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,

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