ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger


Rich Mullins

The practice of waking up to God (“An Altar in the World”, chapter 1)

An altar in the world

When I recommended “An Altar in the World” a few days ago, I mentioned that I was looking forward to re-reading it (and taking it to heart) when I got to Laurelville. I decided to get a jump-start this week. My goal is to experiment with the practical suggestions that Barbara Brown Taylor gives for incorporating spiritual discipline into everyday life. At least, I thought she gave suggestions – that was my recollection/impression when I reached the end of the book the first time through. But when I went back to chapter one, it surprised me.

In chapter one, Taylor is describing the practice of waking up to God. ‘Vision’ is the word she suggests for this practice. So as I was reading, I was looking for ways one might learn to see God. But I didn’t find answers – at least, not the kind of concrete suggestions I was looking for. And then it occurred to me that this was the point of the whole chapter. We create events for God to attend and structures to serve as God’s dwelling. But Taylor notes that the whole world is the dwelling of God, and she asks, “What if the gravel of a parking lot looks as promising to God as the floorboards of a church?” Like Jacob we gradually wake up to the realization that “the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” (Genesis 28.16)

Taylor writes…

If there is a switch to flip, I have never found it. As with Jacob, most of my visions of the divine have happened while I was busy doing something else. I did not make them happen. They happened to me the same way a thunderstorm happens to me, or a bad cold, or the sudden awareness that I am desperately in love. I play no apparent part in their genesis. My only part is to decide how I will respond, since there is plenty I can do to make them go away…

And she continues by describing how she can respond to a “vision of the divine”:

I can set a little altar, in the world or in my heart. I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is…

… I can see it for once, instead of walking right past it, maybe even setting a stone or saying a blessing before I move on to wherever I am due next.

As I anticipate my new job at Laurelville, I have been keenly aware that this is a very dramatic change in my life. It isn’t realistic to think that I’ll ever return to science, at least not in the way that it ordered my life for the last eighteen years. And yet, during these months I have never had the sense of these years being wasted time. Everything in my life, each community and place, has led to this moment, contributing to what comes next.

So I thought it was appropriate to be reading chapter one this week and to pause to “set a stone or say a blessing before I move on to wherever I am due next.” I needed to clean up some geocaches* that my daughters and I had placed around the suburbs. As I did this yesterday, I decided to take some time at each place to offer thanks and a blessing…

* For those of you unfamiliar with geocaching:

Eaton Preserve

Eaton Preserve

Eaton Preserve is less than a mile from our Plainfield home. It has a park area, a few acres of prairie, and a small out-of-the-way wooded corner. It was in that corner that Oldest Daughter hid her geocache. You have to work to get there. But once there, you find yourself in a quiet spot to watch the stream pass by.

Black Partridge Woods

Black Partridge Woods

Black Partridge Woods is just southwest of where I work at Argonne. There aren’t any groomed trails; subsequently, few people know that it exists, let alone visit. Middle Daughter chose a hollow tree for hiding her geocache – a kind of rebirth for the tree (to invoke the music of Rich Mullins). Her cache was also close to a stream. Our family seems to like these riverside locations.

Sag Quarries

Sag Quarries

The Sag Quarries lie beside the Calumet-Saganashkee Channel and are just to the southeast of my work. There is no more quarrying; the area has been converted to a county park. I spent many lunches here. Like the other two locations, you can find a spot that almost no one visits. This is where I had hidden a geocache. Yesterday, as I started out to retrieve my cache I was greeted by a flash of orange: a Baltimore oriole welcomed me to the path. Cardinals and chickadees also kept me company.

At each of these places, I thanked God for being present with my daughters and I, even if we hadn’t recognized it at the time. I said a blessing for the plants and animals that had witnessed our presence and God’s Spirit in that place. I even placed my hands on the hollow tree as I blessed it and created an altar of rocks like the one at the top of this post.

What good did any of this do?

Heaven knows. I’m just learning to wake up to God.



Have you ever had a feeling that you wished you could express to someone – anyone at all – but you were worried that you’d fail miserably? It happens to me from time to time. This past week, it was when I was driving home from church on an empty expressway at night. The sodium vapor lights were speeding past, and a part of me just wanted to keep driving forever…

Another hour deeper in the night
Another mile farther down the road
A man can drive as hard as he can drive
And never get as far as his heart was meant to go
Sometimes when you look up in the sky
You think we might be closer than you know

“The River” by Rich Mullins

Five for Friday… Secular songs that relate to faith

So here’s the deal… I used to listen to CCM music* all the time. Between my first and second years in college, I had a pretty profound, faith-changing experience. As a result, I became more passionate about Jesus, and also more conservative. I got rid of much of my “worldly” music, and listened almost exclusively to CCM: Petra, Steven Curtis Chapman, Rich Mullins**, Susan Ashton… you get the idea. Over time, I’ve remained passionate about Jesus, but I began to find much of the “acceptable” Christian music to be theologically shallow and musically thin. I stopped listening to Christian radio, because of the hit and miss quality of the songs. And I started noticing when the so-called “secular” music world produced songs that related to my faith.

* “CCM”, if you don’t know the acronym, is Contemporary Christian Music. So technically, I should say “CCM” and not “CCM music”. Glad we got that out of the way.

** I still like Rich Mullins, but he’s the exception rather than the rule. And unfortunately, the world lost a good person a few years ago when he died.

And that brings us to today’s “Five for Friday”. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to something that Bono wrote and said to Ordinary Spouse, “Why can’t the ‘Christian musicians’ write songs like this?” So today, I’ve chosen five secular songs that reflect or challenge my faith.

There’s a catch. I could choose music by U2 or Carrie Newcomer – musicians that clearly don’t draw distinctions between faith and life – but that would be too easy. So these five come from others. Enjoy!

1) The Heart of the Matter by Don Henley

The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I’d figured out
I have to learn again

I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter
But everything changes and my friends seem to scatter
But I think it’s about… forgiveness…

Yep – forgiveness. Reconciliation. That’s basically what Jesus came to teach us: how to be reconciled to God and to each other.

2) Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie

Song lyrics don’t get any more powerful or challenging than this:

Love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night…

3) Jubilee by Mary Chapin Carpenter

A song about receiving grace (in the language of the Old Testament).

4) Another Day in Paradise by Phil Collins

Every time I hear this, I think Matthew 25.

5) One of Us by Joan Osborne

The scandal of the incarnation:

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on the bus
trying to make his way home.

Farther over the river and through the woods…

Last month, I blogged the trip that my ordinary family made from our house to my in-laws’ house for  Thanksgiving.  Those random thoughts and observations from the road are the kind of things that I find interesting to read, even if no one else really cares.  And since I enjoy it, I decided to do the same thing today as my family drove to my parents’ house for Christmas.  We began our trip yesterday afternoon by driving to my in-laws’.  That cuts about three hours off the total time, and when the total time includes every daylight hour, it’s nice to start a ways down the road. This morning, the alarm went off at 6:00 a.m., and I skipped my morning shave and shower – don’t need to be presentable to anyone today.  Thus began an amazingly efficient day…

Oatmeal, juice, and coffee for breakfast.  Check the weather, and get a report from my father-in-law who brought in the newspaper.  Looks like we have some ice to deal with from last night’s freezing rain.

Get the older girls going, but let Youngest Daughter sleep.  She generally doesn’t eat much for breakfast anyway.

Amazingly, the family is packed and on the road by 7:40.  Not much traction on these residential streets, which isn’t a happy situation, but I’m optimistic that things will be fine once we get to the toll road.

My blogging machine is up and running.  Hoorah for Ordinary Spouse, who once again records my dictations (and adds snarky comments that I have to filter out).  At Thanksgiving, she was writing.  This time, she’s typing on our laptop.

The ice is pretty bad on the country roads, but we go slow and don’t use the brakes very much.  Youngest Daughter has a breakfast of cheese and zwieback (“feebuk”) in the van and the girls watch the pink beginnings of a sunrise over Amish farm fields.  We are all filled with anxious waiting for the “fast road” – some of us hope for traction and some want to watch a DVD (which doesn’t get turned on until then).

The toll road (I80/I90) is all that we hoped for – dry and vehicle free.  Cruise control is set at 70 mph and we’re moving right along.  Well – moving right along until…

We stop at the first rest area in order to deal with the breakfast coffee, which has wasted no time in working it’s way through our systems.

Excerpts from random conversations between the adult passengers in the front:

  • What is a “turnpike”?  (One of us knows the answer and quizzes the other.)
  • The amazing typing skills of Ordinary Spouse.  She never looks at the keyboard, but she never makes a mistake, either.
  • How has Google become so large?  I realize that they seem to do everything I ever want to do on a computer, but I’ve never paid them a cent.  (i.e. I’ve never followed any of their advertising links.  I don’t even look at them.)

By 9:30 a.m., we’re twenty miles into Ohio.  The Little Mermaid prequel is playing on the DVD player in the back.  Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Party Doll and Other Favorites” is playing in the front.  We drive past an orchard and under clouds (yes, clouds) of birds that have been getting drunk on rotting fruit.  We run the windshield washers to clean the windshield…

Ordinary Spouse makes a phone call to my parents to let them know that there is a good chance that we’ll be there by supper time.  At milepost 77, she breaks out the snacks for the first time: aquatic animals (goldfish) or land animals (animal crackers)?

Shortly after 10:30, we’re back on the road after our second rest stop at milepost 100.  Curious George is now playing in the back; Rich Mullins in the front.  The adults are having more random conversations.  I don’t know if it’s the daylight, or the grim determination that comes with a long day of travel, but it would appear that all of our conversations are going to be somewhat random.  (Often, we have our deep conversations when we travel after dark between Illinois and Indiana.  The trip is short, and the girls all go to sleep.)

The traffic is getting a bit heavier now before  lunch.  We get the first hints of sunlight, and I also express my appreciation for a friendly driver aware of what was going on around her.   (She was going to pass me, but saw that I was also overtaking the vehicle in front of me.  Since we had three lanes, she pulled to the outside, even before I started signalling.  We need more drivers like that.)

Then I express my frustration that there are considerably more drivers in the passing lanes than in the right lane.  Look folks – most of you aren’t passing anyone.  Pull over and stop clogging the road.

Going around Cleveland, Curious George has ended, and we’re all getting restless and ready for lunch.  We stop at the rest area at milepost 197.  Three of us eat at Au Bon Pain (which is French for “it’s a good hurt”) and two of us eat at McDonald’s (which is English for “greasy”).  After getting gas from the rest area food, we also get gas for our van.  That and some Starbucks to stave off afternoon drowsiness and we’re ready to go again.

I request some music to keep me awake – a mix CD which leads off with Guns ‘n Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.  Ordinary Spouse asks what the lead singer looks like, but then decides that she doesn’t really want to know…

It’s time for naps, but the girls don’t nap when Ordinary Spouse naps, so her nap only last for about fifteen minutes.  By about 2:30 p.m., we’re into Pennsylvania and going south past Pittsburgh on I-79.  Simon and Garfunkel are now in the CD player (such uplifting songs – “I Am A Rock” and “Cecelia”).

The road signs are typical for Pennsylvania roads, warning of weather that doesn’t exist and road work that isn’t happening.  The houses in this area were built in the first half of the last century and cling to the hillsides.  They’re crowded together, just like the lanes of the road that we’re on.

By 4:00 p.m., we’re around Morgantown, and on I-68.  The passengers are getting antsy, because the West Virginia welcome area didn’t welcome us (closed for the season).  Mary Poppins is playing in the back seat, and the parents are discussing health care and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ack!  The Maryland welcome center is closed, too.  Things are getting desperate by the time we make it to Keyser’s Ridge at exit 14.  At a quarter ’til five, we get back on the road.  Next stop: Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  Twenty-eight miles to go.  It’s time to be there.

The last bit of light is fading from the sky and the Indigo Girls are the last CD of the day as we descend the mountain into Cumberland.  At exit 43B, our time on the interstates has ended.  Twelve minutes later, my father is opening the garage door for us.  5:20 p.m.  Five hundred miles in under ten hours.  It’s probably a record for us, at least with children.

As I type this, the cousins are all nestled all snug in their beds.  May the Peace of Christ be your most wonderful gift this Christmas.

Peace to you

My favorite song is “Peace” by Rich Mullins:

Though we’re strangers, still I love you
I love you more than your mask
And you know you have to trust this to be true
And I know that’s much to ask
But lay down your fears, come and join this feast
He has called us here, you and me


And may peace rain down from Heaven
Like little pieces of the sky
Little keepers of the promise
Falling on these souls
This drought has dried
In His Blood and in His Body
In the Bread and in this Wine
Peace to you
Peace of Christ to you

And though I love you, still we’re strangers
Prisoners in these lonely hearts
And though our blindness separates us
Still His light shines in the dark
And His outstretched arms
Are still strong enough to reach
Behind these prison bars to set us free


Today, I came across the blog of another member of my congregation.  One of the posts was about our recent congregational struggles, and it turns out that we hold differing beliefs.  But I found, as I read that particular blog entry, that I could have written it myself.  It contained the same fears, pain, anxiousness, doubt, and hurt that I’ve felt.  As I read it, I could feel some of the walls around my heart falling.  And so I left a comment, with some of my thoughts.

Later on, I received a response from this blogger, including thoughts on what happens if/when we get to a decision making time.  Specifically, what happens when you find yourself in the minority?  Do you leave the congregation?

I take my membership seriously.  In fact I see many similarities between a commitment to membership in a church, and a commitment to marriage.  I think there can be a very few legitimate, spiritual reasons to leave a church, but I haven’t experienced any yet.

When I read that, I found that even more walls were falling, because it so closely resembles some of my own thoughts from a previous blog, even though neither of us had read the other’s writings before.  I told Ordinary Spouse, “This is someone that I’d be pleased to worship with, despite our differences.”

This Sunday, we celebrate communion at our congregation.  It turns out that the subtitle of the song above is “A Communion Blessing from St. Joseph’s Square”.  So to my friends…

Peace to you.  Peace of Christ to you.

Five for Friday… musicians

I decided that “Five for Friday” sounds cooler than just “Five”, so I’ve renamed my little series and decided to list my favorite musicians for today’s blog.   I’ll go in chronological order, since I tend to rotate through my favorites (at least my favorite four).

1) U2 – Early in my high school years, when I was young and impressionable, I was very impressed by my oldest cousin who was in college and introduced me to music by the boys from Dublin.  The Joshua Tree had just been released, and I received that album as a Christmas present.  My cousin copied two other albums for me, and soon I was my school’s most devoted U2 fan.

2) Indigo Girls– One of my close high school friends made a mix of IG songs for me during our senior year.  During that same year, they released their third album, and I became hooked.  During my conservative college years, I distanced myself from both U2 and the Indigo Girls, but I’ve grown to like both of them again.

3) Rich Mullins– During an undergraduate research experience after the summer of my first year at Goshen College, some new friends from another midwest school shared Rich’s music with me.  It has been said that Rich was the “uneasy conscience of Christian music”, a man who was never comfortable with his popularity.  I appreciated the authenticity of his faith.

4) Andy Peterson or Caedmon’s Call – It’s a tough choice, so I get to put down two.  I started listening to both during grad school.  Andy is another singer/songwriter with some of the same honest and insightful lyrics that Rich Mullins had.  Ditto on Caedmon’s Call, but they’re a group (that I happened to have playing on the stereo today during my commute).  These two don’t quite make the top tier with the other four listed here (I haven’t heard their newer music, and I don’t know what they’ve been doing lately), but I needed something to fill this spot.  (And I don’t care that five is now six.)

5) Carrie Newcomer– Carrie actually attended Goshen College, too.  I discovered her music at the end of my time in grad school.  She has a knack for seeing the holy in the ordinary.  Perhaps the musical equivalent of Anne Lamott.

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