Sunday, August 14, 2011

Digging in the Ground of Being

by Sandy Mitchell

How about that for timing? During the week that we are reading the chapter of "An Altar in the World" that deals with physical labor, a new poet laureate of the US was named--Philip Levine. One of his most popular books of poetry is titled "What Work Is." Another of his books of poetry is #110 on Amazon's best seller list---a rare occurrence for a book of poetry. To be honest, I had never heard of him before, but I am fascinated by his background. He was born and educated in Detroit and worked in auto factories. At the time he hated physical labor, but then he realized that his work in the factories enabled him to read and write poetry, which is what he did during his off hours. The quote on the back of the bulletin lets us know how he feels about physical labor. I have always been in awe of people who have physical skills that are a mystery to me.

So as I looked at this week's chapter of Barbara Brown Taylor's book, I particularly loved the section about digging potatoes that Doug read for us. Chapter by chapter she shares with us how she learned to encounter God far beyond the walls of the church. In a nutshell (reading from the book flap) "she is teaching us to discover the sacred in the small things we do and see from simple practices such as walking, working, and prayer. Something as simple as hanging clothes on a clothesline becomes an act of meditation if we pay attention to what we are doing and take time to notice the sights, smells, and sounds around us. Making eye contact with the cashier at the grocer store becomes a moment of true human connection. Allowing yourself to get lost leads to new discoveries (I really liked that chapter----that's what our family loves to do). As we incorporate these practices into our daily lives, we begin to discover altars everywhere we go, in nearly everything we do. Through Taylor's expert guidance and delicate, thought-provoking prose, we learn to live with purpose, pay attention, slowdown, and practice reverence." I love book flaps---they tell so much that sometimes you don't have to read the book!

Now back to today's chapter---I don't dig potatoes, but I love digging and caring for our garden surrrounding our house. My love of gardening came from my grandmother and my dad. When my parents came to visit us each summer, my dad was soon in our backyard seeing what he could pick. Those of you who have lemon trees know that the lemons can stay on the tree for months, thereby allowing a gardener to pick the fruit as needed. Coming from East Texas, my dad was not familiar with that concept. There when the fruit was ripe, you better pick it quickly.

Well, one summer I came home from work to find my dad very proud of the fact that he had harvested every single lemon on the tree! As the old saying goes, when you are given a lemon, make lemonade. By golly, we made lots of lemonade! We ended up squeezing lemons and freezing the juice---that worked too! Instead of going to the lemon tree to pick a lemon, I went to the freezer and got out a cube of lemon juice.

When our grandchildren come to visit, one of the first questions they often ask is, "What can we pick?" As Eliza came in the door on my birthday, she asked, "Can we pick some cherries or some blackberries, Grandmom?"

I will often say to Rick, "I'm going outside for a few minutes." Those minutes usually end up being an extended period of time. It is there that I feel grounded, close to Mother Earth, surrounded by creation.

Recently a praying mantis landed on my forearm. He/she, such a good critter for the garden, just rested there and looked at me---must have been wondering what kind of big plant I was. When I encouraged it to get to work on my plants, it hopped over to my other arm. That praying mantis and I experienced a small "altar in the backyard."

In my stream of consciousness about God and groundedness I thought back to the Dark Ages when I was a college student. A person whose writings were meaningful to me was Paul Tillich, the German-born theologian, who called God the "Ground of Being." The "Ground of Being"----that has stuck with me through all these years and is still helpful to me.

While we were still in college in Texas, Rick and I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by Paul Tillich. Trying to understand him with his heavy German accent was a challenge, but it was an honor to be in his presence.

As I was preparing for today, I decided to learn more about Tlllich's life. I was fascinated to learn that his interest in theology began as a 12 year old when he was sent to boarding school. He was very lonely, and one way he tried to overcome his homesickness was to read the Bible. He eventually earned a doctor of philosophy degree and was ordained as a Lutheran minister. He lectured all over Germany but in 1933 came under fire from Hitler. Soon he was invited to Union Seminary in New York City and moved there with his family.

At age 47 he learned English (this knowledge made me much more tolerant of his strong German accent), and later wrote some of his most important works in English. He taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1962 when he took a position at the University of Chicago. Paul Tillich is considered by many to be one of the few great theologians.

For me personally I am grateful to him for the term "Ground of Being" and for his phrase describing faith as "Ultimate Concern."

The people of Shell Ridge---you---have demonstrated "ultimate concern" to me over the almost 45 years that we have been associated with this congregation. Most recently when I was briefly hospitalized and 3 years ago when I was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. At that time I felt that my world as I had known it was falling apart. Day after day the tears would not stop. I remember sitting in the choir with tears streaming down my cheeks. Later I learned that crying is part of the disease. After all, 80% of the dopamine in my body was gone by the time I was diagnosed. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers. It also helps regulate movement and emotional responses. So I was a basket case because of the diagnosis and the lack of dopamine.

But you were there for me with hugs of support, with prayers, with cards, with words of encouragement, with food, and with information about where to turn for a support group---thank you, Carol, Kay, and Dorothy. Most recently you have been there with transportation help.

During the fall after I was diagnosed, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with our Ashland and Berkeley kids here to celebrate helped me get me on track. I could not do much in the kitchen except direct Melissa, Sharon, and Jodie. The flood of tears finally slowed down after taking a trip with Kent, Sharon, Devin, and Eliza. It was amazing how a week with 2 precious grandchildren could distract me from my own heartache.

Now I am trying to help others who are facing that devastating diagnosis----I have been there and know how it feels, as many of you know what it is like to receive unwelcome medical news. I am trying to lemonade with the lemons I have been given. Thanks for the "ultimate concern" that you have shown to me and others within this faith community.

Some of you know my last story, but others do not. This chapter of "ultimate concern" began at the pre-school that both Kent and Melissa attended. It was a coop pre-school, and I was one of the moms doing my last scheduled day of being a teacher's helper. The assignment that I was given was a craft project for the kids that involved cutting pieces of yarn for each child. I was sitting in the teacher's spot at a kidney-shaped table like we have in our nursery. For some reason, I was given a serrated knife to cut the pieces of yarn. The children had to wait a few seconds as I cut their pieces.

But there was a little hyperactive boy named Bart, who could not wait, so he quickly moved behind me, picked up the knife, and proceeded to cut his own piece. Unfortunately the tip of the knife blade ended up in my left eye.

I was rushed to the hospital where a specialist examined my eye for one solid hour. At the end of that time, he had me hospitalized in the area closest to the operating room because he wanted as little movement as possible. To that end, he bandaged both of my eyes and instructed me to be as still as possible. Surgery would probably be scheduled for the next day, he said.

Well, it was the worst of timing and the best of timing: the worst of timing because it was the Friday that we were to leave for our all-church retreat, an event that our family loved to attend. Another friend and I were leading the Bible study session, and the text was about Bartimaeus, the blind man healed by Jesus. Now it turns out that I am the blind one.

It was the best of timing because our congregation was together that weekend and upheld me in their prayers and concern. Our pastor, Dale Edmondson, came to the hospital to see me and pray with me on his way to the retreat.

To make a long story short, the next morning the same doctor came back to see me. When he removed the bandages, he was amazed at what he saw. He told me that if he had not performed the initial exam himself, he would not have believed the amount of healing that had occurred.

I was not completely out of the woods----still had to endure 6 weeks of bedrest (not too easy with a 4 year old and a 7 year old), and I was told that I would never be able to wear contact lens again. The bottom line is that I did completely recover, and I can wear a contact.

I know that a modern day miracle occurred that weekend, and the "ultimate concern" of my faith community made a difference.

As we sang in the hymn "Bring Many Names," there are many ways to think of God. A few decades ago I opened a prayer with "Dear Father and Mother of us all.." After the service an elderly friend (hummm...he must have been about my age) stopped me and commented that he had never heard of such a thing----God as Mother. Now I can think of God in so many different ways, but I still hark back to the "Ground of Being" and to the idea of "Ultimate Concern."

For me that is the foundation of my faith, my "digging in the Ground of Being."

Go knowing that God, the "Ground of Being," is always with you----in the work that you do and in your deepest valleys.
Go recognizing the little miracles around you----the praying mantis, the laughter of a child, the touch of another human being.
Go in peace with renewed energy for the week ahead.

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