Never Just a Pumpkin

There it was. A big mush of orange slowly disintegrating into the soil that once fed it life. I took hold of its green vine in the same way I have taken the hand of one about to leave this earth. Gently, gingerly, with a sense of sorrow mixed with the awe of the divine present. After all, the divine is always present in the passing of a soul.

I felt as if I should bless the vine; bid it farewell and whisper, “well, almost well done, my good and faithful pumpkin.”

But I didn’t. It was just a pumpkin, after all.

I held onto the vine.

My father and I worked hard tilling the ground in the spring, getting rid of the many weeds and rocks that overtook the garden. Then there were the grubs in the ground to contend with. After several dustings of milky spore, I prepped the ground once again, turning over the soil. Finally, I was ready to plant the pumpkin seeds. On my knees on a hot day I molded the soil into little hills as instructed on the seed package. I felt like a little girl once again playing in the dirt—sweat mixing with soil releasing an earthy fragrance more appealing to me than sweet perfume. Giddy with excitement as to what I was creating, I pushed a seed into each little hill, wondering all the time will a pumpkin grow?

All summer, I marveled at the signs of life popping through the dirt. An infant shoot gave way to a gawky leafy adolescent which gave way to a mature vine. Soon yellow blossoms appeared announcing the coming of a pumpkin and sure enough a little pumpkin began to emerge. My parents would remark each time they came to visit how wonderful my pumpkin was doing.

“Yep, it is going to be a good crop,” I said, feeling proud, as I wheeled with great expertise my birthday present from my parents —a shiny orange wheelbarrow. “Yep, I know what I am doing,” was the message I was sending to the universe.

The universe, though, decided to trip up this cocky, wanna-be-farmer. One day, like an overturned wheelbarrow holding precious cargo, I too, felt as if I had been overturned, allowing all my precious dreams fall away from me.

The one promising vine with its blossoms, so green and hopeful, didn’t reveal what was going on. The ground it hugged was too wet to continue to thrive and ultimately the pumpkin had turned to mush.

I broke the news to my parents.

“I lost my pumpkin,” was all I said.

Silence on the other end of the phone and then finally, “What a shame.”

I know. It was just a pumpkin. But it was more to me. It was my sense of accomplishment. It was my symbol of belonging to a rural community. It was my own promise from God that I needed. That promise that I would indeed bloom where I was planted.

And now that symbol of hope, belonging, a fruitful future, was gone.

I know. It was just a pumpkin. But still…

My parents were up the other day. My dad, who in his late 70s, still loves to help me with my projects I come up with. And so, they were up as dad worked on my latest project: building a rustic chicken coop, complete with a shake roof.

Sofie, my bumbling Bernese Mountain dog, was eager to leave the confines of the fenced yard to see what was going on over in the field. So, I grabbed her leash and ran with her to greet grandma and grandpa. The hammering of the roof made the old girl a bit skittish and so she decided to explore the rest of the field. She soon made her way to the wilting autumn garden. She sniffed away at the parsnips and onions still in the ground and then made her way through the corn stalks. Their dried leaves rustled in the wind as if waving to greet us. As I walked with her, I noticed a blob of orange. The blob got bigger and rounder. I had planted my pumpkins next to my corn, but could it be possible that one vine grew hidden in the corn? Sofie was soon sniffing and licking the most perfect pumpkin ever to be seen. I stood there laughing at the beautiful sight. For it was beautiful.

As it turned out the pumpkin wasn’t a lone survivor from my waterlogged ground. My mom had snuck it into the garden to surprise me. And, boy, did she ever.

Before leaving, she asked if I was going to move the pumpkin to the front step of the house. I decided not to.

I like the pumpkin peeking from amidst the corn stalks. For it reminds me how often it is God steps into the failures of our lives and surprises us with a sign peeking through the rubble that all is not lost. Whether the surprise is one fashioned from divine hands or simply a thoughtful gesture from the hands of a mother, every day there are signs of hope all around us. All is not lost.

And so, well done…good and faithful servants — servants who fail, servants who doubt, servants who replace mushy pumpkins with healthy ones, servants who keep on trying, servants who never lose hope, servants who vow not to let setbacks stunt one’s life, servants who will always be surprised by God and servants who stand in awe of such a God.

Yep, it was never just a pumpkin.

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The Ground Beneath Our Feet

It was early morning and as I laced up my sneakers I could hear my husband’s question coming from the kitchen.

“Where’re you going?”

“Out for a walk. Do you want to come?” I asked.

Sofie, the Bernese Mountain dog who had already begun panting from the heat building up, looked at me horrified as if to say, “Please mommy, don’t take mimages.jpge out in that humidity. My fur will frizz just as badly as your hair!”

With a pat on her head, I reassured her she could stay in front of the air conditioner. I would deal with my hair by throwing it up into a ponytail. Again, I asked the question. My husband sided with the panting dog.

“Okay. I’ll be back when I’m back.”

And with that, out the door I went.

Walking had always been a time for me to clear my head, lighten my burden, slow myself down and talk to God. Lately, though, I’ve noticed my walks haven’t been all that prayerful.

Was it the oppressive humidity that comes with living below the Mason Dixon line? Was it now having to walk busy suburban roads rather than the rural ones I had fallen in love with while serving as an accidental country pastor? Or was it because I had unwittingly invited a long lost, toxic friend to join me on my walks?

Yes, somewhere along the way I had welcomed back Miss Rushed And Frazzled—the part of me that takes away any peace that does exist. The part of me who plays a narrative in my head of all the things that need to get done and keeps on playing it like some one-hit wonder on my playlist that I can’t seem to delete.

Admittedly, there was a time when my walks were anything but prayerful. There was a time when I couldn’t even feel the ground beneath me because I was so caught up in clutter. Hmmm? Clutter? What exactly is the definition of that word? That’s right. Clutter—to fill with too many things. My life was filled with too many things and it was destroying the who God wanted me to be.

Then one sweltering summer afternoon, where the exhaust from the New York City buses mingled with perspiration from people packed onto the sidewalks like sardines, all that clutter fell away.

It was on the corner of 32nd Street and Park Avenue that I, for the first time in my life, felt the ground beneath my feet.

It was there my fast-paced walk came to an abrupt halt when a boyfriend, walking by my side, dared to stop mid-step. Before I could ask why, the boyfriend pointed to our shadows and held them with his eyes as if he was gazing upon a Paul Klee we had just seen earlier that day at the Metropolitan Art Museum.

“Look,” he said, embracing a beauty I was blind to—just as I was to the Paul Klee earlier that day. Personally, I prefer the folksy charm of Grandma Moses. But I digress.

I guess my obligatory, less than a second look didn’t convince him that I was in the moment with him. He insisted again that I look. I did my best, but I just couldn’t see what he was seeing. He was noticing us in a moment of time on a city sidewalk. And he took the time to honor that moment as if it was sacred.

There we were, standing still as a silent liturgy lifted to heaven as the city rushed on without us. A squeeze of my hand signaled to me the sacred moment was over and we could begin walking again. I noticed, though, I was pulling him along as his steps were still so slow and mindful.

“Now what?” I asked with as much patience I could muster. He stopped again.

“You don’t get it,” he said with sad puppy dog eyes.

No, I didn’t. And he was more than willing to fill me in on what I was missing.

It seems I was missing what a privilege it was for me to be able to walk. I was missing what it meant to actually feel the hard pavement underneath my feet and to be thankful for the shoes I had that protected my feet from the scorching heat of the pavement. I was missing that fact that each step taken in my life was a gift leading to something beautiful.

A step taken leads to a cool drink. A step taken leads to arms waiting to embrace us. A step taken leads to hearing a new voice, seeing a new place, experiencing a new experience. Without steps taken forward, you wind up nowhere. I was able to those steps. Be thankful for that, he said.

I didn’t understand, too, that life was like our shadows on the sidewalk, begging for us to notice and savor the moment we are in, for that moment will never be again. I didn’t get it. But he did.

He had spent time in the Peace Corps teaching English to children in Africa. It was there he began noticing for the first time the ground beneath his feet. He noticed how others didn’t have the ability to walk as he did. He noticed how others didn’t have shoes to protect their feet from the sun soaked, drought ridden ground. And it was there in Africa he stopped to marvel at the beauty of his shadow on the earth, for far too many of those children he taught would not have shadows to marvel at as their life was shortened by strife, poverty, war and hunger.

“Do you realize what a gift we have right now?” he asked, looking down at his feet. I stood there speechless. I never knew there was so much to be seen, experienced and celebrated in each step I took. I looked down and stared at my feet on the ground beneath me.

A squeeze of my hand nudged me to begin walking again. Right foot, left foot. My shadow walked with me—and I noticed.

Right foot, left foot. I noticed the pounding of the pavement on the sole of my shoe.

Right foot, left foot. I noticed the gift I had been given. I noticed the gifts that were waiting ahead of me.

Right foot, left foot. My steps were different. My steps were prayerful.

Now, many years later I stand on a noisy suburban road. I find myself stopping again. I need to notice my shadow. I need to marvel at the sacredness of the moment I am in, for aren’t all moments we have sacred?

I drink in the heavy morning air scented with car exhaust from the busy road near the house my husband and I rent, not as fresh as the air in our home in Vermont but at least not as pungent as the air that summer afternoon in Manhattan. It is air nevertheless that fills my lungs and for that I thank God.

Right foot, left foot. I am walking—prayerfully again.

Right foot, left foot. I am walking—with God again.

Right foot, left foot. I feel the ground beneath my feet—again.

Right foot. Left foot. I know each step forward will lead to something beautiful—again.

This Way of Life: A Little White Church Lenten Journey

A Shamrock Surprise

It’s been one of those days where everything seems to be getting done at a snail’s pace. There are things weighing on my heart, matters swirling in my head and, of course, stuff on my plate calling for my attention. Extra strong coffee isn’t breaking through this haze nor is the over the counter medicine helping to remedy the sniffles and coughs from allergies that appear along with the buds on the trees.

Between the sniffling and coughing and replying to emails and planning Holy Week worship, I wonder: Why can’t the peace of God, which passes all understanding, be something that never leaves us? Why is peace so fleeting?

I have moments where I feel God’s presence. These moments often come when I am walking up to the top of Sofie’s Hill, named so for my Bernese Mountain dog who, in her younger years would run so quickly up the grassy slope to this beautiful spot where one can drink in the views of Vermont’s Green Mountains.

There we sit together, me in deep prayer; Sofie in…perhaps deep prayer, but I think her thoughts are more about the biscuit she will soon get that is still sitting in the pocket of my sweatshirt.

But then it happens.

As soon as I descend from that mountain top (more like hilltop) high, the peace evaporates as I begin thinking less about God and more about the day’s agenda before me.

Peace evaporates when I forget God knows my agenda better than I do.

Peace evaporates when I forget God has the answers to the questions and the solutions to the problems.

Peace evaporates when I insist on focusing on the weeds around me rather than seeing the beautiful new life sprouting forth out of adversity.

The peace I long for is not steadfast because I am not steadfast in my trust of God. Thankfully, though, God is steadfast and always trying to remind me in many ways that He is there even when I am not.

I got a beautiful reminder of that this morning.

I noticed the Christmas cactus on my desk was looking a little shabby. Luckily this cactus is a hearty, low maintenance kind of a plant suited for someone like me with a brown thumb. Still, as hearty as it is, even I knew it needed some TLC.

As I parted its wilting leaves in order to get the water directly into the soil, I noticed something hidden underneath. There sprouting forth was not just one but two clovers. Their three heart-shaped leaves quickly brought to mind the legend of St. Patrick and how he used the clover (or shamrock) to teach about the trinity with each leaf representing Father, Son and Holy Spirit.imgres

I couldn’t believe my eyes that underneath what seemed to be dying leaves were these clovers growing. What I saw staring back at me was God’s way of saying to me, “I am here, even when you can’t see or understand. I am here.”

That’s when it happened.

Peace washed me over as I realized what I might see on the surface is not what God sees. That always there is hope growing in the midst of what seems hopeless. There is always an answer and always a solution. God is always there and the peace I long for is always there too.

I just need to clear the negativity and the gunk I allow to weigh me down in life so that what is revealed is the beauty of God—the blessed trinity—always there in my life.

This Way of Life Lenten Challenge: If peace seems fleeting in your life, take a step back and re-examine your life. Is God in all things or not?

The Thanksgiving Quilt

 

A sense of accomplishment began welling up inside of me. There I was running the last lap and the finish line was in sight. In my case, there I was sewing the last lap of my second quilt, piecing and stitching by hand the dreaded binding, which for me—a self-taught, novice quilter—was tricky beyond tricky.  IMG_1565

Just as a runner’s legs grow mushy in a race, my fingers were mushing up from the repetitious sprinting they were doing. With a thimble protecting only one finger, the others had to put up with the constant pain of being pricked by a needle. It was especially painful when the needle inadvertently stuck under the nail of my thumb. “Ouch” wasn’t the only word being uttered under my breath, making my husband look up from his reading and lovingly chide me with what I already knew.

“You may want to rethink holding a quilting group at the church if that is what comes out of your mouth.” It was then I wondered about all those faded black and white pictures of women quilting I would gaze at as a child.

My mind romanticized the quilting circle, picturing a serene gathering in what would be the house of my dreams—12 over 12 Colonial windows (no post-1840’s sash windows for me, thank you!) with a bucolic view of rolling hills where from a distance the echoing of bells could be heard ringing from the necks of the grazing sheep; wide plank floors with a warm patina that comes with age and that gives off a sweet, pine scent when the room is warm; a stone fireplace complete with a loaf of bread rising in the bread oven; and, if the quilting group lingered to dusk, beeswax candles, hand dipped of course, would be lit to guide each little stitch. I never wondered till now, as the needle slid under my thumbnail once again, if those women in bustled and hooped dresses with high lace collars sitting serenely in a quilting circle were indeed as serene as they looked. I wondered how many hurting thumbs and calloused fingers were in those faded pictures.

With my own hurting thumb and another finger completely calloused, I continued towards the goal of getting this quilt done. I was sprinting because I had wanted to surprise my mom with this quilt at our Thanksgiving gathering. It was going to be a special gathering this year for it would be the first time in many years in which my brother-in-law, a newly retired police officer not having to work holidays anymore—would be at the table with us. We would all once again be seated at the table in the dining room of the house I grew up in. When was the last time that happened? I couldn’t remember.

Life has been so crazy for far too many years it seemed, with everyone running in so many different directions. But there comes a time in your life when you realize you have the power to stop all the busy craziness that keeps families scattered. There comes a time when you realize time is not in abundance. The time we have together is scarce and so the time to stop wasting the days, the hours, the minutes to be with those you love is right now.

For time together creates the memories we will need to draw upon later for strength when a grieving or broken heart feels it has no strength to go on. And like little scraps of fabric, time is sewn together into a beautiful quilt of memories that comforts you, heals you, hugs you when the arms you want to hug you are no longer there. But we throw away little scraps of everything—even time—don’t we?

I guess my new-found realization of the limited time we have is a sign of growing older, right up there with the reading glasses that have all of a sudden appeared on my bedside table. Or perhaps my awareness of time slipping by comes with being a minister for when I stand with family by the grave of a loved one, I am reminded that I need to get better at treasuring the time I have with those I love. I need to stop wasting my days with problems and petty nonsense that admittedly get too much power in my life, edging out what really matters. I need to hold on to the “scraps” so that I will have my own quilt of memories to wrap myself in when I need to.

Yes, I was sprinting to get this quilt done so that I could surprise my mom with it at this year’s Thanksgiving gathering. I guess in a way I wanted my mom to have a surrogate hug from me for all those times I could not be there to give her a real one. I wanted my mom to know that while I now don’t get to see her as much as I once did, I think about her always. I was stitching more than fabric. I was stitching love and hugs together. “Ouch!” followed by “!#&!!#!!$!”

You guessed it. The needle stuck under my thumb again. The last lap of this quilt had hit a snag as I tried to straighten out a very crooked binding. I stopped to take a breath and regain my focus. I had to get this Thanksgiving quilt done. As I went to pick up the fabric again, Sofie, my old bumbling Bernese Mountain dog, sauntered over and decided to plop herself down on top of the quilt spread out on the floor. Before I could scoot her off (try quilting with a 98-pound dog on top of the material), she nuzzled her head into the fabric and rolled around a couple of times and then she nuzzled some more before letting out a loud sigh of contentment. She rested her sweet head on top of her front paws and nuzzled her nose deeper into patches of calico. It almost looked as if she was praying. With head still resting on two front paws, she lifted only her eyes up towards me and gazed at me with a look of peace, of love, of joy born out of treasuring the simple things in life like scraps of material pieced together to make a surrogate hug for someone I loved.

It was then I realized I had reached the finish line. The crooked binding was fine just the way it was, and I know my mother would agree for how many times had she taken a cock-eyed, taped together, hanging by one thread gift from me with the words, “This is just beautiful, Donna.”

The sense of accomplishment welled up inside of me. The Thanksgiving quilt stitched out of love had now received the best finishing touch ever. This was a quilt blessed by Sofie. What better gift to give to my mom than that?