyness and the hype get to me, robbing me of the joy I should be feeling in celebrating Christ's Incarnation...which is why I look forward with such anticipation to Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday.

There is little hype and full concentration on living out God's Word in our lives, of God-at-work in the Spiritual Spring Cleaning which is Lent.

Several years ago I read an incredible post about something dear to my heart--written by the wonderful Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience (my favorite blog). She shared about the process of making Easter as meaningful in our lives as Christmas.

That's a convicting thought, isn't it?

If we invest all this effort, time, money into Christmas, celebrating the Incarnation, how can we not do at least the same, if not more, to celebrate the Resurrection?

Ann writes:
And Advent completes at Lent.

When Christ completes what He came to do.

She continues:
We call it the “spirit of Christmas,” the spirit of giving, and we try to contain it to holly and poinsettias, when it is holy and it is more. The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of Easter, the Love that so loved the world, that He gave.

And the words that stings heart and motivates soul:
The Incarnation of Christ was meant for the Crucifixion of Christ and we never incarnate Christ until we abdicate self.

And "abdicat[ing] self" is the whole meaning behind the practice of Lent.

And I think it's perhaps why Lent feels so precious to me. For in the abdication of self, we may gain the merest glimpse of His glory--the swirl of His cloak, His whisper in the wind, His hand on our shoulder as He nudges us onward in His holiness.

And thus Lent is one way to join Christ on His journey to Calvary. It's a gift, really--to become one of the weeping women of His beloved city, the city He wept over, clad in dusty garments and worn sandals, the women of Jerusalem whom He took the time to greet and to warn despite searing pain and the weight of the world on His shoulders--beaten raw, seeping blood.
"Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming...." (Luke 23:28-29, ESV)
Lent allows us to join Jesus on the Road to Calvary, sharing a minuscule bit of His pain as we follow in His footsteps, only imagining what He willingly bore for us--the agony, the betrayals, the sin of past, present, and future generations--of all humanity. Even the mere visualization stabs my heart...much less the real experience of Christ's obedient suffering.

The following was composed in 2007-8 by myself and Pastor Stephen Sammons of Lake Murray Community Church on Ash Wednesday and Lent:

Irenaeus (125AD–195AD), mentions the idea of spending some time fasting in preparation of Easter. This developed into the observance of Lent (Council of Nicea, 325AD). Lent is the forty days (not including Sundays as they are always days of celebrating the Resurrection) preceding Easter. The forty days of Lent are used to parallel the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and praying, before starting His earthly ministry. “Ash Wednesday” has been historically recognized as the day to initiate the period of fasting and repentance known as Lent. It's called "Ash Wednesday" because ashes were traditionally used to mark the foreheads or hands of those who attended church on that day.

In the Old Testament, ashes are a sign of humility and repentance of sin. (See 2 Sam. 13:19 and 15:2; Esther 4:1-3; Job 42:6, Jer. 6:26 ). Jesus mentions repenting in sackcloth and ashes in Matthew 11:21. A mark is a sign of ownership; in Ezekiel 9:4-6, a mark on the foreheads of the people provided protection to those who served God. Therefore, a mark of ashes was used to show repentance of our sins and complete ownership by God.

God calls us to do spiritual housecleaning everyday. Our spiritual life is a day by day (in fact, moment by moment) walk with our Heavenly Father. However, this day can serve as a good reminder of the need for us to take a spiritual inventory. Take this occasion to come quietly and reverently before the Lord, offering your life to Him to examine. Ask Him where He wants to work. Ask Him what He wants to change. Maybe there are some patterns of thinking and habits that you have fallen into that need reevaluated; maybe God is calling you to some new habits and a new manner of investing your precious time so it can reap eternal benefits.

Set aside some time and let the Lord work in your heart. Then, as the Lord leads, pray about not only what to do, but also, how the Lord would have you implement the ideas into your life. An added value is for each of us to share with one another what God is doing in our hearts. In this way, we can develop accountability and have partners in the journey who can hold us up in prayer.

I have written many posts on Lent; check out these links if you'd like to read more about this practice--and how I personally have practiced it. I also gave a talk on Lent for a ladies' Bible Study at Lake Murray Community Church several years ago; it's linked under the header: On Lent

Quotations for the Week and Lent 2012
The Discipline of Fasting: Lent 2011 
On the Road to Calvary: Lent 2011
My Lenten Rule: 2011
Ash Wednesday Retreat: Lent 2011
My Lenten Satchel: Lent 2010
Mid-Lenten Thoughts: Lent 2010
First Week of Lent: 2010
Lenten Reflection: Part 1 (2010)
Ash Wednesday: 2009
Evangelicals Seeking Ancient Paths (including Lent!)
Why Lent? Act 3 Ministries Article: Lent 2008
My Lenten Rule: 2008 (Father Acker explains Lenten Rule)
Ash Wednesday: 2008 (co-written with Pastor Stephen Sammons)
Lenten Reflections: 2007

After poking around online for a bit, looking for some new additions to my Commonplace Book, I've chosen two quotations about Lent for this week (see sidebar):

"The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare."

~Pope Benedict XVI

"The Lord measures our perfection neither by the multitude nor by the magnitude of our deeds, but by the manner in which we perform them."

~Saint John of the Cross

During this Lent, may we walk with Him as He stumbles forward, humanly-weak but divinely-strong, as "he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:8, ESV).

And may we be so obedient in our Lenten disciplines, empowered by Christ and not ourselves as He molds us into His image, cutting away the sinful dross that accumulates in our lives all-too-easily.

Stumbling ever onward in His sacred footfalls,


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