The Killdeer

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.

-Matthew 4:1

This is the opening line to Matthew’s story of Jesus’ time in the desert.  It is a perplexing one, and one that at first glance can bring fear and a sense of foreboding. After all, deserts are known for their unforgiving, barren surroundings.  It is clear that Jesus would not have much to help him if he was going into the desert.  Survival is not a given.  Yet it is there, in a weakened state from fasting, that he is tempted by the devil.  And the most perplexing part is that the Spirit led him to this!

The message then, is a strong one:  go to the place where you are vulnerable, hold onto that place and endure it for a while, and you will find something new.

I see the truth of this in nature each spring.  We have many killdeer in our part of the country.  And they are chatty and somewhat pestering birds when you get near their nests.  You will often stumble upon their nests unknowingly because unlike most birds who build nests in trees or high places, killdeer put their eggs right on the ground and use camouflage as their main source of protection.    They sit on their eggs like most birds, but when you get too close, they do an interesting thing…they feign injury.  They run off their nests and, as my dad says, “flop around and give you the broken-wing treatment.”  Which is exactly what they do.  They flop around on the ground, squawking and carrying on so that you think they are injured.  For animals who act on instinct (like my dog) this is a wonderful distraction as it drives their potential threat away from the nest towards the bird itself (who is not really injured at all), as a means of protecting their young.  It also works for distracting humans as they make quite a scene!

I’m on to their act now, though, so I know not to be distracted by their carrying on, and I go poking about in the rocks and stones looking for their nest, careful of my steps as I could easily crush the eggs if I weren’t careful.  Twice now, I’ve found some eggs hidden right among the rocks.  And there, for me, the message is the same:  new life is waiting to burst forth in the unlikeliest of places, vulnerable and exposed, lying against the harsh backdrop of raw, barren earth.

There is a measure of Jesus’s trust in the Spirit, that I see mirrored in the trust of the killdeer.

To me, the message of Jesus’ experience in the desert and the message of the killdeer are one and the same:  don’t be afraid to start a new life by making yourself vulnerable.  In many ways, this is what the Lenten season is about, really.  Giving up something we’ve been holding onto in place of God.  Letting go of old habits that have gotten a little too comfortable, a little too routine.  We are to shake things up a bit.  Only by doing this, can we see ourselves in a new light and observe how we react and protect ourselves (our egos) from the absolute truth of God.  Only here can we see how easily we let the devil—that is, the great distractor– take our eyes off the new life that God wants to create in us.

There was an encouraging email that went around a few years ago that said, “The will of God will never lead you where His grace will not protect you.”  As we witness Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert, we can be certain this is true.  In the end, God sent angels to come and tend to him. Yet, as we read the story in its entirety we find that not only was Jesus able to withstand the temptations of the devil all on his own, but he came out of the desert now sure of who he was.   We’d be remiss to never notice that it was only after the desert experience that Jesus began his ministry.

Reflect:  How has my act of giving something up for Lent, or starting a new habit for Lent, helped me make room for the Spirit of God to create something new in me?  Have I made myself vulnerable enough to let God move in?  If I haven’t gone searching in the “desert” of my heart, what am I afraid of?  How might the Spirit be leading me to discover a deeper calling for his work through me?

Pray:  Guiding Spirit, help us trust you as you lead us into places within ourselves that we’d rather not travel.  Remind us that while we may feel vulnerable and exposed, our fear is nothing more than a distraction keeping us from carrying out your work.  Hold us firmly as we lay open our hearts to you.  Breathe into us the confidence that angels will tend to us, if we are willing to let them, and that a new life awaits us on the other side of our shadowed, broken selves.

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Using Nature as Our Guide through the Darkness

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I’ve confessed before that relocating is one of the most painful experiences for me to undergo.  For me, it feels like the closest experience to dying I’ve ever known.  I give up so much of the “me” I’d come to be in one place… faith formation coordinator, religious education teacher, vacation bible school coordinator, book club member, Bunco player, room mother, PTA chairperson, committee member of x, y, and z, etc. etc….only to find myself uprooted and transplanted to another place where people do not know my gifts, my favorite past times, or even my (often sarcastic) personality.  It takes time to get to know others, to get to know who I will count among my friends, and who I will come to consider family.

There is no blue print for how to do this.

Much like the relocation experience for me, I believe we are not meant to stay whole during this Advent season’s experience of waiting and darkness.  Like our landscaped bushes and shrubs during this season, parts of us are meant to be trimmed away, and left broken and raw as the darkness sets in.  There we sit stunned, immobile, and unsure of where to go from here.

Then, eventually, we catch a glimmer or a twinkle perhaps, of something—someone–glistening in the darkness.  Our eyes begin to adjust, ever so slowly, and gradually we make out silhouettes of others that reflect and project the light our way.  Pretty soon, even the heavy snowfall bounces the light around and we feel ourselves lighter, brighter, more hopeful of things to come.

Finally, we realize perhaps this isn’t the end after all, but rather the increasing of Someone in us, and the decreasing of the self we are no longer meant to be. (John 3:30)

It is yet another journey for our soul.

And like all journeys, it requires trimming back some areas of our lives, so that what matters most can break forth and blossom when the light dawns.

What Surrender Looks Like: Lessons From a Vole

As I sat in my basement office one day struggling to string words together for the church presentation I needed to make in only a few days’ time, I became distracted by a vole.

Do you know voles?  I tend to think of them as the ugly cousin of the field mouse.  Or, more positively, the better looking cousin of the mole.  I found a picture of one to post here for you, but to be honest, the ones we’d see in our back yard weren’t as cute as this one.

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Anyway,  the vole had fallen down into the window well of our basement office window.

The window next to the desk holding the computer where I sat trying to create my presentation, thank you very much.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it fall into the window well.  I got up to glance at it and see if it was OK (to be honest, this was not an unusual occurrence).  I saw that the vole was fine, and I made a mental note to go outside and rescue it once my presentation was more complete.   But, to my surprise, the vole began clawing his way up the window screen trying to get to safety.

Yeah.

It was creepy and distracting all at the same time.

 Well, I thought as I tried to ignore him, because, after all –PRESENTATION!– maybe I won’t even have to save him.  But no.  He got to the top of the screen and could not scale the expanse between himself and the grass where he needed to be.

So, fall again, he did.

(Total sidebar here, but I can’t help but think of Yoda with the way I just strung those words together…can you?)

Anyhoo, my point is, this climbing and falling went on not two or three more times, but probably half a dozen or more.  And the whole time I sat there, further distracted, each time hoping he would save himself, so that I could continue with my creative process.  Finally, defeated,  the vole stopped trying.

And I thought, Great!  Now I will finally be able to GET SOMETHING DONE in the peace and quiet.

But, I couldn’t. stop. thinking. about. that. stinkin’. vole.

So, in a huff and with a sense of complete disgust, I went upstairs, grabbed a bug net, and went out to the window well and rescued the vole.  I  released it out into a part of the yard where I thought he would be much more happy–near the wood pile.  (And since he didn’t reappear in the window well, minutes later, I can only assume he was happier there.)

By the time I got all done with that whole exercise, what little sliver of a creative process that I’d had up to that point,  was now completely lost.

I sat there staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen and had nothing to say.

As the cursor blinked away at me,  my thoughts became jumbled with the laundry list of things I needed to get done in addition to my presentation.  And I began sweating at the thought of it all.  Come on!  Come on! THINK!  I’d shout internally.  Give me the words, God!  I’d scream inside.

But my thoughts would always go back to the vole.

WHY CAN’T I STOP THINKING ABOUT THAT VOLE?!?!!? 

And then, though I’d barely realized that I’d asked a question, an answer formed in my heart with  these words, It wasn’t until he stopped trying to save himself, that you rescued him.

Hmmm.

Maybe the reason I couldn’t stop thinking about that vole, was because that experience was a lesson meant for me about trying to force the creative process, especially when I’m trying to force it for God.

Lesson learned.

I realized then and there that I can think (part of the creative process) about what I want to say while I’m doing just about anything else.  And I can write down notes (also part of the creative process) as the thoughts come to me.  And I can sit down and write more when the time is less forced (creative process again!).

And you know what?

It all worked out.

My presentation got done with time to spare.  The house and kids didn’t suffer (too much, anyway) as a result of my neglecting ALL OTHER THINGS for the sake of the presentation.

I can’t tell you how often, still, I think of that vole.  But, I definitely think of it anytime I feel that creative process being forced in me (which is often).  And it’s that vole that make me think of ways I might be able to surrender myself a little more to the circumstances of my life and trust that all will still be well in the end.

Yep.  That vole sure knew a thing or two.

Because, three years later, it hasn’t failed me yet.

The Tree of Me

In St. Catherine of Sienna’s Dialogues, I’ve read that she pictures the spiritual life as a large tree.

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She says that the trunk of the tree is love.  The core of the tree (the middle part that gives the tree its life) is patience.  The roots of the tree are self-knowledge.  The branches are discernment.

And I’ve wondered, if I were to paint it, what does the “tree” of my spiritual life look like?  A tall and shadow-casting oak?  A shimmering, quaking Aspen?  A shade-filled, drooping willow?

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I imagine the branches of my discernment twisting and turning –sometimes with purpose, sometimes by accident, sometimes only through careful pruning– towards the Light.  I think about the bark of my tree…some of  it the torn and ragged bark of the river birch, in other areas  smooth and glossy like the white bark of the paper birch, and still other parts filled with the deep grooves of heartbreak that we can only know from daring to love in the first place.

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I think, too, about the roots.  No doubt, in quieter, darker times, my roots have grown deep and long, but after the pain of a transplant, inevitably it is with rapid adaptation that my roots skim the  shallow surface and grow wide, too broken and raw from being “uprooted” to dare to “go deep” again for a while.

And with that thought I’m reminded of another element.  One that is not in St. Catherine’s mediation, but that is an active part of my own.   It was a thought my in-laws shared with me once after a very inspiring sermon at their church.  The sermon was about the building of the artificial biosphere and how, in it, researchers were able to emulate and recreate nearly every single situation from the natural earth…with one exception.

There was a problem with the trees.

They kept falling over.

Do you know why?

As the sermon went, it was because they couldn’t properly generate enough wind  to strengthen the trees.

Close your eyes and think about that for a while.

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And as the trees all around us begin to bloom and grow,  keep in mind that much like our own spiritual journeys, the trees would never be as tall, never as strong, and (arguably) never as beautiful …if it weren’t for the wind.