It finally came out.

The splinter has been at the base of my palm on my right hand for at least a week. Strangely, I never felt it. I could see it. The first time I saw it, I thought it was a fleck of dirt on the skin, and when I realized that wasn’t the case, I tried to get it out from one side of the splinter then the other. I couldn’t find the entry point, though, which makes it difficult to remove a splinter without using a sharp object.

Experience has taught me that splinters do work themselves out, or, rather, that our bodies efficiently work to remove foreign objects, using white blood cells, I imagine (for I haven’t looked into the science of it).  This splinter, however, has been content to remain in place. Subtle. Non-imposing. There’s no inflammation, no need to be concerned. Just wait.

But it doesn’t belong on me or in me, so it bothers me to see it.

Just now I pushed it a little to one side, and it started to come out. My hands are dry and cool. My mind is clear. I have no expectation one way or another about this splinter, but I am happy to see it gone. Simply removed, I flick it away.

I smile and happen to check my FitBit, which tells me that my heart rate is particularly calm, lower even than normal. I feel peaceful and aware. Stillness and sunshine surround me in the comfort of my home.

This is the mindfulness I want to take with me, the ease of being I want to embody; it cannot be forced, only practiced.

Some thoughts are like splinters for me, some terribly distracting, others not quite so bothersome.

The simplicity of this imperfection and the objectiveness in my view toward the splinter strike me as almost surreal. Shouldn’t I have been more concerned, worked harder at making things perfect?


And in that “no” is a beautiful, life-affirming “yes.”

Thank you, splinter, for being my teacher today.

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“Nothing complicated about it”

When thinking about how we move through the day, I’m more likely to imagine a digital clock ticking the minutes and hours away as we scurry from home to school to work to lessons and sports to home to bed. So much of our day is guided by appointments and obligations, most that make our lifestyle possible and others that make our lives enriched, and we consider ourselves privileged to do all this.

Then I come across something like this, reading out of a book I happened upon in our church lending library:

“In ancient times people found it natural and important to seek God’s will. With little spiritual guidance and in utter simplicity, they heard from God. There was nothing complicated about it. They understood that every moment of every day presented an opportunity for faith to fulfill a responsibility to God. They moved through the day like the hand of a clock. Minute after minute they were consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” -Jean-Pierre de Caussade in Abandonment to Divine Providence*

I confess that I do not in every moment think first about how my next move will “fulfill a responsibility to God.” While I may occasionally think, “God, what would you have me do?”, it doesn’t often enter my mind when I am making my daily rounds around the house or through our city’s streets. I’m more likely to be caught up in my own thoughts about what I have or haven’t accomplished on my unwritten to-do list. We are creatures of habit, and my routine is about what I need to do next, what I’m expected to do. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our society is primarily full of egocentric people, taking care of ourselves before everyone else because our primary thoughts are typically about ourselves. It’s natural for us to put #1 first, whether that be me, my family, my country, etc.

What would it be like if it were “natural and important to seek God’s will,” to hear from God, to move through our day “minute after minute . . . consciously and unconsciously guided by God”? De Caussade has a way with words (even in the translation) that points both toward a simple yet profound beauty. This beauty comes to me even as I see photos of the horror of the Syrian refugees and read the clamor of American citizens advocating for rights to marry or to live without fear.

The guidance of God contrasts sharply to the suffering and oppression at hand. Any action that is born of hatred and violence, of fear and anger, does not align with what I understand to be God’s will, that we love God and our neighbor. Christians aren’t the only ones who believe this, either.

Perhaps that’s why there’s nothing really complicated about it. If we let God’s will guide our next move, we move in compassion. If we believe in God, in God’s unconditional love for us, it is our faithful responsibility to share this love with others, including ourselves. This means that we surrender to the will of God: we surrender to experience the tremendous freedom that is found in the power of unconditional love. It’s not popular. It’s risky and counter-cultural. It makes us vulnerable because we open our hearts and become an easy target. I think God knows this kind of love well.

I’m going to replace the battery in my watch, the watch my husband gave me as a gift. I cannot promise that every time the minute-hand moves that I will first be thinking of God, but de Caussade said we can be “consciously and unconsciously guided by God.” When I fail to ask for guidance, may my faith guide me even when I’m unaware.

*As found in Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings with the Christian Mystics, Bernard Bangley, ed., 2005

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Calendar Lust

The past couple of weeks I have been looking at new calendars/appointment books.  The inkling coincided with back-to-school shopping, and I’m as bad as anyone else about wanting to get something new to mark the transition into another school year.

Having decided on one, though, I wonder what is wrong with the current one that I have which will get me into the first week of January–surely plenty of time to find the next one (or actually to get proficient at using my phone calendar!).  In my current well-worn book, dates are marked for the upcoming semester for the three different school calendars; helpful notes are in the back pages.  I have a good thing going.

It was during an early afternoon walk in the woods, in a moment’s rest and dreaming, that I wondered if it might be that I want another chance to manage my time more wisely.  Maybe a new calendar will help me bring order to the coming chaos that is my last year in seminary and the ongoing juggle of having four active children.  That sounds like me, doesn’t it?  Thinking that something that might bring a little more control, a little more order will surely help.

Yes, it sounds like me, but, no, it’s not likely to make anything any better.  It’s just a book with calendar pages, after all, inanimate, void of all engagement.

These thoughts coincide with another thought: I’m working on a week of gratitude on Facebook.  I’m to list three things I’m grateful for each day, and I’m supposed to tag three friends whom I think will/might participate.  I’ve already given up on the tagging bit, but I’m totally in for being grateful.

Once you’re knee deep in gratitude, it begins to surround you.

“I’m not certain that there are such things as measures of our spirituality, but if there are, then gratitude is probably the best one.  It indicates that we are paying attention.” — M. Craig Barnes in The Pastor as Minor Poet (2009)

Barnes reminds me of my old friend Mindfulness, and I realize that I do not need a new calendar.  Temptation knows how to get to us every time. Marking my days with gratitude as so many wise folks encourage has a way of prioritizing one’s life.  The more I am aware of what I am so grateful for, the more I see where and how God is busy at work in my life, guiding me ever-so-subtly while ultimately allowing me to make the decision in every moment.

Am I paying attention?

This life I have chosen to follow still gives me many choices, plenty of opportunities to mess up like anyone else.  Barnes’ little book is full of the rich reminder of the responsibilities I am taking on . . . and seemingly more and more each day.

I will be getting a new calendar in January, if I find I still need a paper one when my current one expires.  In the meantime, it is perfectly worthwhile to remember that a sense of order in my life isn’t found within the pages of the best-intentioned calendar.  A sense of presence and awareness go a long way to creating the best days and a life well-lived.

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Room for Improvement

A Sermon preached by Sara Milford at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on July 22nd, 2012.

The Scripture Texts for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 11, Year B are:

2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

There’s a blog my husband saw a few years ago, which has since gained in popularity, thanks in large part to wonderful little lists, guides, how-to’s, and incredible dedication on the part of the author.  A former journalist and a father of six, Leo Babatua writes about simplifying life and living well.  Striving to live fully into his blog’s name, Zen Habits, he chronicles his journey into right living through the creation of healthy habits.

One of his posts, right between “The Best Procrastination Tip Ever” and “Toss Productivity Out,” is “Improve Every Moment.”  The problem statement, essentially, is what if you can’t slow down?  What if you can’t escape the busy-ness of your life?

His tiny guide:

  • Be more present, so life doesn’t rush past you without you noticing.
  • Enjoy every activity you do more, so life is better all the time.
  • Feel more relaxed, so every day is as good as a vacation.
  • Be ready to handle anything that comes your way.

He elaborates a bit more, saying basically that, like children, we need to live more in relaxed mode.  In relaxed mode, we sense and feel more and get out of our thinking heads to remind our brain what it’s like to feel.  Maybe one by one we can release those muscles that are so used to being constricted.  Soften the jaw.  Roll back and drop the shoulders.  Breathe to our bellies.  Smile.

For practice Leo suggests being aware of our physical body, the present environment, at any given moment and doing so as often as we can.  Most of us are blessed, after all, with five senses.  We can feel the temperature of the air and feel the support of the pew; smell the old wood of this place; hear the creak of the floor or the breath on the exhale.  Hopefully, we see the light showing through the beautiful stained glass.  Perhaps you can taste your morning coffee on your tongue.

But how easily we get distracted from life as it is and get caught up in that whirlwind of busy-ness.  We find a groove and stick with it, maybe a comfortable routine, something that doesn’t rock the boat too much but fills every moment of our days and nights.  We will work ourselves to the bone.  It may even be with good, worthwhile work, or work that we have to do, but we forget our whole person.  Eventually, no matter what we’re doing (or not doing), we find that our system isn’t sustainable.  What seemed to work isn’t working any longer.  Something’s wrong.  Something needs to change.

Jesus knew all this.  I don’t recall anyone ever telling Jesus how to improve every moment, that he needed to be present, enjoy the moment, relax, and be prepared to handle anything that crossed his path.  No one had to tell Jesus to embody mindfulness and compassion — that’s just who he was, who he is.

From today’s Gospel, I imagine the disciples, like young children after being rounded up, greedy for attention and approval from the teacher they most adore, recounting to Jesus all the good work they’ve been doing.  Imagine the thrill of their work, the endorphins that were coursing through their bodies as it is with any of us who are in the zone, doing what we love.  They have been fueled by their passion, living into the miracles brought about by their faith.  They’re on a roll and ready for more.  I imagine Jesus smiling knowingly, patiently (for wouldn’t he already know all they’ve done?), admiring his chosen.  They have done good work.  But they have more to learn.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Following their great teacher, they go along to this deserted place that may likely have been a vacant place between two settlements, someplace not terribly accessible, particularly by foot, so they go by boat.  But there were many who saw them and recognized them and rushed to get to where they were going first – by land, on foot.  The crowd is willing to risk the journey to get even a glimpse of this teacher, to get a chance to be taught.  I wonder if the disciples saw the crowd, too.  I wonder if the disciples tried to persuade Jesus to change destinations, saying something more along the lines of, “Jesus, they know who we are.  They know You.  We’re not going to get any rest.  Let’s go somewhere else.”  The excited children from before now realize their lack of sleep and their hunger.  Settling into their bodies, pulling the focus inward, they now have their sight set on rest, food, and time alone, with Jesus, of course.

When they get to shore, Jesus has compassion on the people, these lost sheep.  Without missing a beat, he teaches them, taking them into his fold.  They were hungry for the nourishment He provided.  Now, I don’t know about the disciples, but I do know how my children behave when they are tired, when they’re hungry and just done.  If I say we’re going somewhere to do something, that had better be what we do.  If I stop to visit with someone, there is no end of exasperated sighs and eye-rolling.  You’d think I was torturing them intentionally.

But that’s not it.  As a mother, I want to set an example for my children to stop and to pause when needed.  Every moment we have a choice to make, I’m always telling them. We can indeed improve every moment.  More often than we realize, we’re given a choice to make a difference in someone’s lives, including our own.

I figure Jesus exemplifies love in action.  He sees a crowd in need, sheep in need of a shepherd.  Jesus’ innate goodness may make it seem like he had no other choice than to teach to those willing to hear, but Jesus was man.  Jesus chose to speak to those with open ears and open hearts.  They listened.  They were fed.  All were fully present.

Except maybe the disciples, who were there, likely sighing deeply with their growling stomachs, muttering to one another.  I picture the teens rolling their eyes and groaning under obviously dire circumstances, thinking of themselves, spiraling into diverse tangents that took them out of the moment, away from the full-bodied mystery before them.  Not in the present.  Not enjoying the moment.  Not relaxed, and definitely not prepared for what’s to come.  (But that story’s saved for later.)

We get in today’s reading the bookends of the miracle of a great feeding.  We hear that after Jesus teaches a crowd, they cross over to meet yet another crowd.  The crowds kept coming.  Wherever Jesus went, they followed, hoping that they might, like the hemorrhaging woman, “touch even the fringe of his cloak.”  It says that “all who touched it were healed.”  We remember that Jesus felt the power drain from him when the one woman touched his garment.  But this multitude of people keep coming and coming, and Jesus keeps healing.

Where does Jesus rest?

It strikes me that this story isn’t about Jesus resting.  We don’t get the bit today about Jesus going to the mountain to pray.  He told the disciples to come away and rest awhile; he didn’t say he would.  Maybe the disciples had it in their head that if they were going to rest, surely Jesus would be taking time off, too, but when does the Son of God clock in and clock out?  He was just telling the disciples to rest.  Maybe it would have prevented their grumblings if he had more explicitly said, “Y’all just sit back and let me do the work now,” like any mother who’s ready to take over in the kitchen from the inefficient children trying to help.

We just don’t have the stamina to do all the work alone.  Even the disciples in God’s presence, though they were empowered to perform miracles, could not use compassion alone as fuel.  They were probably a little too much of this world, a little too much tied down in their own minds.

What if,  instead of being so preoccupied in our busy lives and daily struggles, we were aware enough not only to feel the physical environment but also sense and perceive the needs around us?  Feeling this, relaxed, we could have awareness and presence.  We may very well find joy and great energy in such moments, maybe even a bit of fun.  If we are living into the Good News of Christ, we know the right thing to do in the moment because we love one another — above all else.

When we can’t escape the busy-ness, we are shown that we can have mindfulness and compassion.  And when we can’t do that — because we will fail — we are to know that God can.   Jesus didn’t try to escape the crowds that sought him out.  For the disciples, and for us, Jesus is showing the way.  When it’s time to work, we will work – and hopefully with awareness.  When it’s time to rest, there will be rest.  When there are those who are in need, they will be cared for.  All this through the Love of God.


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Meditation & Ponytails

Each day brings a reminder that I cannot practice enough.  I have  more to learn, more awareness to be had, more compassion to cultivate.  So I sit when I can — just sit.

Meditation often carries with it a connotation of being lofty, something mystics and monastics do because they can; their whole life devoted to being fully awakened.  I’m sure monks would laugh at this.  I know some nuns who certainly would.  They, too, live in the real world with real people.  Truthfully, meditation is for everyone.  It’s an opportunity to be still, be clear, and be quiet — mind, body, and soul. So I sit when I can.  I don’t do it often enough.

One morning not long ago I made time to sit.  Intention is part of the doing, but ultimately one does have to do it.  Ten minutes, twenty minutes.  I can’t even remember how long I intended to sit.  Most of the time I don’t set a timer.  When I’m ready to quit, I know I need to stay longer.

Sitting.  Breathing.  Counting.  Wandering.  Returning.  Sitting.  Breathing.  Footsteps . . . coming closer.

I feel the presence of our youngest creeping closer to me until she’s at my side, her mouth conveniently ear-level.

“Mom, I want a ponytail.”

Sweetness embodied in one simple request.  I smiled, eyes still half-shut.  I breathed deeply before turning to look at her.  Her gaze met mine, neither hopeful nor pleading.  She met me there in the moment.

“Alright,” I said softly.

I arose and went with her to the kids’ bathroom.  I fixed her hair into a ponytail.  Neither of us spoke.

The was no anger, no frustration.  She had a ponytail, and I continued my meditation for the day.

My teacher didn’t smile, but she did run out of the bathroom quickly, happily moving on to her next adventure.

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Who Listens

More often than not, at the dinner table, someone looks down at their lap, fidgeting with their mobile device of choice.  Someone else has caught their attention.  “Don’t text with your mouth full” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.  Can you count how many times you’ve gone through the checkout line without making eye contact with the cashier?  Many of us opt for automated kiosks.  Is the energy expended in human conversation part of our decision?

We have so many opportunities to connect with one another.  Fortunately, we also have the opportunity to connect with nature, the plants and trees.  Our world can be so beautiful, but we have to be aware.

I venture to say that we are each beautiful, too.  Our souls shine brilliantly with the the Light of Wisdom.  From a twinkle of the eye to a visible aura, we each hold this gift in our being.  We don’t have to do anything; it is there.  It is about our be-ing.  We have to be open, selfless, and vulnerable.  We have to be heard.  We need others to help listen us into this beautiful being, and we need to be good stewards to others and everything around us in return.

Who listens to you?  Who calls your soul forth with the tenderness of a bonded mother with her nursing babe?  With whom can you communicate with a smile or a glance?  Can you gauge how others feel just by being in their presence?  Do you realize you have the power to share compassion with them without saying a word?

I hope you have those who listen to you, that you can check in regularly to see where you really are in this life — who you really are.  May you be one who listens.  Be fully present to those around you.  Be aware.

You are a gift to us all.

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Present Joy

Today’s calendar presented an open slate, which then filled with the simple pleasures of keeping house and preparing an abundant lunch.  The next wave of thunderstorms has rolled in, just in time to go pick the kids up from school.

For this brief moment, I find myself sitting in a quiet house . . . well, maybe not completely quiet.  The thunder, rain, and dishwasher have their voices heard at the moment, along with the clicking of the keyboard.  It is, however, still — especially compared to what it’s usually like with four kids and two adults and a dog and cat running about.

Some days we just have to revel in what is, and I know that this is good.  I don’t know what the next hour or tomorrow or next year holds for us, but I do know that if I can remember the joy and gratitude I feel in my heart at this present moment, that all will be well.

Right now we also get to enjoy eating the few fresh strawberries we have from the garden, reminding us what a real strawberry tastes like, what a fruit of the earth carries in a perfectly packaged little bundle of tender juiciness.  Experiencing and tasting these delights, I know that what I buy in bulk from the store doesn’t even get close to the truly organic variety from the backyard.  Sometimes we just have to be reminded of how good it can be.  Sometimes we have to remind ourselves how sweet we really have it, fresh strawberries or no.

I consider myself delightfully spoiled today, and I give thanks to all that is.

(Cloudy skies today contrast with the sunny skies of yesterday morning, when we remembered to collect our first strawberries of the season. 🙂 )

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Present Enjoyment

“Presence is the straight and narrow gate through which one passes to Wisdom.”

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing

When being present is as easy as enjoying a morning cup of coffee while listening to the doves cooing outside or retiring to bed after finishing a good read, life is light.  Sign me up for living life in the present moment!  This is the easy part.

It takes far more effort to be present when the kids plead for us to come play outside with them.  How could any decent parent deny a request for “tickle tag,” especially when the little boy is positively giddy with excitement?  Somehow we compromised and ended up outside in the garden while the kids played.  Promise of a weekend bonfire guaranteed more time together outdoors.

The effort to be present when the kids are screaming and arguing all around, when cleaning up all their garbage from the past weeks in the van (including leftover pancake and peanut butter — how long ago was that?!?), when at the end of the day no one has really done their chores or wants to do anything else, is supremely difficult for me.  I want the moment to be over.  I want to get to the moment that will be more enjoyable.

See.  That’s my laziness.  I don’t mind being present, mindful, what-have-you, so long as it doesn’t take too much energy on my part.  Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right?  But I realize there’s no growth in that.  I have consciously boosted my awareness to include the more difficult moments.

Now, what might seem incredibly difficult for you probably isn’t for me.  I’m a doula; some of my greatest gifts for calm and comfort come in what can be highly stressful situations.  I’m not easily grossed out or afraid of the truly tragic. (Now, if someone beside me smells bad in the checkout line, I will likely make my “stinky face.”)  My most difficult lessons surround an appreciation and respect for myself and for those nearest and dearest to me, namely, my children.

I love being a student, though.  Regarding my children as the best teachers I’ve ever had increases my appreciation and respect for them.  One day they will understand this because I’m quite certain that right now they don’t!

So for now I’ll enjoy the present, realizing that time truly flies.  I led the La Leche League meeting yesterday without any children in tow.  I shared that my three-year-old had stayed the night with a friend, much to some shock, I’m sure.  But a fourth child brings a new level of letting go into the process of parenting.  I’m fully aware, though, that enjoying the present moment also means letting go of attachments.  I don’t have a baby anymore.  My oldest is a pre-teen.  The children are growing and changing every day.  I do myself and them a favor by savoring the time we share, the lessons we learn.

Wisdom is all around us.

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Teachable Moments

There’s something about those moments when you find yourself teaching your kids life lessons.  Not the lectures about how they know what’s right and wrong when you know they aren’t listening to you.  I’m talking about the times when they are open, particularly when they’re really young, particularly when they want to learn.

Our three-year-old has taken to counting the feet of our pets.  “Bodhi has four feet!” she exclaims excitedly.  “Cosmo has four feet, too!”  After breakfast this morning, while she was petting the cat, I asked how many ears he had.  She looked at me, and we entered the teachable moment.  What ensued was an exchange of information, imitation, question and response. I learned that she wanted to match holding up fingers to the amount of numbers.  I also learned that she holds up two fingers like a Vulcan or like a scout.  She’s learning about math, and I’m learning about her.

But teachable moments aren’t just happening for my kids.  I’m getting them, too. I have teachers guiding me, teaching me, nudging me into new and unchartered territory.  There’s nothing like jumping into something familiar and experiencing it as new.  There’s nothing like humility to keep you grounded and appreciative.  There’s nothing like raw experience, beautiful and awful as it may be, to keep you in the present moment.  I’m learning, too, and my teachers are learning about me with their own mother’s patience.

The underlying truth behind all this is that every moment is teachable.  We just may not know whether we are the teacher or the student.  The fact may be that we are both, and the lesson therein being that we have much to learn from both sides.

Again, thank you for teaching me and allowing me to teach you.

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More on Conscious Choices

In my last post, I mentioned mindfulness.  It’s a buzzword these days.  Just be mindful, and all will be well.  That would be like me saying to live every day simply.  In an unapologetically Buddhist way, mindfulness is that easy and that difficult, just as living life simply is.  Read that as you will.

Only you know what is most important in your life.  Only you know what requires your attention and most feeds your soul; they aren’t often the same thing, and we all know it changes on a daily, if not hourly basis.

But if, in a moment, you can be where you are, at once embracing it yet with open arms and feeling everything fully without being overwhelmed, then you can do what needs to be done with clarity.  You can make a conscious choice, knowing what is the best thing to do in that moment.  This is our best work, or our work at its best.  With this clarity and sense of purpose, there is a profound freedom to be experienced.  There is a sense of participating in the flow of life.

I am more than a little amused at all the self-help books out there, the variety of techniques that aim to bring us to a sense of peace.  Each of us could write our own book.  Those of us who write, indeed, write mostly for and to ourselves, for that’s all we truly know.  At the core of it all, though, is the one flow of life, one peace, one good, and that’s what ties us together.  That’s what, when we write, we hope to tap into, sharing a truth that might resonate for others.

Again, only you know what you need.  First you have to be conscious.  You have to be honest.  Then you keep practicing and keep working hard.  We work hard to be, just be, in peace.  This is good work.


(photo from everystockphoto.com)

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