I start every morning by walking my dog and then having a cup of coffee. Whenever I can--even on rainy days or hot and humid days--I try to have my coffee on the front porch. There I sit, cup of coffee in hand, with no cell phone, no headphones, no book, and no journal and pen. I sit in my rocking chair and I just rock. I rock, I listen, I look, I ponder, and I sip my coffee.
As I sit, I always hear the traffic from 11th Street and from Hwy 92/A Avenue. But I also hear birds--and see them too. I see the ways that the cardinal pairs come to the feeder--one, then the other. One always eating, the other always on the lookout. I watch the hummingbirds hover down to sip some of the homemade nectar (sugar water) that we put out for them, and then catch a glimpse of new baby bunnies snacking on some of the cracked corn I have sprinkled on the ground for the sparrows.
I wish I could say that this was all a part of some intentional spiritual practice that I was doing, but it's not. This sacred time and place has happened quite accidentally. One day I got home from walking my dog and I was hot. So I went outside with my morning coffee to enjoy the nice breeze that was blowing. When I got outside I realized I had put down my phone somewhere in the house. I didn't feel like going back inside to look for it, so I sat down, sipped my coffee, and rocked. Back and forth. Watching, listening, and contemplating. And from that simple mistake, a practice--or at least a routine--was born.
Though I have come to view this time as holy and sacred, I haven't always. It was just a part of my morning routine. And yet, I have come to find that this is one of the few times in my day that I slow down enough, am still enough, to draw closer to the Divine.
Lauren F. Winner shares the wisdom of a fourteenth-century text from an unnamed English monk that reads, “You only need a tiny scrap of time to move toward God." Which is fantastic for those of us who only have tiny scraps of time at one time to devote to such things. It's fantastic to think that in as little as the time it takes to simply drink a cup of coffee, each of us can move closer to God if we are but willing to open ourselves to doing so. It's fantastic to know that communing with the Divine doesn't necessarily have to be another time-suck in my day.
And yet, there's also something that pulls on me, inviting me to more deeply ponder just why it is that "scraps"--of time, of my attention, of my life--are all I seem to have to give to drawing closer to the One who made me. Where are the rest of my life, my attention, and my time going? I'm not always sure, and maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's simply enough to know that God can work with scraps. Maybe it's enough to know that even when my priorities are all out of whack, even when my attentions are anywhere but God, even when I'm worried, or over-functioning, or in pain, there are small moments in which I am moving toward God anyway. And maybe the power in these scraps of time is more about me finally noticing the Divine drawing near more than it is about me--about us--doing something particularly holy to draw near to God.
I have to wonder if that's the "spiritual practice" of it all: Noticing. Being still enough to see and hear that the One we seek is already here--drawing near to us. Coming as close as a hovering hummingbird, watching out for us just as a cardinal pair watches out for one another, feeding us and nurturing us the way spilled cracked corn nurtures tiny bunnies.
Learning to notice the nearness of God in my scraps of stillness with you,
I was SO EXCITED. I had been wanting to make the hour-long trip down to Lake Wapello State Park for quite a while, and my most recent vacation was the perfect time to do so. So one morning I loaded my kayak into the back of my pickup truck, tied it down, and was on my way.
The trip was a gorgeous one, as I traveled roads I've either never been on or that I've only been on once or twice. I'm from a part of Iowa that is fairly flat and filled with corn, soybeans, and hog confinements, so it still takes my breath away anytime I have the occasion to drive through the gentle rolling hills here in southern Iowa. There were cattle, sheep, and horses grazing. There were chickens free-ranging like nobody's business. And there were more tree groves than I knew what to do with. It was all so stunning.
After about an hour, I pulled into the state park, and wound my way to my first glimpses of the lake--magnificent! There were lily padded areas in full bloom and the water looked clean and crisp and blue from the shoreline. I made my way to the kayak launch area and excitedly unhooked the straps holding my kayak down. I got my life jacket and my floppy hat, then grabbed my water shoes and my waterproof case. As I was reaching for my water bottle and prepared to lock up my truck, a sense of doom and dread filled my stomach. My paddle! I had forgotten my paddle! With all of my planning and loading and ratchet-strapping, I had somehow managed to leave my kayak paddle back home in our garage!
Immediately I started to tear apart my truck, hoping I had somehow thrown the paddle in some compartment somewhere (even though I fully knew I had not). Then I got in the truck and drove aimlessly to the park's boat rental only to find that they didn't open until the weekend. Maybe I could just track down the park rangers and see if one of them had a spare paddle or something, I thought. But even after driving around for awhile, I couldn't find them...it was a long shot anyway. Defeated, I went back to the kayak launch, loaded everything back up, and headed for home.
As I drove, I was SO negative. I was SO angry at myself, and SO disappointed that I had been SO careless in packing for this trip. I thought about how I had "wasted sunshine" and "wasted vacation time" on this fruitless excursion--not to mention wasting half a day and half a tank of gas.
About 20 minutes into my trip back home, though, a thought crossed my mind: How was this day a waste? Had I not seen some beautiful countryside, some crisp, blue water, and some lily pads in full bloom--not to mention getting to scope out a great place for my spouse and I to kayak and hike one day together? The day was only a waste if I let one forgetful moment cloud over the rest of the experience.
I wonder how many times we do something similar in our lives of faith? How many times do we let the one thing that didn't go as planned detract from the journey? How often do we get so committed to the day or the trip or the life we thought we would have, that when it doesn't happen just as we had planned or just how we had hoped, we call the whole thing "ruined," "bad," or "a waste?" How often do we miss the beauty and the goodness of the world around us--just as it is--because we are so focused on the one thing we don't have? Or the one thing that didn't go just right?
Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, writes, "The happiness we seek is already here and it will be found through letting go rather than through struggle.” Which leads me to believe that the very best thing that we can do for ourselves and for those around us is to practice letting go--letting go of the vacations, experiences, days, and lives we thought we would have, and grab hold of what we ACTUALLY have. Right here. Today. The present really is teeming with gifts and goodness, with love and with hope, with beauty and with opportunities to begin again--if only we will notice. If only we don't throw the whole thing out because of something that didn't go our way, or didn't go as planned.
That doesn't mean that disappointment isn't real--it just means that it isn't the full picture. The question is, what kind of picture are you training your eyes to see? I'll leave you to ponder that this week.
Learning to see the full picture with you,
If you were here at St. Paul for our Open & Affirming Worship service on June 25th, then you know it was an EXTRA special day because we were celebrating 10 years of officially being an Open & Affirming Congregation. The altar was draped in a Pride flag. The choral ensemble sang songs of resistance and wider welcome. And members of our congregation told the story of St. Paul becoming an Open & Affirming congregation--the process, the feelings, the losses, and the gains. There were rainbow colored balloons and two sets of golden balloons in the shape of a 1 and 0 to form the number 10.
The numbered balloons were intended to both be outside, but the day was also a VERY windy one. So much so that the balloons intended to be at our west entrance were unable to be outside at all without fear that they would blow away. So, we moved them indoors, and as I was "helping" (or maybe over-functioning) to arrange the balloons in the sanctuary, the 0 balloon somehow came untethered, leaving me, and others around me, to only watch helplessly as the balloon floated to the ceiling. That was two Sundays ago...and the balloon is STILL hugging the ceiling in the sanctuary.
I have no idea when that balloon will come down, although it's a bit of a game now to come into the church and see if the balloon is--in fact--still up there. I'm thinking of dubbing it, "Balloon Watch 2023"--but maybe not everything needs a subtitle. I don't know. What I do know is that I have spent some time watching that balloon and thinking about that balloon, and wondering what it might have to teach me--to teach us.
And what that balloon is teaching me today is the practice and the power of letting go. Think about it, that balloon has probably commanded more attention on the ceiling than it ever would have had it remained tethered to that number 1 balloon on the ground. Had that balloon remained where others told it to remain, it would have lived as a party favor decorating the landscape of our day, rather than living as something that--if even in a small way--helped shape our day together. All of which causes me to wonder, what would happen if WE practiced letting go?
Brené Brown says that, "Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we are." Which leads me to believe that practicing the lessons of the foil balloon can be life-changing. Think about it, what if we practiced--daily--letting go of who we think we're supposed to be, or who we've been told we're supposed to be, and simply entered each moment of each day EXACTLY as we are? What if we took seriously the practice of untethering ourselves from all of the places we have been told to remain? From all of the places that left us out and left us wanting and, sometimes, left us on our knees? What if we just showed up in our lives, in our workplaces, around our kitchen tables, and in our worship services and let ourselves--our true selves--be seen? What if we practiced authenticity--and stopped plastering on a smile when we weren't happy, and stop "sucking it up and soldiering on" when life was knocking us down over and over again? Might we find that nothing feels as good as letting go?
I'm not sure, but that's my hunch: That learning to let go of the facade might just be the most beautiful, liberating, and healing thing we can do for ourselves--and for one another. For our freedom and our healing are tied up in the freedom and healing of one another.
Practicing the lessons of the foil balloon with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.